Hector Pérez García, a physician, surgeon, civil rights advocate, community leader, political activist, and founder of the American G.I. Forum, was born in Llera (south of Ciudad Victoria), Tamaulipas, Mexico, on January 17, 1914, son of college professor José García and Faustina Pérez García, a schoolteacher. In 1917 when the Mexican Revolution endangered the family, the García parents, together with seven children, fled to the United States, legally taking up residence in Mercedes, Texas, in 1918. Initially the family members had to perform manual labor to sustain themselves, later Hector's father joined his brothers in the dry goods business. The accomplished parents were to instill in all of their children the value of education, so much so that Hector and five of his siblings would go on to obtain degrees in medicine.
In 1929 at age fifteen, García joined the Citizens Military Training Corps (CMTC), a predecessor to high school R.O.T.C. This same year he earned a commission equivalent to a second lieutenant in the United States Army infantry. In 1932 Hector was valedictorian of his segregated Mercedes high school graduating class. He began attending Edinburg Junior College for which his father cashed in his own life insurance policy in order to raise funds to cover tuition and other costs. Transferring to Austin, García went on to graduate with honors in 1936 from the University of Texas, earning a B.A. degree with a zoology major. With a quota system in effect for Mexican Americans, García was the sole Latin admitted to and then to be graduated with the 1940 class of the University of Texas Medical School (Galveston). He then took his two-year residency training at St. Joseph's Hospital at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska.
With World War II in progress and his residency training completed, Dr. García volunteered for Army duty in 1942. He served as an infantry officer, a combat engineer officer, and finally as a Medical Corps officer and surgeon. Discharged as a major in 1945, he had been awarded a Bronze Star with six battle stars for service in North Africa and Italy. In Italy, on June 23, 1945, he married Wanda Fusillo of Naples, who was a recent Ph.D. recipient. They had a daughter the following year.
In 1946 García came to South Texas, where in Corpus Christi, he opened a private practice with his bother José Antonio. His wife and young daughter, who had stayed behind in Italy, soon arrived in Corpus Christi, and the family reunited. García soon was also involved in Tejano politics and with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), being elected its chapter president in 1947. His work in LULAC exposed García to the legalized inequities, such as school segregation, that Hispanics were experiencing. After volunteering to help Mexican American veterans file claims with the Veterans Administration, García found himself more and more drawn to address concerns of Mexican American veterans in pursuit of their rights. In a Corpus Christi elementary school classroom on March 26, 1948, he and others met, and from this meeting the American G.I. Forum, which was soon to have chapters in forty cities, evolved as an organizational force. Within a year, an unfortunate discriminatory incident garnered national attention for Dr. García and the G.I. Forum. The body of Felix Longoria of Three Rivers, Texas, who had been a private killed by a Japanese sniper in the Philippines in 1945, was being returned to the United States. The funeral director of his hometown refused the use of the funeral home's chapel to Longoria's family (see FELIX LONGORIA AFFAIR). In a January 1949 communication to Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, García appealed for redress of this situation. Johnson offered the Longoria family a burial with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. The resulting publicity brought an expansion of the G.I. Forum into New Mexico and Colorado. The Forum went on to expand its activities into the areas of education, farm labor, jury selection, desegregation of schools, hospitals, and public swimming pools, poll tax reform, and more. One key decision dealing with jury selection was rendered by United States Supreme Court in the case of Hernández v. State of Texas.
When, in 1960, García became the national coordinator of the Viva Kennedy-Viva Johnson clubs organized to elect John F. Kennedy as president, he commenced a long association with the Democratic Party. Kennedy upon election did not pursue any Hispanic agenda but in 1962 did appoint García as representative of the United States to effect a mutual defense treaty with the Federation of the West Indies. In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed García as alternate ambassador to the United Nations with a directive to better relations with Latin American nations and Spain. The following year the president also appointed him to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
When in 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber wrote her very popular book Giant upon which the motion picture was later based, she used an interview with Dr. García as a basis for the Mexican American doctor in the novel and two striking scenes in the film. Throughout his long distinguished career García received numerous recognitions, awards, and accolades. One singular high point was on March 26, 1984, when he received from President Ronald Reagan the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was the first Mexican American to receive the honor. The Dr. Hector Peréz García Endowed Chair was created at Yale University in 1985. In November 1985, a Corpus Christi city park was named after him, and in September 1988 the main post office was renamed in his honor. The National Hispanic Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., awarded García the Hispanic Heritage Award in 1989, and in 1990 Pope John Paul II bestowed upon García the Order of St. Gregory the Great. In June 1996 a nine-foot statue of him was dedicated at the Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi campus.
On a personal level Dr. García, with his vast experience, knowledge, and skill that he used in the pursuit of social justice, could impress some as "undemocratic." An associate portrayed his personality as "generosity mixed with impatience." His compassion for others, as illustrated by his often free medical services, his many appearances at the funerals of Vietnam veterans, and efforts to improve colonia conditions in South Texas, overshadowed his faults. Dr. García's last years were physically painful. He underwent successful open-heart surgery only to later develop stomach cancer. He died at the age eighty-two on July 26, 1996, of pneumonia complications and congestive heart failure. He was survived by his wife and three daughters, Wanda, Cecilia, and Susana. His son, Hector Jr., had died in an accident at age thirteen.
García's legacy lives on in many institutional areas not the least being more than 500 chapters of the American G. I. Forum with 160,000 members in 24 states by 2006. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston maintains a comprehensive biography online titled "Hector P. Garcia, A Texas Legend."
He was awarded several posthumous honors. In 1999 García's image was placed on the United States Treasury $75 I Bond Series honoring great Americans. In 2002 public television station KEDT in Corpus Christi produced a documentary titled Justice for My People: The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story. The program was broadcast nationally on PBS. Under Senate Bill 495, signed on May 30, 2009, by Gov. Rick Perry, the State of Texas established the third Wednesday of each September as "Dr. Hector P. García Day." The public library in García’s hometown of Mercedes, Texas, was renamed the Dr. Hector P. García Memorial Library on March 4, 2010. In April 2010 the United States House of Representatives passed H.CON.RES.222, “recognizing the leadership and historical contributions of Dr. Hector Garcia to the Hispanic community and his remarkable efforts to combat racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States of America.”