José de la Luz Sáenz, teacher, civil rights activist, a co-founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and author of the only extant war diary published by a World War I doughboy of Mexican origin, was born on May 17, 1888, in the South Texas rural community of Realitos. His widowed grandmother brought the family to Texas from the border community of Mier, Tamaulipas, in the 1870s. Sáenz’s father, Rosalío, did ranch work and shepherding in the Hebbronville area while his mother, Cristina Hernández, cared for their six children and tended to other responsibilities in the home until her passing on June 28, 1896. The eldest daughter, Marcelina, took care of the family until Rosalío married Petra Ramos in 1900. Soon thereafter, Rosalío and Petra moved to the nearby town of Alice to provide the children better schooling opportunities.
Sáenz attended separate Mexican community schools that taught Spanish and Mexican culture and history. He also attended public high school and graduated from Alice High School in 1905. Soon after graduation, he joined his father at a railroad work site known as Oso, where the workers’ families asked him to teach their children during the day and the adults in the evenings. This was the beginning of a teaching career of approximately forty-five years. Sáenz subsequently attended a business school in San Antonio and, while teaching in segregated Mexican schools in the area, also participated in teacher workshops in the city which enabled him to obtain a teaching certificate. He taught in numerous places, beginning in the area around San Antonio and ending in the Rio Grande City and McAllen region. During his career he also served as principal of schools in La Joya, Benavides, Oilton, and McAllen. According to family lore, Sáenz rarely stayed long in one place because he often antagonized local school authorities and other influential persons with his open critiques against the segregation of Mexican children. He joined the Mexican Protective Association during the 1910s and served as its president in Moore, Texas. Sáenz married María C. Múzquiz in 1915. When she died within a year, Sáenz married María Petra Esparza, a descendant of Gregorio Esparza of Texas Revolution fame. Esparza had also been left a widow when her husband, Sáenz’s brother, had died. They had nine children.
Although Sáenz may have been able to obtain a deferment from military service because of his teaching occupation and his young family, he volunteered in the United States Army and served with the 360th Infantry Regiment of the Ninetieth Division in the American Expeditionary Forces of World War I fame. He joined the military in February 1918 while teaching at an all-Mexican school in Dittlinger, a company town for the Dittlinger Lime Company located near New Braunfels. Sáenz served as a private in the Intelligence Section, which allowed him the opportunity to use his translation skills in English, Spanish, and French to handle the many documents that flowed through headquarters. His headquarters assignment also gave him the opportunity to identify and contact the numerous Mexican soldiers serving in the two divisions that originated in Texas, the Ninetieth and Thirty-sixth. Though Sáenz demonstrated very competent administrative skills, he was twice denied entry into officer training school with no explanation and remained a private throughout his military service.
Sáenz recorded his war front observations in a diary that he published in 1933 as Los Mexico-Americanos en La Gran Guerra y Su Contingente en Pro de la Democracia, la Humanidad y La Justicia: Mi Diario Particular. The diary is composed of daily entries between February 1918 and June 1919 that correspond to the author’s enlistment, service in France, and discharge in San Antonio. Not unlike other wartime accounts, Sáenz’s diary chronicles the arduous experiences of the Mexican soldiers, both Mexican Nationals and U.S.-born Mexicans. Although Sáenz is especially interested in recording the experiences, thoughts, fears, and desires of the Mexican soldiers, he mostly intends to account for their “ultimate sacrifice” so that future generations would be better able to call for equal rights at home.
While recounting observations and conversations with fellow Mexican soldiers to underscore their selfless military contributions, Saénz also analogizes the war in Europe with the Mexican fight for equal rights at home by pointing to their shared principles of American justice and democracy. He further justifies the home front cause for equal rights by claiming that Mexican civil rights leaders represented the egalitarian principles embodied in the U. S. Constitution, while the segregationists in Texas and abroad threatened its very foundation. Largely because of Saenz’s influence, LULAC gave special attention to the contributions of the Mexican soldier alongside a broadly defined civil rights program of action. Saénz was one of the most prominent veterans in the LULAC-led cause, which began with its founding in 1929.
After his discharge in 1919, Sáenz led an effort to build a monument in San Antonio to commemorate the contributions of Mexican American servicemen. He secured some donations, official support, and even a design for the structure. The plans were scrapped, however, when the fund for the monument was diverted to support the famous LULAC-backed desegregation fight against the Del Rio Independent School District which became known as the Salvatierra case of 1930. This first legal challenge by Mexican Americans against school segregation in the United States thus stands as a symbolic tribute to contributions of the Mexican American veterans of World War I.
Saénz played an important role in the formation of LULAC after his discharge from military duty. In 1924 he worked with community leaders such as Alonso Perales from San Antonio and José Tomás Canales from Brownsville to promote the idea of a statewide civil rights organization that could effectively address discrimination and inequality. He joined Perales in a speaking tour in the Rio Grande Valley with this in mind. Sáenz served as the secretary of the subsequent failed convention held in Harlingen in 1927. Two years later, he delivered one of the key addresses during the successful Corpus Christi convention that united various organizations under the LULAC banner. According to family members, Sáenz wrote the first LULAC constitution and served on the organization’s board of trustees between 1930 and 1932. Sáenz was also elected president of the McAllen chapter in the 1930s and throughout his lifetime promoted and expanded the views of LULAC with numerous articles in English and Spanish-language newspapers.
Sáenz penned numerous newspaper articles, especially for La Prensa (San Antonio), El Latino-Americano (Alice), La Verdad (Corpus Christi) and La Voz (Corpus Christi), the McAllen Evening Monitor, and Texas Outlook (Austin). According to family members, Sáenz was always on his typewriter commenting on the difficulties that Mexicans faced in highly segregated Texas settings.
Sáenz served as a shelter warden during World War II. He also organized chapters of the Spanish-Speaking Parent Teacher Association throughout South Texas. Around 1948, after retiring from teaching, he completed his B.A. studies at Sul Ross State Teachers College (now Sul Ross State University). Sáenz was also a member of the American G. I. Forum, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Texas Council on Human Relations, and the American Council of Spanish Speaking People. In 1947 an elementary school in Alice, Texas, was named after Sáenz in recognition of his work as a teacher as well as a writer, orator, LULAC founder, and civil rights activist. Sáenz died in Corpus Christi on April 12, 1953. He is buried in the National Cemetery at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.