Hector Perez Garcia
The events of Dr. Hector Perez Garcia’s early life helped shape his attitude toward race rela¬ tions in the United States. Born in 1914 in the town of Liera, Mexico, Garcia came to the United States as a boy during the Mexican Revolution. His parents immigrated to Mercedes, Texas, after escaping an attack on their village.
In Mexico, Garcia’s father had been a college professor and his mother had been a school teacher, but in Texas, the family worked in the fields to survive. His parents emphasized edu¬ cation as the best tool to overcome discrimina¬ tion. When one of his teachers proclaimed, “No Mexican will ever make an ‘A’ in my class,” Garcia considered it a challenge and fol¬ lowed his parents’ advice.
He graduated as the valedictorian of his high school class and earned his B.A. in zoology with honors from the University of Texas in 1936. After earning his degree, Garcia applied to the University of Texas Medical School, during an era of strictly enforced quotas. With his exceptional academic record, he beat out the competition for the one spot that was allotted to a Mexican American, and he went on to earn his medical degree in 1940.
Garcia volunteered for army duty the fol¬ lowing year. During World War II, he served as an infantry officer, a combat engineer officer, and a medical corps officer. He served in North Africa and Italy, earning a Bronze Star and six Battle Stars before being honorably discharged as a major.
After World War II, Garcia opened a med¬ ical practice in Corpus Christi, Texas. With his office located near the U.S. Veterans Administration building, he tended to many Hispanic veterans who were denied treatment by military hospitals.
Responding to this injustice, Garcia formed the American GI Forum to guarantee Mexican American veterans the health and educational benefits to which they were entitled. Shortly thereafter, the organization and Dr. Garcia responded to an outrageous act of discrimination in the town of Three Rivers, Texas.
Local cemetery officials refused to bury the body of one of the town’s soldiers because he was Hispanic. Private Felix Longoria had been killed in action in the Philippines. Through the advocacy of the Forum and Dr. Garcia, and the help of Lyndon Johnson, then a Texas U.S. Senator, Private Longoria eventually received burial with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Under Garcia’s leadership, the American GI Forum grew into one of the largest and most effective national civil rights organizations in the country. Garcia continued to advocate for Hispanic issues throughout his life. He became involved in national politics and was appointed by U.S. president Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1984, Garcia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.