The third Wednesday in September is Dr. Héctor P. García Texas State Recognition Day, honoring the work of Dr. Héctor P. García, a Mexican-American civil rights activist and founder of the American G. I. Forum. In his lifetime and among other achievements, Dr. García served in World War II where he earned numerous awards including the Bronze Star.
As founder and leader of the American G. I. Forum, the organization received national attention with its involvement with the Felix Longoria incident. Felix Longoria was a Mexican-American soldier killed during World War II. When his body was returned to his family for burial, the family was denied access to funeral services by the local funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas, because Longoria was Mexican-American. The American G. I. Forum found an ally in Senator Lyndon B. Johnson to help fight for the Longoria family. The fight led to Felix Longoria’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1984, Dr. García’s lifetime of activism was recognized when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His work with Mexican-American civil rights included a tireless attention and focus on veterans’ rights, healthcare advancements for the poor, and equal rights to education.
Both Dr. García’s life achievements and his personal successes are chronicled in a new book written by his daughter, Cecilia García Akers. In her book titled The Inspiring Life of Texan Dr. Héctor P. García, Akers provides family history and personal insight into her father’s life. In her book, she writes, “The events I have written about were very significant, as not only did they change the course of history but they also channeled his efforts in a positive manner to accomplish what his vision was for this country: a better America that was free from segregation and had improved access to health care and higher education for minority students.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Akers about the recent publication of her book. During our conversation, she provided reflections on her book project, the impact of her father’s legacy, and the current political climate surrounding Mexican-Americans and their civil rights.
Melinda Zepeda: Your father’s life has been documented in a number of publications, including book-length studies. How did your book come to be published?
Cecilia García Akers: You are never going to believe this. In March 2015, I was at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. They asked me to lecture. I was with Ph.D. people and authors of books on a panel, and here I am (talking) about my father. These guys had already written books, they were great historians. They knew Mexican-American history. The talk was “Dr. Hector P. García: Physician, Father, Role Model.”
There was someone from the History Press there, and I was contacted (by) telephone: “Have you ever thought about writing a book about your father?” I started laughing. I thought, no, I’m a medical person. He said, “we’ll help you. We really think your story needs to be told from a daughter’s perspective.”
I received a document that was about 10 pages long. I was told, just fill this out. So I did. Two days (later), he emailed me (saying), “Your proposal has been accepted. You have six months.”
MZ: Six months!?
CGA: Six months! My husband was like, “you need more time.” I said, “Look, you don’t get an offer from a publisher to write a book and don’t take it. You don’t do that. We have to do this.”
MZ: What are the most important aspects of your father’s history that should be taught in schools? What aspects of your father’s life would you like children to learn?
CGA: I think that number one, he is a role model for everyone. One of the things I learned from him was to work both sides – Republican and Democrat. I mean, as a foundation, we have friends all over the place. We don’t care what political party they are affiliated with, as long as they support what we’re doing. I learned that from him. You have to be able to get along with both sides, even though he was a very hard-nosed Democrat, and I don’t think he ever voted Republican – ever. But he taught me to get along with everyone and to embrace them. And I think that that’s important, especially now that the climate of politics is just horrible.
I am sure if he was here, he would really take everyone to task about the talk about immigrants, that talk about the treatment of Mexicans. I think that he would be absolutely furious the way they categorize Mexicans as thieves and rapists and crooks. You look at his life, and look at what he and his siblings made of their lives, and I think it was very remarkable. Six of them became medical doctors in the ’40s and ’50s – (that’s) unheard of!
MZ: Can you tell me what work the Héctor P. García Foundation is doing? What is the main focus of the foundation, and what type of projects does it address?
CGA: We just started a few years ago. We are giving financial assistance to different schools.
MZ: In discussing how your father would see the current political climate, I’m wondering what are some of the most important changes you recognize in the treatment of Mexican-Americans between the ’40s and ’50s and the current day?
CGA: I think that it’s deteriorated; it’s declined, even though we have been, as a minority group, able to get good degrees, to be teachers, doctors, attorneys, physical therapists. The political climate is now that ethnic groups (are) the enemies. We’re the enemies now. And that’s what’s really sad because we’re not. We want the same kind of life that Anglo-Americans have – the ability to make a good living, to have a nice house.
MZ: During your father’s lifetime of activism, what kept him going all those years? Who did he turn to for support when things were really difficult, when he received criticism, when he believed that he didn’t have community support?
CGA: He was a very unique man. He never, never talked about those things. He never said, “I’m having a hard time.” You could tell when he would come home, he (would have0 this fallen look on his face. You could tell something was really bothering him. He may not (have said) much, he never discussed it at the dinner table, he never discussed his feelings. I think he just had inner strength from people. He thought he was put on this earth for a reason, and that was the reason – to save his people. He never stopped, he never gave up. He found a way to go beyond what they were throwing at him. I know he talked to my mother a lot. He did talk to her. But I think he found the inner strength from God. He just knew that he had to do it. He had to prevail. He wasn’t verbal about his feelings.
MZ: Apart from the American G. I. Forum and your father’s work with that organization, what do you think the long-term impact of your father’s life has been? He was involved in some landmark court decisions, but to the individual who might not know about your father’s life, how has that individual’s life been impacted because of your father’s work?
CGA: He unselfishly promoted his causes so that it would make life better for all of us, through education.
He helped all veterans fighting for their benefits. Remember, when they came back from World War II they couldn’t find a job, they didn’t have health care, and they were uneducated. So that was the first thing – to help veterans.
But I think the work goes beyond Mexican-Americans. It’s more far-reaching because it helps all veterans. His advocacy helped all veterans. I think he provided direction to people who didn’t know what to do.
And he was one person. …When you know this one man made all this difference in this country in different aspects, well, you can think, “I can do something too. I can certainly impact different people’s lives by doing one thing.” I think that’s how we need to look at it. No one can be like him, I realize that. Sometimes people say, “Well, you’re trying to fill his shoes.”
No, I am not. What I’m trying to do is make sure he is known historically like he should be. And he’s not.
MZ: In a commentary that was published last September, you stated, “We all should take pride in celebrating my father’s life – not only on his state recognition day but every day of the year.” What are some actions individuals could take to celebrate your father’s life?
CGA: I think a couple of things. Number one, get the highest education level you possibly can. That’s one way to celebrate his life. He pushed for that.
I think, also, celebrating his life means treating others with respect and dignity. Watching him work in his practice, the patients that came to see him, the majority didn’t speak English. They were not educated, they didn’t even finish grammar school, they had no money. Did I see him treat them any differently than if the governor (had walked0 in there or (if he had met) with the President of the United States? No, I never saw him treat them any differently, and I think that’s an important lesson for us. He was able to treat people the same. And – how did someone put it – he never excluded anybody from anything. He embraced everybody.
I think that’s a problem now. We’re not embracing people who are different. The thing that irritates me the most is people insulting other people who can do nothing about what color their skin is, who their parents were, or where they were born. You can’t do anything about that. This is me, this is you. What is important is, how do you live your life today? This is what we have to learn to do, to be tolerant of people who are different from us. We should embrace them, because that’s what this country is. That’s exactly what he would say.
Top image: Dr. Héctor P. García gives a speech. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Héctor P. García Memorial Foundation.