St. Paul memorial will give Latino veterans the honor they deserve
Michael Medina and about 20 colleagues from the Mexican American Veterans Post No. 5 in St. Paul stood Thursday on a patch of Harriet Island and watched as the mayor and other municipal muck-a-mucks broke ground for the American Veterans Memorial Plaza de Honor.
“It took a while, but it’s a good day,” Medina, 72, a Vietnam War combat veteran, told me after the event.
We Americans have a somber fascination with erecting memorials as a way to remember, particularly when it comes to veterans and those who died tragically.
Loved ones use paper and pencil at the new ground zero memorial to record the engraved names of those who perished in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Minnesotans are no exception. There are hundreds of memorials and monuments dedicated to war veterans throughout the state.
The small town of Appleton has three alone. Red Wing has four. Ditto White Bear Lake. The Boise Forte Band of Chippewa dedicated one this year at its northern Minnesota reservation to honor fallen warriors.
Minneapolis has three, as does the Saintly City: memorials in St. Paul City Hall; a memorial to the USS Swordfish submarine of World War II in Como Park; and memorials on the state Capitol grounds.
LATINO WAR HEROES
The city will now have a fourth memorial, dedicated to all American veterans, but one with a decidedly Latino flavor.
“We are sort of the forgotten veterans,” said Medina, an architect whose father, Joseph, 97, served in the Pacific theater during WWII. “But our service goes back to the Revolutionary War. We even have a Latina serve with the Confederacy. She dressed up as a man, though unfortunately she picked the wrong side to fight.”
Latinos make up the largest minority group serving in the armed forces. There are at least 39 Medal of Honor recipients of Latino descent.
Some of the notable Latino soldiers include Medal of Honor winner Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez, who saved the lives of eight Green Berets despite suffering numerous wounds during a firefight in Vietnam in 1968.
There’s also Marine Guy “Gaby” Gabaldon, awarded the Navy Cross. Raised by a Japanese-American family in Los Angeles, he single-handedly persuaded more than 1,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender at Saipan during WWII. His exploits inspired the movie “Hell to Eternity.” In his autobiography, Gabaldon noted that even though his two “Japanese” brothers also served, his foster parents still were removed to an internment camp.
Still, the service of Latino Americans is largely unknown, one reason why Ken Burns’ documentary on WWII – not mentioning or profiling any Latinos – sparked a wave of controversy in America’s Latino community. Burns later relented and attached interviews with two Latino WWII veterans and a Native American one, but well after the superbly done documentary initially aired.
“That kind of underlined the lack of awareness or knowledge,” Medina said, adding that he hopes the memorial will help close that gap, at least locally.
Medina, an architect who designed the plaza, said heavy winter snowfall and spring flooding delayed the Harriet Island groundbreaking for a year. As a result, the initial $250,000 price tag has gone up by $30,000 because of rising construction costs.
“We hope to at least get the foundation done by next month,” he said. He stresses that the memorial is a tribute to all American veterans, particularly those with roots in St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood.
“We have members at the post that are not Mexican-Americans but have ties to the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s also a tribute to St. Paul, a city that always was open to accepting immigrants, and on the West Side, the epicenter for Mexican-American migration dating back to the early 1900s.”
Viva la plaza.