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Found in the Garcia Archives: Inspiration from a Notable Civil Rights Leader
01 / 16 / 18 | By: Erica Williams
In 2016, History Associates began working with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi to process and digitize a unique archival collection from Dr. Hector P. Garcia — a prominent champion of civil rights for veterans and Mexican-Americans in the late 20th century. Before his death, he donated a large portion of his papers and memorabilia to the Special Collections and Archives Department of the Mary and Jeff Bell Library at the University. Our job was to help make the Garcia archives more readily available to university staff, students, researchers, and the general public.
My colleagues and I were not familiar with Dr. Garcia at first, but through his papers, we’ve come to know him as an accomplished physician, surgeon, World War II veteran, civil rights advocate, and founder of the American G.I. Forum. He saved valuable material that sheds light on historical events, but the documents he saved reveal something about Dr. Garcia the person as well. As the project comes to a close, we wanted to share our finds from the collection.
Research historian Emily Sullivan was intrigued by items in his collection of Hispanic American publications, including all three issues of the first ever comic book starring a Mexican American superhero: ¡Relampago!. “The comic starred Marcos Zapata, a young Tejano on the edge of becoming a hardened criminal,” Emily noted. “He is saved from death by an old woman’s dark magic, he is granted super human strength, and when he discusses his fate with a priest, he chooses to use his newfound abilities to fight crime rather than committing it.”
The author, Judge Margarito C. Garza, was a District Court Judge in Corpus Christi and drew heavily on Mexican American tradition and religious culture, and included many locations and landmarks in Corpus Christi to make the book as authentic as possible. “Although Dr. Garcia wasn’t a collector of comics, saving these works shows how he wanted to preserve this unique attempt at creating a positive role model for Mexican-American kids,” said Emily.
Dr. Garcia was also a powerful organizer among Mexican and Hispanic American communities beginning in the 1940s. In the Felix Longoria case, he not only protested the refusal of a Texas funeral director to host Longoria’s services and lobbied the government to have Longoria interred at Arlington National Cemetery, but also organized a fundraiser to pay for the Longoria family’s travel expenses to attend the burial. Archivist Erin Mashni was impressed by a collection of letters he received that offered small donations, typically $5 or less. “These contributions indicate the importance of these cases to the Latino community in and around Corpus Christi, and the nature of the grassroots organizing of which Dr. Garcia was an integral part,” Erin noted. She added that the letters also demonstrate how closely he was associated and involved with each of these cases and the amount of trust the community placed in him. Historian Jennifer Giambrone agrees. “It strikes me that he inspired many people to give, even when it may have been very difficult for them, and that many small donations could make a big difference.”
“A few of my favorite items from the collection illustrated how Dr. Garcia served and organized his community throughout his lifetime,” Jennifer added. For instance, he saved a letter to Rebecca Salinas, in which he urges her to come see him for medical care even if she can’t pay for treatment. “Even as his national and international profile rose and his work took him away from his medical practice more often, he maintained his commitment to seeing and helping patients.”
As for me, as I processed his collection of photographs, I came to admire his respect for the dead, particularly those who served our country or the Latino community in some way. There are more photographs of Dr. Garcia honoring John F. Kennedy after his death than pictures of Garcia with Kennedy, which shows the impact of Kennedy’s death. I think he believed that Kennedy was a true ally to the Latino community and felt that his death was a huge blow to them all. And there are numerous photo albums of funerals for Latino soldiers killed in action. The images themselves were often taken by non-professional photographers and are not great quality, but the presence of the albums says a lot about how much Garcia appreciated their sacrifice and wanted to honor their memories.
If you are in the Corpus-Christi area, The Hector P. Garcia collection is available in-person at the Mary and Jeff Bell Library Special Collections and Archives at the University from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. Please call ahead (361.825.4500) so that the staff can be sure to make time for you. Additionally, selections of the collection are available online at http://omeka.tamucc.edu/. More entries will be added over time and we invite you to visit and explore the legacy of Dr. Garcia.