The Vietnam War was a complex issue for Mexican Americans. Many young men went off to fight and saw service in the military as a way proving their Americanness and solidifying their right to be full fledged members of the American Dream. With a machismo warrior spirit and with no aversion to hard work many joined the military or were drafted throughout the war. As with WWII and the Korean war before it, there are countless stories of Mexican American heroism throughout the war.
One of the most dramatic and most impressive is Roy Benavidez who spent a year relearning how to walk after stepping on a landmine. He then returned to Vietnam and upon hearing on the radio of a pinned down special forces patrol jumped in a helicopter to go save them. He got shot 37 times and stabbed multiple times, saved eight of them and received a medal of honor and five purple hearts in the process. He wrote three books about his experiences in the war–the prejudice and racism growing up in the States and the struggle to be recognized for his achievements during the war.
The cost of war to the Mexican American community came under scrutiny as the war raged on. Ralph C. Guzmán began reviewing the names and statistics of those killed in action. They were overwhelming Spanish surnamed. College deferments were out of reach for most Mexican Americans. Military recruiters began targeting Hispanic students in their high schools and encouraging them not to go to College but to become warriors and join the military. The military also had few Hispanic officers and most Mexican American soldiers who joined became grunts pushed toward the front lines.
This film, Two Fronts–Latinos in Vietnam, has a great overview of Latino involvement in Vietnam with interviews and pictures. One thing that the film doesn’t mention is how important anti-Vietnam war protests were in creating the Chicano movement. Activists like Ernesto Vigil joined the Crusade for Justice and got involved in the Chicano movement through their protests of the Vietnam war. It also was the impetus for LA’s Chicano Moratorium a protest event that galvanized the Chicano community.
In spite of the racism and controversy–Mexican American communities are still very proud of their contributions through their service. Boys from the Barrio is a short film about military veterans creating a monument in Scottsbluff Nebraska dedicated to the service members from the barrio. It also has my Uncle Joe in it.
For more information, check out:
Soldados: Chicanos in Vietnam is an independent documentary with stories about Latinos serving in Vietnam.
Voices Veteranos: Mexican America and the Legacy of Vietnam is a great film that has many first person stories from veterans.
The Invisible Force: Latinos at War in Vietnam Short article with a few good stories and photos.
Raza Si, Guerra No: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era First Edition This book reviews the history of Chicanos protest throughout Vietnam.