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PUERTO RICO HERALD
U.S. VETERANS LAUNCH ORGANIZATION FOR PUERTO RICO
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,
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
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
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."