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updated: 11/14/2010 8:48 AM

1940s injustice worth recounting today

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SAN DIEGO -- "The whites wouldn't like it ... "

Those are the words that were offered up, in 1949, by a funeral director in Three Rivers, Texas a small town about 70 miles northwest of Corpus Christi to explain one of the great injustices of the World War II era.

The victim was Pvt. Felix Z. Longoria, a war hero who was killed by a Japanese sniper while on a mission in the Philippines. But also victimized were his wife and family, who wanted nothing more than to give him a simple burial in his hometown, and a Mexican-American community that had already put up with more than its share of cruel and discriminatory treatment.

In the South Texas of the 1940s, Mexican-Americans were treated as second-class citizens. They were routinely turned away from barbershops, hotels, beauty parlors and swimming pools. There were signs in restaurants declaring: "No dogs or Mexicans allowed."

And in Three Rivers, as in many towns in the Southwest, those indignities didn't end at death. As a Mexican-American, Longoria was to be buried in the "Mexican" section of the town's cemetery. Instead, thanks to the intervention of Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, his body is now interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

There's more. In Three Rivers, Mexican-American patrons could use the funeral home, but they had to hold the wake elsewhere because only Anglos got to use the chapel. When Beatrice Longoria, who lived in Corpus Christi and thus did not have a place in Three Rivers to hold the wake, asked that her husband be granted an exception, her request was denied. Why? Because, as funeral director Tom Kennedy remarked, "the whites wouldn't like it."

Mexican-Americans from throughout Texas and around the country were livid. They decided that enough was enough, and Hector Garcia, a physician and activist who brought the case to the attention of public officials, helped a war hero finally receive the respect that he had earned on the battlefield.

This is the story that drives "The Longoria Affair," a compelling documentary airing this month on the Public Broadcasting Service The film is an interesting mixture of history, sociology and politics. Writer and director John Valadez told me that one reason he wanted to share this story is because one can't move into the future until one understands and appreciates the past.

For the New York-based filmmaker, whose family has roots in El Paso, the difficult journey that Mexican-Americans have taken in this country has only made them stronger.

"It's been indignity upon indignity," he said. "We've gone through a very punishing crucible. And yet we survived it without hatred, with optimism and as Americans who really love this country despite its flaws."

As the film makes clear, one of those flaws is our political system. Mexican-Americans are loyal Democrats. And yet, we learn how disillusioned many became with President Kennedy and, later, President Johnson for ignoring Latino concerns. Both men were reluctant to further antagonize Southern Democratic officeholders and other Anglo constituents by appearing to pander to Hispanics.

That is, these two presidents might have done more to advance the progress of Mexican-Americans, but they were afraid the whites wouldn't like it.

(c) 2010, The Washington Post Writers Group