CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — When Dr. Hector P. Garcia died 25 years ago this year, he left behind a legacy as a staunch defender of equal rights that very few could match.
Born in Llera, Mexico to school teachers, Garcia would live through discrimination in both school and in the military. Those experiences set the course for a lifetime of tenacious battles against discrimination.
“He never turned anyone away,” said his daughter Cecilia Garcia Akers, describing her father’s dedication to people most in need. “He opened doors for Hispanics to become medical doctors, attorneys, and he helped veterans get their GI benefits."
Vietnam War Veteran Joe Elizondo recalled the time Garcia visited him after his brother, David, died in Vietnam.
“He was sitting in my den waiting to see me,” said Elizondo. “We (he and Garcia) were both crying for my brother."
Garcia made it his mission to visit every family of fallen veterans.
Garcia perhaps was best known for defending the honor of fellow veteran US Army Private Felix Longoria, who lost his life at the end of World War II.
Longoria was denied a wake at a funeral home in his hometown of Three Rivers. Garcia wrote letters and sent telegrams that eventually led to Longoria’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. He was the first Mexican-American to be buried there.
That, Akers said, was the beginning of the Hispanic Civil Rights movement.
“It just opened the door for a lot of these funerals (for non-white veterans)," said Vietnam War Veteran and Garcia's close friend Ram Chavez. "They were refusing to take the minorities.”
Garcia was also a skilled surgeon in Corpus Christi (all of his siblings were physicians), whose thoughtful work throughout communities in South Texas did more to heal hearts and minds outside the operating room.
Education, and giving every child an equal opportunity to learn, was at the heart of his passion. In the 1970’s, he led a movement to help end what was considered segregation in Corpus Christi public schools.
“Every child had a chance to get a quality education,” said Akers.
When it came to voting rights, Garcia never missed an opportunity to try to get people involved in the governmental process.
“That man had sample ballots in his office and he would carry around voter registration forms in his pocket,” said Akers. “I think he did so much for so many people, we really don’t understand his impact today.”
Later in life, Garcia advised top leaders in Texas, even presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. He was named an alternate representative to the United Nations in 1967.
For his lifelong achievements as a civil-rights champion, Garcia was the first Mexican-American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984, from President Ronald Reagan.
Akers is holding onto that award. She wants to display it prominently at a yet to be built exhibit hall at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi University.
Akers and State Representative Todd Hunter tell KRIS 6 news, they are currently working on a funding plan for such a building. That plan is expected to be submitted during next year's legislative session.
More of a list of his accomplishments and awards can be found here.