As Americans honor the valor and sacrifice of the nation’s armed forces on Veterans Day this Friday, Latino veterans, scholars and experts hope that the public fully recognizes the service of Latino veterans and the critical role they have played in U.S. military history.
At the same time, advocates are pushing the military on veterans' issues as well as the lack of Latinos in top leadership ranks.
While “Latino” and “Hispanic” are modern terms, soldiers of Spanish or Latin American heritage have fought in every U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War. The first Hispanic recipient of the Medal of Honor, the armed forces’ highest award, was Joseph H. De Castro, who served in the Civil War as the Massachusetts Infantry’s color-bearer, the flag he was carrying making him a visible target of Confederate forces.
In total there have been over 60 Hispanic Medal of Honor winners.
Luis Vazquez-Contes is the national commander of the American G.I. Forum, founded in 1948 to ensure that Mexican American World War II veterans could access their government benefits. “Latinos have a long and honorable tradition of military service,” he said, “only somehow it is not as well-known as that of other groups. Sometimes, it feels like we are undervalued.”
Latinos are about 19% of the U.S. population and. according to Department of Defense statistics, make up 17% of active-duty service members. The Marine Corps has the highest percentage (23%) of Latino active-duty members.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are nearly 1.3 million Latino veterans, or about 8 percent of the veteran population. By 2045, this figure is projected to reach 12 percent.
Issues for Latino veterans, Vazquez-Contes noted, range from accessing medical care through the Veterans Administration system to homelessness to suicide. He feels that the government is meeting its obligations to support Latino veterans “halfway ... to a certain point,” but that the VA’s response to his group’s concerns sometimes seem to reflect a lack of urgency. “They always tell us, ‘We’re working on it,’ when we raise certain issues, and we want to see more action.”
Ricardo Aponte, president of the Hispanic Veterans Leadership Alliance and a retired Air Force brigadier general, wants to see more Latinos in the military’s senior ranks. “Military leaders should mirror the changing face of this country,” he said. “The promotion rates for the top enlisted ranks, and the top officer ranks, are just basically void of Hispanic names.”
Although the military has done a good job of recruiting Latinos, Aponte believes, there are problems with retention and mentoring. “Too many members of the forces leave after their initial commitment; there is nobody telling a young officer what he or she needs to do in order to achieve success in their military career.”
Creating a pipeline for Latino military leadership is a long-term proposition, Aponte said, and requires more support from the Department of Defense. “I think progress is being made; we just want it faster.”
Recognizing 'the need for substantial, enduring change'
Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Department of Defense, told NBC News in an email that “advancing diversity, equity inclusion, and accessibility is one of (his) biggest priorities,” and that “a diverse military informs our mission sets and helps ensure we are effective as possible.”
The career path for certain officers can extend over 20 years, he said, so current representation at higher levels is influenced by factors from over two decades ago.
Advocates say that having more Latinos in leadership positions would help the military become more attuned to the needs of its enlisted personnel.
Army Pfc. Vanessa Guillén disappeared from Fort Hood in April 2020, and some veterans felt that it took public outrage for the military to investigate her death with a sense of urgency.
“What happened to Specialist Guillén is heartbreaking and deeply troubled me,” said Cisneros. His office remains committed to preventing sexual assault and harassment, and to responding appropriately when it does. According to Cisneros, the Department of Defense “recognizes the need for substantial, enduring change.”
After Guillén’s remains were found, her family and supporters called for reforms in the way the military handles cases of sexual violence (a soldier killed himself when police moved in to arrest him in connection with Guillén’s disappearance and death). In 2021, a gate at Fort Hood was named in Guillén’s honor, and in 2022 Congress passed the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act,” aimed at protecting victims of sexual violence in the military.
An infantry regiment's storied history
As part of an effort to rename bases named for former Confederate officers, Fort Hood is scheduled to be renamed for Richard Cavazos, a four-star Army general of Mexican American descent.
Cavazos was renowned for his leadership during the Korean War, when he commanded the 65th Infantry Regiment, known as “the Borinqueneers.”
“The 65th Regiment was unique because it was a segregated unit, the only all-Hispanic unit in the history of the U.S. Army,” said Noemi Figueroa Soulet, who produced a 2007 PBS documentary on the Borinqueneers and is the author of a new book on the famed unit as well.
“This unit was comprised primarily of Puerto Rican soldiers, along with continental (from the U.S. mainland) officers,” said Figueroa Soulet. “Yet when I first started researching it, I could hardly find any archival material about them, even though they served with great distinction during the Korean War.”
Prior to producing her film, Figueroa Soulet said that she “had not really seen the stories of Latino soldiers being presented,” in contrast to documentaries about the Tuskegee Airmen and popular films like “Saving Private Ryan.”
In 2007, filmmaker Ken Burns unveiled his landmark PBS documentary on World War II, which did not include any depiction of Latino soldiers. After criticism for this omission, he added footage to include Latino service members.
The Borinqueneers’ stories are especially important to Figueroa Soulet because the number of Latino Korean War veterans is dwindling. “Doing my film and this book has been a labor of love, just to preserve the legacies of this generation,” she said. “Unfortunately, even in Puerto Rico many young people do not know about them. But this history of the 65th is American history; it is the story of Puerto Ricans who were proud U.S. citizen soldiers.”
Latinas who served: 'unsung heroes'
Hispanics who served their country did not always experience full equality and acceptance at home. For this reason, the legacy of Latino veterans is tied to the fight for civil rights.
Elizabeth Escobedo, associate professor of history at the University of Denver, is working on a book about the contributions of Mexican American and Puerto Rican women during World War II.
“In spite of women’s active participation in the military, there is still a tendency to conflate the military as a decidedly white, and male, experience,” Escobedo said. But during the World War II, thousands of Latinas served in the Women’s Army Corps, in the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), and as nurses.
These women defied the convention of their time to serve their country and change their lives. Celina Baez, the late mother of Sonia Sotomayor, for example, served in the Women’s Army Corps in 1944. Sent to the mainland for training, Baez met her future husband there — a life event that ultimately led to the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court justice.
During World War II, Latina service members were often held to stricter enlistment standards than their white counterparts, and their English had to be impeccable, Escobedo noted. These women still succeeded, even as they dealt with racism, sexism and sexual harassment.
“During these key moments of national formation and mobilization,” Escobedo said, “Latinas were there. They were challenging their second-class status and proving that they were just as American as anyone else. This is a group of unsung heroes.”