Hispanic Heritage Month began Sept. 15, and with it comes celebrations of notable Mexican-American figures like Hector P. Garcia. After seeing the struggles his patients were having at his clinic, Garcia started the GI Forum to help ensure that veterans were receiving the benefits they were promised.
Dr. Anthony Quiroz, a History professor at TAMU-CC, explains how Garcia became to be, in his opinion, the Mexican-American version of Martin Luther King Jr.
“He and his family moved to the United States from Mexico during the early years of the Mexican Revolution. His father was a teacher, and I believe his mother was as well, but when they came to the United States, we have different ways of doing things and they couldn’t teach. So, they opened a grocery store and during the day or in the evenings, dad and mom would give them lessons and educate the kids. Kind of an early version of homeschooling.
“To make a long story short, these are very smart people, and eventually what happened was Hector was allowed into UT Medical School. Now, a lot of students ask me, ‘Well, you just said there was discrimination and people couldn’t get into these schools.’ UT had a rule where they would allow one Mexican-American a year into their med school class, and that’s how he got in.”
Quiroz says that Garcia faced discrimination even when trying to find someplace for a residency.
“He couldn’t do his residency in Texas because no hospitals would take him. They don’t want a Mexican. He had to do it in Nebraska. He served in the army in World War II, and he actually met George Patton … Patton said, ‘What medical school did you go to in Mexico?’ He (Garcia) says, ‘I went to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.’ Patton just stared at him and walked away. He couldn’t believe a Mexican had gone to a real school.”
These were the obstacles that not just Garcia faced in the medical field, but thousands of others. Garcia was still a passionate man when it came to America. While he was stationed in Italy, Garcia met his wife, Wanda Fusillo. They both returned to America after the war ended in 1945.
Quiroz explains that Garcia started his medical practice in Corpus Christi soon after returning.
“His office was on the west side of town, so his clients were all Mexican-American. When he’s taking care of them, he finds out that first of all, tuberculosis rates on the west side of Corpus Christi were worse than anywhere else in the nation … it wasn’t Dr. Garcia, it was Dr. Hector. If you didn’t have the money, he wouldn’t charge you.”
Garcia’s care for his patients went beyond the exam room. Quiroz explains that when Garcia found out a lot of his veteran patients weren’t receiving their checks promised to them by the GI Bill, Garcia took it upon himself to advocate for them.
“He found out that a lot of his clients were not getting their checks on time, if they were getting them at all. They weren’t getting seen by the powers to be in terms of talking about starting a small business. They were just experiencing the same kind of discrimination that they left behind.
“Once he heard all of that, that’s when the GI Forum came about. He called a meeting at Lamar Elementary School … and he was expecting, I don’t know, 30, 50, 60 people. 700 people showed up. That told him something was up.”
The GI Forum was founded in March 1948 to help veterans access their benefits. Garcia did not intend for it to become a civil rights organization, but it naturally became part of it. He saw not only veterans, but patients of all backgrounds who faced daily discrimination when it came to attending schools and obtaining proper medical treatment.
“Dr. Hector wasn’t the kind to just say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’” says Quiroz. “He took it hard. He had a very big ego. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but he thought if anyone could take on this problem, it was him. He did a really good job of it.”
Quiroz says that Garcia spent a lot of his time traveling with people to help setup more GI Forum chapters.
“He was tireless. He worked like a dog trying to organize chapters all over the country. It spread from Texas, to New Mexico, to California, Arizona. Next thing you know, they’re in Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana. All over the country. Anywhere there were Mexicans, which surprisingly, we were in a lot of places back then.”
Garcia was a patriotic man through and through. Though not everyone agreed with him, he worked within the system to be able to acquire the rights for those he fought to protect until he passed in 1996 to stomach cancer.
We continue to honor Garcia through his statue on campus, reading the letters he donated to our library, and through celebrations like the talk about him held on Sept. 19.
“You’re not living in a sleepy little fishing village,” says Quiroz. “We’re living in a place that has, at many times, been in the lead (of civil rights movements) and it can be again.”