I am the embodiment of my parents’ American dream. Just one generation removed from their lives in Mexico, I was taught to be proud of my culture and language, and be thankful for the opportunities I had as an American.
But as informed as I was about my heritage and new ability to “be whatever I wanted to be,” I still grew up mostly unaware of how other Hispanic Americans – especially from South Texas – had bridged the cultural divide and made contributions to the melting pot.
That changed when I learned about the exploits of Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez during a school field trip.
Alfredo Gonzalez survived a year-long deployment in Vietnam, and was back home when he got word that many of the men he served with during his first tour were killed in an ambush. He quickly volunteered for a second tour, and in May 1967,only three months after returning stateside, the Marine Corps agreed to send him to war for a second time.
Gonzalez would never return to Edinburg, Texas, again.
He was assigned to 1st Battalion 1st Marines, Alpha Co., when the “First of the First” was sent to reinforce other Marine units during the Battle of Hue. Gonzalez led his Marines through the besieged city with distinction. He was injured during the fight, but continued to take the fight to the enemy successfully using anti-tank weapons to destroy North Vietnamese rocket positions and repelling a massive attack.
On Feb. 4, 1968, Gonzalez died from the injuries he received in battle. His selfless actions and courage in Hue would later be recognized a year later when his mother was presented her son’s Medal of Honor.
More than 40 years after his death, Gonzalez is still remembered with honor and his selflessness remains a point of pride for the Hispanic American community in South Texas. Growing up in Edinburg, where there is a main road, a park and a school named after him, I learned about his sacrifice before I really knew what the Vietnam War was or what serving in the military meant.
To this day, I am as proud to be from Gonzalez’ hometown as I am of my own service in the Marine Corps.
Instilling that sense of pride is exactly why it’s so important to recognize the contributions of the Hispanic American community in this country. Hispanic Heritage Month provides our young people with positive examples of service and ingenuity from their community.
This is especially true when it comes to our history of military service, which goes back to the Revolutionary War. Our mark on the United States is complex, and servicemembers like David Farragut, Marcario Garcia, Roy Benavides, Silvestre Herrera, and every Hispanic American who continues to wear the uniform today proves that.
I recently found Sgt. Gonzalez’ name on panel 37E, line 21, of the Vietnam Memorial here in Washington, D.C. I pointed it out to my five-year-old son and explained his importance to us. He’s too young to fully understand the real sacrifice Gonzalez made, but my son does know it was extraordinary.