MERCEDES — When Elizandro Muñoz asks his college students if they’ve heard of Martin Luther King Jr. almost everyone raises their hands, but when he asks them about Hector P. Garcia, the civil rights leader who precedes most of those mentioned in the U.S. history books, he never gets the same response.
“How can that be?” Muñoz asks. “And I tell them all your life you’ve been learning about everybody else’s history except your own.”
Muñoz is a history professor at South Texas College in Weslaco where every semester he teaches his students about Dr. Garcia, a Mexican migrant who grew up in Mercedes and spent more than 50 years fighting for equality to all and founded the American GI Forum.
Garcia, a World War II veteran, helped end segregation in Texas schools for Hispanics, helped end discrimination in the legal system, and helped address poor conditions in colonias, all while practicing medicine in Corpus Christi.
His numerous recognitions include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Distinguished Service Award from the National Office of Civil Rights, being named a United Nations Ambassador and the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.
“I make them write essays and most of the time my students are shocked,” Muñoz said. “It almost brings me to tears when I read some of their responses present with two strong emotions, anger and pride at the same time.”
“They say how the heck could we have been deprived of this,” he added. “Think about, how many lives could have been changed if we would have been told when we were growing up that we had a role model that we could look up to not just Martin Luther King Jr. as a minority, Think of how many could have been changed if we simply would have been told about him,”
Wednesday marks the seventh annual Dr. Hector P. Garcia Day as established by the 2009 Senate Bill 495 authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. The bill authorized the observance of the day by Texas schools and state agencies to honor Garcia and teach younger generations about his legacy.
At least two events will be held today honoring Garcia. A special Mass in celebration of the life of Dr. Hector P. Garcia will be held at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in the Incarnate Word Convent Chapel in Corpus Christi. In McAllen, Muñoz will be speaking about Garcia and civil rights at 7 p.m. in the McAllen Public Library.
“It is important that our Texas youths learn about a man who dedicated his life to public service and who broke down the barriers that existed at the time. Dr. Garcia made a significant difference in the freedoms we now enjoy and was able to advance the interests of Hispanics, even in the highest levels of government,” Hinojosa stated in a 2012 newsletter.
That same year, Muñoz said he split the cost with the city to erect a statue of Garcia outside the public library here which is also named after him. Muñoz would not say how much he paid out of pocket for the black granite base, but said the long overdue tribute by Garcia’s hometown might have never happened if it wasn’t for him.
“My heart was really set for having it built at our campus but for a variety of reasons they had me jumping through hoops for several years…so I went to the city of Mercedes which was the second best place for it.”
A historic marker detailing Garcia’s life and accomplishments stands a few feet away from the statue located next to the entrance to the library.
Marisol Vidales, 36, grew up in Brownsville but before she moved to Mercedes in 2012 to become the library director she also had never heard of Garcia and the impact he had on people not only here in the Rio Grande Valley but nationwide.
“Being that close I had no knowledge of this person, yet I learned about everybody else, all these other important figures … but not him” Vidales said. “I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this man who had done so much.”
Vidales said she immediately began looking for books she could purchase to have at the library about Garcia but came up empty handed finding only a few history books that briefly mentioned him.
As of Tuesday, there were only two books about Garcia in a library named after him. One of those books “The Inspiring Life of Texan Hector P. Garcia” was published earlier this year by his daughter, Cecilia Garcia Akers.
“I am happy that she put that book out because there just wasn’t much available prior to her book. I think there is one other,” Vidales said.
Akers said she has been planning to visit her father’s Memorial library for a book signing next month. She currently lives in Corpus Christi where her father spent most of his life practicing medicine and raising her and the rest of her brothers and sisters.
In 2005 she started the Hector P. Garcia Memorial Foundation whose mission is to expand awareness of Garcia’s legacy and the continued relevance of his flight for equal rights for all.
“So it was a promise to my mother that we would do we needed to do to because she was very concerned that nobody knew who he was and me and my husband promised her and that’s what we do as a foundation,” Akers said.
The foundation awards several scholarships every year and is working with Texas A&M to digitize more than 5,000 photographs and documents to help make her father’s history available worldwide. She said they are also scheduled to open a clinic named after him in January.
She said her father taught her and her siblings many things throughout his lifetime including the importance of public servitude, the power of education but the most important lesson was the importance of treating people as equals.
“It’s been 20 years since he’s passed away, but I can look around and recognize all the things he did to make this a better country,” Akers said. “But the most important thing he taught me was to treat everyone the same.”