Friday, September 19, 2008

For my Uncle Espiridión, I remain American first

Long before Lou Dobbs became the famous Lou Dobbs, there was Espiridión Gutierrez.

The American of Hispanic descent lived in Topeka, KS, in an area along the river called The Bottoms.

Gutierrez fought for his country in World War II -- facing the ferocity of the troops of the Imperial Japanese Empire in the Pacific and the bigotry of his own comrades. Yet the Army infrantryman persevered. He survived, triumphed and returned home, only to face the same bigotry of his same countrymen and women.

Topeka remains a place of too much bigotry toward Americans of Hispanic descent.

I remember my uncle with a smile. When I visited as a boy, Espiridión Gutierrez was always hospitable, often laughing and always someone who put you at ease. He was an incredibly loving man, particularly to the friends of his five children.

But for his country, I could only imagine the furor in his face and actions in vanquishing any enemy. He never spoke of the war. Few Americans of Hispanic descent do so, without much prodding. If you were going to use a word besides his name to call or describe my uncle, it had better be "American" first.

Today(Sept. 20) is my uncle's anniversary of his passing from his beloved country to his reward in heaven. He is dearly missed. But those of us who love him know he is in heaven with other proud Americans and loved ones, most especially his wife, Pauline.

My uncle's passing reminded me of a recent response I received from a local Hispanic advocate. I had written that I saw Hispanic Heritage Month as wrong. The advocate noted that my position on HHM was the same as the infamous, anti-immigrant Lou Dobbs.
The advocate asked what made my position on HHM different from Dobbs.

Last night, I was speaking with my uncle's daughter Ana. I call her my "prima suprema" because she backs down from no one -- just like her Pop.

She spoke of a Cinco de Mayo celebration at her son's school decades ago in California. Ana was asked why she wasn't joining in the celebration.

Prima Suprema replied: "I'm an American. We celebrate the Fourth of July. I don't know if Cinco de Mayo is about Mexican independence from the French or Spanish."

There was not another Cinco de Mayo celebration again at the school during her son's attendance over the years. That's because Salvador was the only American of Hispanic descent in the whole school.

The point my cousin was trying to make was obvious. If you want to celebrate Hispanics, how about recruiting more than one such child in your student body.

It's the same with Hispanic Heritage Month. If you want to recognize such history and the people who made it, do it during all 12 months of the year. Anything less is insulting.

So for my uncle, and my father, and for my eight other uncles who fought in World War II, I will continue to emphasize that you were Americans first whose heroics defied a single month. And I will continue to write against HHM as I have for the past decade.

Rest in peace, Uncle Espiridión. You deserve it, from a grateful country and loved ones.

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