Our family attended the NASCAR Coke Zero 400 race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, July 2nd. I grew up in Brazil where Formula I has a strong following with iconic Brazilian racers such as Fittipaldi and Senna. When I was a child, NASCAR to me represented the race cars of the United States and the epitome of what it meant to be American. I arrived to this country as a teenager, and never became interested in car racing. Yet I can recognize talent, effort, risk and hard work in any sport. It was fun to walk around the garages and pit, see the crews and their equipment, and take in the excitement in the air. It was a symbolic weekend, American flags where flying high, and we were at the center of it all.
What was interesting to me, however, is that we were there to honor the 65th Infantry Regiment of the US Army who fought in World Wars I and II, Korea and later Vietnam. This regiment, called the Borinqueneers, was segregated much like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers and the Nisei Soldiers. Composed mostly of Puerto Rican men, the Borinqueneers was the largest, longest-standing, and only active-duty segregated Latino military unit in U.S. history. The Regiment in fact was the last segregated unit in combat, and their accomplishments paved the way for the full integration of the U.S. Armed Forces.
From the website:
The Regiment faced unique challenges due to discrimination and prejudice, including the humiliation of being ordered to shave their moustaches “until such a time as they gave proof of their manhood”; being forced to use separate showering facilities from their non-Hispanic “Continental” officers; being ordered not to speak Spanish under penalty of court-martial; flawed personnel-rotation policies based on ethnic and organizational prejudices; and a catastrophic shortage of trained noncommissioned officers.
The Borinqueneers also were forced to wear “I am a coward” signs, ordered to paint over their unit designation “Borinqueneers” on their military vehicles, and ordered to discontinue their rations of rice and beans, termed “creole rations” at the time.
We got to meet four of these men – all Korean War combat veterans – in person and the thought that kept coming to me was: why would they risk their lives for a country that demeaned them?
We chatted, heard stories, and accompanied them during the afternoon. Dreamer took a particular liking to José Colon, who at 97 years young is strong, lucid and loveable. He told Dreamer the following story:
When I finally had a break from the trenches, First Lieutenant Cavazos (who went on to become the Army’s first Hispanic four-star general) told me he didn’t want to leave anyone behind. He made me go back out there and bring back the bodies of the Borinqueneers who had died in battle. I am still not sure how I lived through that.”
Then, another soldier said: “We weren’t any braver than anyone else. Everyone is scared at the front line.” He then continued:
…we had orders to capture and secure a small village in Korea. The locals kept telling us – ‘Puerto Ricans, go home, this is not your war.’ But we are Americans, we serve our nation.”
Talking to these men, you could sense their enormous love of country. To have faced such discrimination, to be made felt as an outsider, but still fight with courage and valor is an extraordinary thing. I’m not sure how willing I would be to risk my life for a country which seemed to believe I was inferior because I am Hispanic. But this wasn’t a question for these men.
In fact, on April 13th the Borinqueneers received a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honor the United States Congress can bestow, for its extraordinary service to the nation in the Korean War. In that conflict alone, the Regiment earned nine Distinguished Service Crosses, approximately 250 Silver Stars, over 600 Bronze Stars, and more than 2,700 Purple Hearts.
José told Dreamer how the medal weighed 9 ounces of gold and it was now at the Smithsonian Museum, but he gave my son a replica made of nine ounces of copper. He told Dreamer how he stood next to President Obama when being honored, and Dreamer asked him why he fought for people who seemed to not like him.
And José’s answer is one I hope Dreamer will never forget. He said something along the lines of:
I wanted to make a difference and show the people that treated me poorly that I deserve better. That I was just as strong, brave, and useful as anyone else. I wanted to teach them to respect us.”
And here he was, with three of his Borinqueneer peers, being honored by thousands of Americans before a NASCAR race on our Independence Day weekend. I am pretty sure José knows his bravery and his efforts were worth it; that generations after him have benefitted from his service. Yes, our country has a long way to go in terms of racism, but there are things that can unite us. And the example these men set of country first is one this family won’t be forgetting.