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War & Locale: World War II -- Washington, D.C., USA
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By Marcel Rodriguez
At age 17, Bob Sanchez volunteered for the U.S. Navy after two close friends were killed in combat. It was 1945, and his choice to enlist would set his life in a bold new direction. From Naval intelligence, to the University of Texas at Austin, to being a trial lawyer and activist in the Rio Grande Valley, the war and the university instilled in him a determination to make the world a better place, particularly for Latinos.
Born in Laredo, Texas, on August 20, 1927, Sanchez was reared in relative poverty. He had a social and political conscience as a young man, and attributed this partly to his father, Trinidad P. Sanchez, a taxi driver who in the middle of the Mexican Revolution immigrated to Laredo from Bustamante, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, around 1916. Sanchez explained later in writing that “his father had been exposed to the ill treatment of the poor and to corruption in government in Mexico[,] and had [gotten] to hate such conduct.”
“We could hear Hitler’s ranting all the way down in South Texas, all the way back in 1938 and 1939,” said Sanchez, adding later, “My father, my older brother Trini, and I were glued to an old Philco radio hearing President Franklin D. Roosevelt deliver his electrifying declaration of war speech. The President … hurled us all into the global war effort to preserve liberty.”
Two of Sanchez’s closest friends on his basketball team were killed in action six months after they enlisted, but Sanchez still volunteered. He says he felt it was his obligation as a loyal American to serve his country. H also thought it was a bit romantic – the uniform, the military hearing, the ladies looking at you with gleaming eyes.
“There was a degree of glamour to it,” Sanchez said.
His father signed off on letting him go to war, at which point he told his dad that if he got killed in battle, he didn’t want to come home in a box and would rather remain with his fallen comrades overseas. Sanchez added later that his father was horrified – not at his son’s wish, but that his mother, Catalina Guerra Sanchez, might overhear. “She was literally sick” about [me] leaving, he wrote.
Sanchez asked to be sent to duty aboard a war ship, but the Navy had other ideas. He was instead stationed at the Navy Department’s main building with the Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C.
When he got to Washington and observed the revolving doors, high-brass military, diplomats with briefcases and the workings of federal intelligence, he says he loved what he saw, but wasn’t overwhelmed. He considered himself part of the military, and that aura of purpose and inclusion elevated his self-confidence. He embraced his new life as a military man.
Sanchez’s military career didn’t last long, however, as the shooting war ended shortly after he enlisted, “although the war emergency was not declared over until about a year later,” he wrote.
He was honorably discharged Nov. 21, 1946, at the rank of Seaman First Class.
Toward the end of his Navy stint, he found out about the G.I. Bill, which prompted him to begin reviewing English and math with Naval tutors. When he returned home, some of his friends, most of whom were combat war veterans, expressed an interest in the free education the government would provide. All of them, including Sanchez, had their sights set on the University of Texas at Austin.
Traumatized by Sanchez’s wartime absence, his mother wept when he told her he was leaving again.
“Not ever having even a first grade education in Mexico, she thought her son had enlisted to go off to another war,” Sanchez wrote.
He assured her circumstances were different this time.
“I was going to get an education,” Sanchez said.
In 1947, he enrolled in the University of Texas at age 19. He started out making the honor roll, but then got heavily involved in campus and state politics. He studied Business Administration and did as much reading and writing as he could, graduating in 1950 with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration.
Three years later, he graduated with a law degree from South Texas Law School, which “he attended at night while driving a truck for a living during the day [, since] his GI Bill eligibility had run out,” he wrote. Upon passing the bar exam, a fellow law school graduate had an idea: Why not open a law firm in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley?
Since they were unknown, it was initially difficult “to build a practice,” Sanchez recalled. They also dealt with a lot of resistance to their efforts to improve the socio-economic and political situation of this isolated area’s Latinos. For example, “Public offices such as police stations were uncooperative in providing to us public information. I personally received hate mail, and we were not being referred cases, not even by well-to-do Hispanics[,] who initially considered us lower class people and rabble rousers,” Sanchez wrote.
His experience with Naval Intelligence helped him get established in South Texas because the local power holders, such as the Bentsen and J.C. Looney families, couldn’t brand him a Communist, which was starting to become a common label for anyone trying to shake up the political and economic dominance of most of the area’s Anglos, not to mention, Sanchez wrote, the dominance of “practically all of the reactionary conservatives.”
Sanchez is a founding member and board member emeritus of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza. In 1948, he also helped form the American G.I. Forum, a veterans’ family organization of mostly Latino members dedicated to improving the lives of military veterans, promoting community service, affordable housing, education and fighting for civil rights. He worked closely with his friend, AGIF founder Hector P. Garcia, to improve conditions for Latinos.
For example, the organization staged “pay your poll tax” drives in the 1950s and ’60s to register disenfranchised South Texas voters. The poll tax was a law requiring voters to pay a tax in order to vote. This kept mostly minorities away from the polls, ensuring continued dominance by those in power.
From 1954 to about 1966, the AGIF and its supporters registered enough Mexican-American voters to make them the majority of the electorate in the area, marking a key and enduring shift in the region’s political power, as the electorate change helped place Latinos in political offices throughout South Texas.
“It was an evolutionary trend that had to happen,” Sanchez said.
The poll tax was ultimately abolished in 1964. “Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court was not receptive, but political action finally accomplished the job,” he wrote.
Challenging the system brought a fear of retribution from opponents. For example, during the poll tax drives, Sanchez recalls some of his friends holding their breath when he turned the key of his six-cylinder Ford because they worried a planted bomb might explode in the car with all of them inside.
“The little Ford came to be known as ‘El carro de la bomba,’ the car of the bomb,” he wrote.
“When you start to shake the apparatus that had existed here for generations, you’re going to meet resistance,” said Sanchez, who attributed much of the courage and righteousness that fueled their fight for rights and social justice to an enlightenment brought on by WWII.
In the military, in the university and in the Valley, he and his fellow Latinos were exposed to “how the other half lived,” Sanchez wrote. “The military in particular impelled them to muster the courage to tackle the problems of inequality and injustice.”
Mr. Sanchez was interviewed in McAllen, Texas, on July 7, 2007, by Marcel Rodriguez.