Hector Garcia

Soldier, Medical Doctor, Civil Rights Advocate

"The American GI Forum started with the Felix Longoria case, we had gone into police brutality, lack of representation in juries, lack of representation in draft boards. I knew civil rights [as a Mexican-American]. I knew the problems, I knew where they were. " ~Hector Garcia, Interview with David G. McComb, LBJ Library, 1969

Born in Mexico in 1914, Hector Garcia grew up in Mercedes, Texas, a town in the Rio Grande Valley. His parents had fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1917. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1936, Garcia went on to study medicine, completing his medical degree in 1940. When the United States entered World War II, Dr. Garcia was in the midst of a surgical residency in Nebraska, in part because Texas hospitals were known for not accepting Mexican Americans as residents. As soon as he finished his surgical residency, Garcia volunteered to join the U.S. Army Medical Corps where he served as an officer until 1946 when he was honorably discharged and naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Garcia met and married his wife, Wanda Fusillo, while serving in Naples, Italy.

After the war, Garcia became involved in civil rights activism almost immediately. He founded the American G.I. Forum in 1948 after observing challenges faced by veterans in accessing medical care outside the Veterans Administration (VA). He also observed how Mexican-American veterans had difficulty receiving subsistence benefits while they attempted to adapt to civilian life with minimal education. Many of his patient were impoverished Mexican Americans in Corpus Cristi, Texas.

Garcia purposely chose the name "American G.I. Forum" for his fledgling organization explaining, "Although we are Americans, we have been subjected to a lot of discriminatory practices. One of these practices is we are told 'You are not Americans, you are Mexicans.' And I said, 'Well, we are American citizens of Mexican origin, so let's point out to the people we are really Americans.'"

The American G.I. Forum gained fame when it successfully advocated for the family of Felix Longoria, a World War II soldier killed in the Philippines, who had been denied access to a funderal home in Texas because the director was afraid that white clients would boycott the home if they allowed Mexican Americans to have funerals there. 

During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the American G.I. Forum, under Garcia's leadership, continued to advocate for educational and medical benefits as well as against poll taxes and school segregation. Garcia served as an alternate representative to the United Nations in 1967, and was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1968.

In 1984, Dr. Garcia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, making him the first Mexican American to receive the honor. He died twelve years later in Corpus Christi at the age of 82.