Uncle Frank is smart, funny, witty and caring. What I didn’t know was how much he has given to his country. On Veterans Day 2011, I honor him and countless other unsung Latino/Hispano heroes.
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – The sound of his voice could stop a poor, bookish Hispanic girl in her tracks. My great uncle’s voice was jovial and booming, rich and deep, and hinted at an intelligence and worldliness I did not understand when I was a little girl.
During our rough and tumble childhood in Pueblo, Colo., my siblings and I rarely spent time with Uncle Frank. He was another character in a mystifying cast of distant relatives who wandered in and out of our lives during funerals, weddings and funky family reunions. Because we were children, and our opinions mostly inconsequential to grownups, we were never accorded proper introductions to the exotic adults around us. No one ever took Uncle Frank by the sleeve of his signature plaid shirt or tweed coat and said, “Look here Debbie, Johnny, Billy, Laurie and Sandy, this is your Uncle Frank Vigil, the World War II hero.”
He was our grandfather’s little brother, and we were his great-nephews and nieces, and were wrapped up in our own small worlds. Even if Uncle Frank had regaled us with war stories, which he never did, we were too young, too inexperienced and too preoccupied with our own futures to care about the past. Why should we care about the ancient history of grownups who had likely already lived their better days? We were sure that no matter what they had accomplished, our lives would be better. During our childhood and adolescence in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, big changes were occurring across the United States. Back then, it seemed as if the civil rights, women’s and gay movements could actually solve our country’s social problems once and for all. Yes, we were that idealistic. Now, it seems more like naïveté.
Eventually, we all grew up and watched our dreams fade. Like everyone else, we learned how short our time on this earth is and how hard it can be to attain success on our own terms. As we aged, we became more introspective, and were humbled by a greater respect for what our elders must have endured as they made their way through the world. Our hearts swelled with respect, admiration and appreciation when we realized we were standing on their shoulders, and that we must, in turn, try to leave legacies for our progeny. We must carry that flame forward against all odds.
Veterans Day is the one day each year we can salute veterans – without a trace of jingoism – who have served our country, including my great uncle, my stepfather, my uncles, my brother and my nephews and nieces. They are among the Hispanic/Latino veterans who often go unrecognized each year as the United States recalls its bloody battles and tactical triumphs, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan. Countless films, documentaries and books have recorded the war experiences of Americans of Anglo, Italian, Jewish, Polish, African and other ethnic heritages. Few, however, in mainstream U.S. society know about the many Latinos/Hispanos who have served the United States in the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Yet, walk into just about any Hispanic home in this country, and you are likely to find at least one photo of a handsome young man or determined young woman in uniform. As it turns out, people with Spanish surnames have served in each and every battle this nation has ever fought.
Back to Uncle Frank. Recently, I was stunned to read an in-depth newspaper story about my Uncle Frank’s World War II experience. As a journalist, I am always gratified to read well-written, human interest stories, especially those that tease out the nuances and intricacies of Americans who did not grow up in large cities or in mainstream society. My siblings and I knew Uncle Frank the man, but not Frank Vigil, the Marine. Though we knew little of his background, Uncle Frank always addressed my siblings and me by our first names, and never talked down to us. Most children know when they are being patronized by adults, and we were no exception. Uncle Frank engaged us in intelligent, lively conversation, and asked us about school, our lives, and what we wanted to be when we grew up. Around him, we felt like we really mattered. Eventually, we began to believe we truly did matter, even when some were telling us otherwise.
While reading that Pueblo Chieftain story about my uncle, I was astonished to learn that he had been a Marine, and had traveled around the United States on duty at various military bases, including one that oversaw the repair of U.S. ships destroyed by Japanese pilots at Pearl Harbor. I read how he shipped off to the island of Guadalcanal to fight in the Pacific Theater, where he spent four years, and saw fellow Americans die or get maimed. He was on cleanup duty in Okinawa when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was among the U.S. troops ready to invade Japan if the Japanese refused to surrender. Because he was a volunteer, he served all four years of his enlistment without coming home once. In 1945, he returned to Colorado, where generations of our family have lived. To this day, I can still hear his musical voice as he called my name, turning it into an endearment.
My stepfather’s World War II story is a little different, but nonetheless compelling. My mother married George Zamarripa when I was 14, and at the height of my rebellious teenage years. Today, I can’t imagine how a man could marry a divorcée with five children, and raise them as his own. But that was my stepfather, and my life is richer for having known him. Like my Uncle Frank, George carried himself with a pride and dignity that came from somewhere deep inside of him. He never went to college, but he was well read, and could go toe-to-toe with anyone while arguing about politics, unions, racism, and other societal issues and ills. He infused our lives with a yearning for knowledge, and encouraged us to question authority.
Like Uncle Frank and other veterans, my stepfather didn’t talk a lot about his military experience. Every now and again, though, we’d hear snippets of stories. We learned he had served in France and Britain during World War II. Because it was an important part of his experience as a brown man who had grown up in Colorado during the dark reign of the Ku Klux Klan, my stepfather recounted the prejudices he had endured from fellow American soldiers while serving his country. As shameful as it sounds now, U.S. troops were segregated by skin color during World War II. We learned our stepfather had served with Anglo troops because back in the 1940s, the U.S. government really didn’t know where to place Latinos in a system built on a black/white dichotomy. He was just light skinned enough to pass.
My stepfather told us how he had lived with a British family that treated him well, had shared precious, rationed eggs with him, and had asked him about the legendary Rocky Mountains. British families welcomed Yanks of all stripes with open arms. I once heard my stepfather describe how some U.S. soldiers became angry when British women dated Hispanic or African American soldiers they met at dances and other social events. Not even a bloody world war against a demented tyrant and his drones who murdered millions of people based on religious, ethnic, national and physical differences could stifle the stench of homegrown bigotry among U.S. troops. My stepfather returned to the United States after the war, and like so many other U.S. Hispanic/Latino veterans, he returned to the realities of living stateside, where sometimes it seemed as if no matter what you had done for your country or how much you had achieved, you were more often judged by your surname, your birthplace, your social status and the color of your skin. I know my stepfather experienced poverty, discrimination and bigotry, but he lived a full and happy life, surrounded by people who cared about him.
Today – and every day – I honor the memory and the dignity of Uncle Frank and my stepfather, and all of the Latinos/Hispanos who have served, fought and died for the United States of America. I’ve lived long enough to know that we are all standing on their shoulders, too.
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Deborah Méndez-Wilson (née Quintana-Vigil) is a fifth-generation Coloradan whose mestizo family roots in the United States date back to the early 1700s in Spanish colonial New Mexico. A University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication graduate, she spent nearly 20 years working in professional journalism for news organizations such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and publications such as Wireless Week, Colorado Outdoors and the now-defunct Daily Journal of Caracas, Venezuela. She also has worked as an ESL teacher and a public relations professional in state government, health care and higher education. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo., with her husband and son, and also shares her life with her adult daughter and grandson.