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March 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On March 2, the people of Puerto Rico observed Citizenship Day, the anniversary of the Act of Congress in 1917 which granted United States citizenship to those born on the island.

In recent weeks, however, as the U.S. presidential campaign heats up and the Vieques imbroglio continues, the limits of that citizenship have been evident. After 83 years, the U.S. citizens on the island of Puerto Rico remain without either voting representation in the U.S. Congress, or the right to vote for the President of the United States.

In order to commemorate the U.S. citizenship of the Puerto Rican people, to address their disfranchisement, and to honor their military service, a new organization made public its formation on March 2 with a series of events around Washington, D.C. On a spring-like day in the nation's capital, the American Veterans' Committee for Puerto Rico Self-Determination held a board meeting; hosted a reception at the U.S. Capitol; and gathered to honor a Mexican-American World War II veteran, Private Felix Longoria, by his grave at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Major General William A. Navas, Jr., U.S. Army (Ret.), the Committee's Chairman, described the group as "a coalition of concerned veterans' organizations and individuals working to help Puerto Rico obtain a permanent political status. Only then will the island's residents, including the veterans of Puerto Rico who have served in the uniform of the United States, realize their full civil rights." Over the past century, some 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

General Navas is one such Puerto Rican. He was born in Mayag-üez and joined the U.S. Army in 1965, after completing undergraduate studies in civil engineering at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. In five years of active duty with the Army, General Navas served in Germany and commanded a Combat Engineer company in Vietnam. His military service continued until his retirement in 1998 following a three- year stint as Director of the Army National Guard.

Admiral Horacio Rivero, Jr., the Honorary Chairman of the Veterans' Committee, is another Puerto Rican native who rose to prominence in the U.S. military. Born in Ponce in 1910, Admiral Rivero attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and served in World War II. In 1964, he was the first Puerto Rican, indeed the first Hispanic American, to be elevated to the rank of Admiral. He went on to become Vice Chief of Naval Operations and, after retiring in 1972, U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

The members of the new committee are not, however, all Puerto Ricans. Rather, they represent all Americans, and especially Hispanic Americans, who have fought and served beside Puerto Ricans, and are concerned by their comrades' lack of political self-determination on their native island.

Francisco Ivarra is the Co-Chairman of the Veterans' Committee. He is also the National Commander of the American GI Forum, an association that has fought for over fifty years for the civil rights of Hispanic American veterans and has become the nation's largest Hispanic veterans' organization. Mr. Ivarra spoke on March 2 at Arlington National Cemetery about the incident that brought the American GI Forum and its founder, Dr. Héctor P. García, to national attention in 1948.

In that year, the remains of a young soldier named Felix Longoria, who had been killed in action in the Phillipines in 1945, were returned to Three Rivers, Texas, for burial. As a Mexican-American, however, Pvt. Longoria was denied the right to chapel services in the town's only funeral parlor. The bald hypocrisy of this refusal came to the attention of Dr. García and the fledgling American GI Forum.

According to Mr. Ivarra, a national campaign ensued to accord Pvt. Longoria the honors demanded by his ultimate sacrifice. Through the efforts of Dr. García and the American GI Forum, and with the assistance of then-State Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, Pvt. Longoria was buried in Arlington alongside many of our nation's greatest heroes.

Standing at the grave of Felix Longoria, the members of the American Veterans' Committee for Puerto Rico Self-Determination clearly drew inspiration from his story. Earlier in the day, the Board of Directors had resolved to launch a nationwide program to educate the American public about Puerto Rico. They plan to focus special attention on the situation of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. military, who serve under a Commander in Chief for whom they cannot vote, and who have fought in wars declared by a Congress in which they have no voting representation.

The Veterans' Committee ended a busy day with a reception at the U.S. Capitol. In attendance were key members of national organizations involved with Hispanic and veterans' issues. "We intend to take our message to every member of Congress and to all 50 state legislatures," pledged General Navas. "Before our work is done, the American public will know of the inequity which the nation has allowed to exist in Puerto Rico for more than 100 years, and we are confident that they will support out efforts to redress this injustice."

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