Joe M. Nanez’s family found out he died in World War II when they saw him killed on a Dallas movie theater screen. His brother-in-law, Regulo Vasquez, saw i t on a newsreel after a film as a teenager. He stayed for the next showing and watched the film again, waiting to take another look at the newsreel. He had to be sure. After a second viewing, he told Nanez’s wife and mother. The next day, they went to see for themselves.
“It was at the Rialto Theatre,” says Vasquez, who is now 83. Back then, movie theaters showed newsreels about the war. “The soldiers were coming towards the camera,” he continues. “As Joe got to the camera an explosion came up.” He turned to his friend and said that looked like his brother-in-law. Joe M. Nanez had two children and he died in his early twenties in France. He was the brother of Anita Martinez, the first Mexican-American female on the City Council.
Regulo Vasquez later joined the Air Force. During the Korean War, he remembers being on a cargo ship that collected dead bodies to be shipped back to the United States. Photographs of Regulo Vasquez and Joe M. Nanez will appear in an upcoming exhibit at the Latino Cultural Center that will honor Mexican American soldiers from Dallas.
Since January, Jo Ann Valentin and Gloria Cantu from the Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL) have been scanning photographs of soldiers from World War I all the way up to the present. Over 400 soldiers will be represented with uniformed portraits and candid photos of war. When soldiers and family members brought in pictures, emotions ran high as untold stories were finally being heard.
One soldier flew planes in World War II while his wife helped build those planes in a Fort Worth factory. A soldier from Vietnam still remembers exactly what burning flesh smells like. Many of the families not only prayed for the safe return of their loved ones at church, but also prayed a Rosary every night and lit a candle. Juan Jose Luna from Luna’s Tortilla Factory even brought a captured Viet Cong flag with bloodstains on it.
There are photographs of ships, helmets scattered across a warzone, soldiers at Heartbreak Ridge, riding horses, and firing canons. One photo shows a soldier dipping a canteen in water he later found out had Agent Orange in it. There is even a photo of a war bond drive in West Dallas for World War II. Albert Valtierra and Robert Ramirez from DMAHL have photographs from Vietnam.
The Untold Story: A Tribute to Dallas' Mexican American Veterans and Families was first conceived by the DMAHL over 18 months ago. A commemoration and anniversary, the exhibit is 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War and 70 years after the end of World War II. The exhibit will open on September 11, just in time for National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Viola Delgado—the local artist, painter, and sculptor—is curating the show and expects to have about 1,000 photographs on display. The exhibit will use both galleries at the Latino Cultural Center. The front room will feature portraits of each soldier in alphabetical order with their name, branch, and the war they fought in. The back gallery is “The Family Room,” combining photos of soldiers from the same families. “It will be on more of a personal level,” says Delgado. There are Mexican American families from Dallas with over 20 members who fought in wars. There will also be photos of soldiers getting married in uniform and saying goodbye to their families.
The family room will have an altar to give the sense of an old chapel with the names of all the soldiers who were killed in action on dog tags. There will also be a military man cave with furniture, medals, uniforms, and other memorabilia with a video of Mexican American soldiers from Dallas used as a backdrop. “I had no idea how much this would impact me,” says Delgado.
“What’s the hottest topic in politics now?” asks Albert Gonzalez, co-founder of the DMAHL. “Immigration. All you hear about the Mexican side is we’re bad people, we come here illegally, cartels. They don’t know the patriotism. We want to bring all this up, make the kids proud.” Gonzalez remembers a friend he met in grade school who wasn’t an American citizen, but volunteered to go to Vietnam. With no worries about being drafted, his friend even went to the Consulate-General of Mexico to get permission. He wanted to fight for the country that had been good to him.
“It is an untold story,” says Rosemary Hinojosa, board member of DMAHL. “When Ken Burns did his documentary, he didn’t have any Mexican-Americans, he claimed he couldn’t find any. Well we found them for him.” Indeed, Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II, The War, caused an outcry when it failed to cite any contributions from Mexican Americans.
“Dallas has never really told our history,” says Gonzales. “It’s sad. But we got nobody to blame but ourselves. We just need to tell our story. We need to preserve it.”
The Untold Story: A Tribute to Dallas' Mexican American Veterans and Families runs from September 11 to October 17. For more info, visit the Latino Cultural Center's web site.