Saturday, July 29, 2017


By Raul A. Reyes

In his heyday, Gus Garcia cut a dashing figure in Texas legal and social circles. He was a key member of the first team of Mexican-Americans to win a case at the Supreme Court. His work inspired a documentary and two proposed movies, with interest from stars like Edward James Olmos and Eva Longoria.

Yet, in 1964, Garcia died alone and homeless, on a park bench in San Antonio. He was 48 years old.

How did this happen to a hero of the Mexican-American community? On July 27, Garcia’s birthday, it’s worth taking a look at the life of this legal pioneer – and considering how his legacy shaped the Latino civil rights movement.

In 1954, Garcia was part of a legal team that took the Hernandez v. Texas case to the Supreme Court and established the right of Mexican-Americans to serve on juries. The case, which the New York Times noted as “a quiet victory for civil rights,” marked the first time that the high court expanded protection of the 14th Amendment to cover Latinos. The case also paved the way for Mexican-Americans to mount legal challenges in other cases involving housing, education, and employment discrimination.

“This is very rich history,” said Texas State Sen. Sylvia R. Garcia (no relation). “It is not just Mexican-American history, it is legal history. The Hernandez case set new grounds for selecting juries, saying that they had to reflect the population," she said.

Garcia was an intellectual standout before there was any concept of “Hispanic” or “Latino.” Even the term “Mexican-American” was unknown.

“Nobody called us Mexican-Americans,” Benny Martinez told NBC Latino. “No matter how long our families had been here, or whether we had been born here, we were just Mexicans.”

Martinez recalled that in the 1940s, many Mexican-Americans in Texas attended segregated schools and were kept out of public swimming pools and theaters. “There were signs all over that said No Mexicans.”

This status quo began to change when Mexican-Americans who had served in World War II – among them Gus Garcia – returned to the Southwest. After fighting for freedom overseas, the veterans were frustrated by the inequalities that still existed at home. They became active in organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American G.I. Forum.

Garcia served as legal adviser to both groups, and helped win a case making the segregation of children of Mexican descent illegal in Texas. With his green eyes and resonant voice, he had star quality as a litigator. “I remember the first time I heard him (Garcia) speak, I was amazed,” Martinez remembered. “I didn’t know that any mexicano could talk like that.”

At the high court, Garcia’s vulnerabilities and gifts were on display.

On the night before oral arguments, Garcia disappeared and went out drinking, not returning to his hotel until the early morning. While it was no secret that Garcia had long struggled with alcoholism, his colleagues were panicked and infuriated by his risking a Supreme Court case for a night out on the town.

However, Garcia pulled himself together in time to face the justices. He fielded questions from a group of learned men who had almost no understanding of the lives of Mexican-Americans. The justices asked whether Mexican-Americans were citizens, and if they spoke English. “They call them greasers down there, don’t they?” inquired Justice Felix Frankfurter. 

Garcia’s presentation was so strong that the justices allowed him to go over his allotted time for an extra 16 minutes, an honor not accorded Thurgood Marshall when he argued Brown v. Board of Education.


Anonymous said...

He was gay, too, right?

Anonymous said...

Great article about a very interesting man, fighting for what he felt was right. Who gives a rat's ass if he was gay? Only an ignorant person would use that to demean the man.

Anonymous said...

So much for his people taking care of him when he was down.

Anonymous said...

This story should inspire us and make us feel proud. Thanks for writing it Juan.

Anonymous said...

It's all about pussy. No other reason to be on this fucked up planet!