By Tom Rodriguez
Military service in World War II opened up new horizons and opportunities for the Mexican-American boys from Topeka, Kansas. For almost all of them, it was their first time away from home. Going off to war took them to new and strange lands like Africa, Japan, Europe, the Philippine Islands, Hawaii, and many states and cities within the United States.
They got to see how other people lived, and became friends with soldiers of other races from all over the country. Inevitably, they also gained confidence in themselves. The young, inexperienced, unsophisticated boys who left Topeka came back mature men, wizened by war, and ready and able to take care of themselves. They knew that they had done something good and honorable for their country and they were not going to accept being treated like third class citizens again.
When Mexican-American veterans returned to Topeka, Kansas, and to other cities across America, they quickly discovered that not much had changed with regard to past practices of discrimination. One of those returning veterans from Topeka, Kansas, was Jesse “Chuy” Alcala, who had fought and was wounded fighting the Japanese in the Philippines. Alcala was awarded the Purple Heart. In the book, Generations United, published in 1994 by the Kansas Humanities Council, in conjunction with Our Lady of Guadalupe Grade School, Jesse Alcala related his story about the discrimination he encountered upon his return from the war.
“I was a young serviceman just back from World War II. I had served my country proudly in the Pacific. I had received medals, including the Purple Heart. One day not long after I got back to Topeka, I was in my uniform wearing all of my medals. I was very proud to wear my uniform and about what I had done in the war.
I stopped at one of the little eating joints on 4th Street, the low-income, minority populated area in Topeka, and ordered a hamburger and pop. I waited a long time and the white owner finally brought out my hamburger in a paper sack. I told him that I wanted to eat it there inside. He said, “Can’t you read that sign?” I looked up to where he was pointing and read a sign that said “Coloreds, Mexicans and Indians Served in Sacks Only.” I told the man that he could keep his damn hamburger and I walked out.
All of the time when I was walking home, I thought to myself, I’ve just spent 36 months in the Pacific fighting for my country and this is what I have come home to? I just couldn’t believe that nothing had changed, and that it did not seem to matter to a lot of people that I had served my country proudly. I was only a lowly Mexican to them and no matter how hard I tried, I would never be an American in their eyes.”
Fortunately, despite what happened to Jesse “Alcala, and to other returning minority veterans, things did begin to change after World War II. It took a while but the persistence of men like Jesse Alcala and many other veterans of color, the blatant discrimination that existed prior to the war painfully and lowly diminished. As Mexican-Americans and other minority group veterans began to demand and receive better treatment under the law in public places and in the work force, the laws governing public places and civil rights were changed and were more strictly enforced.
In addition, after the war, many Mexican-Americans in Topeka and elsewhere across the United States took advantage of the G. I. Bill of Rights, which Congress passed to provide benefits to veterans to help them in their readjustment to civilian life. Some veterans used the money to train for new jobs, others used it to attend college. However, the most utilized benefit in the G. I. Bill was the home loan guarantee program. Many Mexican-American veterans used the G. I. Bill to purchase homes and move out of the barrios they grew up in.
Besides the home loan program, Congress passed various employment bills to guarantee equal treatment in employment with companies that held government contracts. Those federal mandates, coupled with the refusal of Mexican-Americans and other veterans of color, to continue to accept the blatant ethnic and race discrimination that had existed prior to World War II, slowly but surely helped to end blatant discrimination in public facilities, housing, and employment. Ultimately, it was those kind of victories that proved to be the best reward for the brave men and women who sacrificed so much to serve their country in World War II.