Battles at home and abroad: The story of Emporia’s Mexican American World War II veterans

Hidden History

EMPORIA, Kan. (KSNT) — Emporia is a city with a rich history of honoring our nation’s veterans. In fact, it’s the founding city of veterans day. 

In the little neighborhood known as La Colonia, stands a memorial honoring a group of Mexican American veterans who fought for our country during World War II, but continued to face battles when they came home. 

The names of seventy-three Mexican American men and women are etched in the memorial right beside St. Catherine’s Church.

The memorial was spearheaded by Emporia native Jesse Solis who grew up in La Colonia. 

“We had a sign or a picture of our guys above the church of the door there that stated ‘God bless our soldiers’,” said Solis. “I thought, ‘I wonder if anybody ever did anything for these gentlemen.'”

Solis grew up in the same neighborhood as Jesse Garcia, one of the soldiers on the memorial

“Jesse Garcia and all his brothers that went to the service were well known, well-respected,” said Solis. “Good family.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Garcia enlisted in the military.

“Like any other young man at that time, he felt like he needed to do his part,” said Deputy Director of the Lyon County History Center Lisa Soller. “So, he joined.”

At just 25 years old, Garcia was killed in battle.

“He was a hero, simple as that,” said Solis. “He died for our freedom, our education, all our liberties.”

While Garcia was viewed as a hero by the people in his community, not everyone in his hometown of Emporia felt the same way.

Garcia and many other Mexican American soldiers still faced discrimination when they returned home.

In a 1947 interview with the Emporia Gazette, Garcia’s Dad Jose raised the question, how is it his son could be given a gun to fight for his country, but couldn’t be granted equal rights.

“He was really this symbol of everything that’s right and wrong in America,” said Soller. “Here’s this man who is serving in the military and fighting this war that is full of injustices, but yet in his hometown, he couldn’t get a cup of coffee because of the color of his skin.”

Emporia native and World War II veteran Ambrose Lopez faced similar experiences as Garcia. In an interview from 2006, Lopez explained, “We couldn’t go to the restaurants. Not even the beer joints.”

While their sacrifices weren’t always appreciated in the past, Solis and the rest of the Emporia community wanted to make sure they would never be forgotten.

“They volunteered,” said Solis. “The Chicanos in our neighborhood, when they turned 18, when the second world war came, there was no question. There was no if, and or but. They said ‘I’m going’.”

Jesse Garcia is also honored at the All Veterans Memorial along with Robert Ramirez. Ramirez was also killed in battle during World War II.

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