A fierce civil rights pioneer, Dr. Hector P. Garcia dedicated his life to fighting for justice and equality for Mexican Americans. Whether pushing for health benefits for Hispanic veterans or pressuring a community to desegregate the school system, Garcia successfully marshaled support from migrant laborers and American Presidents to break down social barriers.
Born in 1914 in Mexico, Garcia emigrated with his family to Mercedes, Texas at a time when Mexican Americans endured harsh discrimination and could not visit the same restaurants, movie theatres, and barber shops as Anglos. Fortunately, Garciaâ€™s parents instilled a love for and respect of education in him and his siblings.
Garcia attended Edinburgh Junior College, hitchhiking 30 miles to and from school every day, and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1934. After earning a medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Garcia joined the Army to fight in World War II.
While overseas, he earned a Bronze Star and six battle stars, met and married his Italian-born wife, Wanda, and had his first child. After the war, the family, which would eventually include four children, settled in Corpus Christi, and Dr. Hector, as he was known, started his medical practice.
Garciaâ€™s passion to serve soon went far beyond his medical clinic. He was frustrated by a lack of health care and financial resources for Mexican American veterans and substandard schools for Mexican American children. So in 1948, Garcia founded the American GI Forum, whose motto was, â€œEducation is our freedom, and freedom should be everybodyâ€™s business.â€
The GI Forum played an instrumental role in numerous civil rights efforts and court cases, including Delgado vs. Bastrop ISD, the landmark Mexican American desegregation case. Garcia and the GI Forum garnered national attention in 1949, when they petitioned then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and secured a burial for war hero Felix Longoria in Arlington National Cemetery. Longoria was the first Mexican American to be buried there.
Working diligently for social and political reform, the GI Forum developed into a respected voice for Mexican Americans that truly affected change. By the time Garcia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 â€“ the highest civilian honor given by a U.S. President â€“ many of the barriers Garcia fought so hard for had come tumbling down.
Garcia died in 1996, leaving an important lesson for school children and all Americans about the importance of fighting for equality and justice for all.
Source: Justice for my People: The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story