November 7, 2010

Independent Lens presents: The Longoria Affair

You could be fooled into thinking Latinos have only had voting rights in the U.S. for the last decade or so, what with the ongoing hand wringing and analysis by political pundits over which party controls "the Latino vote" (as if their respective cultures haven't already been overgeneralized enough). As it turns out, Latinos and in particular Mexican-Americans have played a vital role in American politics for more than half a century, and, as I was surprised to find out from The Longoria Affair, John F. Kennedy won the popular vote in the 1960 U.S. Presidential Election thanks in large part to Latino voters - years before the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were even signed into law by Kennedy's VP and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

While this documentary takes its name from U.S. Army Pvt. Felix Longoria, his life (and early combat death) serves as less of a focal point and more of a jumping-off point to explore a hidden era in Latino-American history. After Longoria was killed in action during World War II, the local funeral director in his hometown of Three Rivers, TX, refused to honor the fallen veteran because of his Mexican heritage. Longoria's wife reached out to Dr. Hector Garcia, a prominent physician and Mexican-American activist (and early influence of Al Sharpton?) who "used" this act of discrimination against Longoria as the catalyst for launching a nationwide Latino movement. One of his allies in Texas happened to be then-U.S. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, and together the two men marched toward history, first making Longoria the first Mexican-American buried in Arlington National Cemetery, then swinging "the Latino vote" almost exclusively to Kennedy in 1960, and, after Johnson assumed the presidency, ultimately laying the groundwork for the American civil rights movement.

The Longoria Affair is a remarkable story about American politics (particularly timely during this election season) that also deftly illustrates the respective character of Johnson and Garcia, two very ambitious, very idealistic, and very stubborn men. Felix Longoria, for his part, may never know that his heroism on behalf of the United States didn't end in his death on a battlefield. On the contrary, that's only where it started.

The Longoria Affair premieres on PBS on Tuesday, November 9, and streams online for free through November 16 (check local listings)

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