50 Years Later, Mexican American Vietnam War Vets Recall Protests That Conflict InspiredHistorians in the News
tags: Vietnam War, Mexican American history, Chicano Moratorium
As helicopters and C-130s flew over a mountaintop bunker in Vietnam, an Army soldier flipped through a copy of Time magazine and asked Tomas Sandoval two questions.
Are you from Los Angeles? How about Mexican? Sandoval said yes to both.
"Look what your boys are doing to your city," the soldier said, tossing Sandoval the magazine, turned to an article with the headline: "Chicano Riot."
The story detailed how thousands of demonstrators marched through East Los Angeles for the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. What was intended to be a quiet rally, the article stated, "ended in violence and tragedy."
To 21-year-old Sandoval, it felt "like my people didn't give a damn about me."
It was the summer of 1970, and as Sandoval fought in a war he'd been drafted into, activists back home protested a system that sent so many Mexican Americans like him to fight in Vietnam.
Latinos in the U.S. had proved their patriotism for generations by fighting in this country's major conflicts going all the way back to the Civil War. Veterans returned to join the middle class, to fight for civil rights and a better future for their children.
But with the Vietnam War, a new sentiment swept across barrios nationwide: skepticism.
"You had young activists recognizing that this was an unjust war, and recognizing it was taking an unjust toll on people of color in the United States," said Lorena Oropeza, a history professor at UC Davis who wrote a book about Chicano protest to the Vietnam War. "What they really did was flip this military tradition of saying, 'We served, treat us right, treat us as equals' and said, 'Why do we have to die to be treated as equals?'"
But back in Vietnam, the young soldier from L.A's Eastside wrote an angry letter to his wife that read, in part, "What's come over everyone. They're all trying to prove something. But what?"
Today, Sandoval knows the Moratorium, and the Chicano movement as a whole, was necessary to bring attention to inequalities. Half a century later, there's something familiar in the renewed mass of humanity turning out to protest, in the signs demanding justice and peace; in the anger and maybe, too, the hope.
"We're 50 years beyond that ... march," Sandoval said. "I still think more needs to be done."