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A skilled and dedicated teacher in South Texas before and after the war, Sáenz’s patriotism, his keen observation of the discrimination he and his friends faced both at home and in the field, and his unwavering dedication to the cause of equality have for years made this book a valuable resource for scholars, though only ten copies are known to exist and it has never before been available in English. Equally clear in these pages are the astute reflections and fierce pride that spurred Sáenz and others to pursue the postwar organization of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
This English edition of one of only two known war diaries of a Mexican American in the Great War is translated with an introduction and annotation by noted Mexican American historian Emilio Zamora.
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The World War I Diary of José De La Luz Sáenz
By Emilio Zamora, Ben Maya
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2014 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
Reporting at New Braunfels
Monday, February 25, 1918
The famed notice, the call from the nation, read, "Report to your Local Board in New Braunfels. The government declares you a soldier of the Great National Armada beginning at 11 a.m. on February 25." I met my obligation that day by reporting to the local board. By nine in the morning, I was at the post office where the recruits were to present themselves. I was the first one to arrive and asked about the others and was told they had not yet reported but that they had to be somewhere in town. I had learned that a great send-off was planned within the hour at the courthouse and headed for the place. Most of the German residents had already gathered. This was an interesting twist of fate. German Americans predominate in the surrounding area, and they belong to the same race we were going to fight. I am fortunate to see a race sacrificing to fight their own people, and I am going to serve on their side.
I heard several effusive and patriotic orations that praised the loyalty of the town's residents, almost all American citizens of German origin. I saw a friendly face among the orators, E. L. Davis from the University of Texas. He was clearly surprised and pleased to see me in the military. We should expect justice from men like him in the future. I told him that my decision to join the military must have surprised him because he was long accustomed to seeing me in another arena, advancing the intellectual, social, and political standing of our people in the schools of Texas. We have always thought of each other as good citizens and agree that we only needed this opportunity to once again demonstrate our civic loyalty. A fortuitous moment now subjected us to the most difficult test a free and self-conscious citizen could face. Onward!
The exhortations and words of praise for the Germans ended, and I did not hear one word directed at our people. Our presence was so insignificant. I had been the only one to respond to the call. Another Mexican who was to have reported had been lured by the time-honored love for the fatherland that our elders instilled in us, and he left for Mexico. I hope everything goes well for him. Comal County contributed twenty-six men. The ceremony was not necessary to help us understand our obligations and how we were to behave on the way to San Antonio. Someone named Mittendorf was appointed the leader with the responsibility of presenting us at Camp Travis.
Our contingent included twenty-three Germans, two of English origin, and me, the only one of the American race. (I hope that no one objects to my use of the term raza. Everyone else can call us whatever they wish. Wells, for instance, calls us Amerindians. Thanks. It is enough for the reader to note where I have been, under what circumstances, and who I am.) It does not matter that I am not in my cultural element, although I can now see that everything will change and we will all be treated as soldiers. Everyone was courteous.
They took us to a liquor store before we ate and gave us all we wanted to drink, as well as cigarettes. I refused the generous offer. This seemed strange to my companions who I think saw me as timid and fearful. How strange! I was thinking about something very different at that moment. People who know me would not have considered my behavior odd because they know that I have never taken up drinking or smoking.
The following are some thoughts that were racing through my mind. Our situation was a stroke of destiny, bringing us together to face the same misfortune. I now see that many of these Germans—I could call them selfish, arrogant, and greedy because of the way they treat our people—are as anguished as I am. Despite our shared misfortune, I felt brave and strong and without the need to show it. I cannot forget how unpatriotic these people have been when they have mistreated us and used the idea of loyalty as the yardstick with which to judge us. Many of them would have been incapable of putting aside their prejudice and treating me as their racial equal, but they now march besides me as we meet the most exalted duty before man. Now they have to show me that they are more loyal and worthy than me.
I have already stated that the opinion many foreigners have of us is unfortunate and even misguided. I was waiting at a tavern for the lunch hour when an old German approached me and asked me in Spanish, "Why didn't you leave for Mexico?" I wanted to instantly flatten him since I knew full well his intentions were not good and that he did not know whom he was addressing. I answered, "I do not have a reason for going to Mexico." "Many Mexicans have crossed into Mexico," he retorted. I continued, "I find nothing special or strange that Mexicans should go to Mexico, their homeland. They could not be in a better place. But if by saying Mexicans you mean us, the citizens of this country who are of Mexican origin and live as such, I for one can assure you most sincerely that we do not all think that way. Men from other races have also fallen short. But I want you to know that, unlike them, many of us have wanted to be men enough to disregard for a while or possibly forever all the abuse we receive daily from miserable whites who, unfortunately, are citizens of the great American nation. Again, I do not believe that all of this is a good reason for me to disregard my responsibility as a man. The flag that calls us to defend the nation, the flag under which we have been born, became men, and raised our children—we hold it high over the contemptible reptiles, the bad citizens. Their affronts have wounded us deeply, but not to the point of blinding us and encouraging us to ignore why we should heed the nation's calling. If we return determined to join the struggle for justice, we will wage it as before and with the same courage that we will show the despots of Europe." I leveled all of this and probably more at the German who tried to put something over on me, and I spoke in English. I did not want to respond in Spanish. I did not care if he did not understand, but I wanted the many others who were listening to know what I had said. I do not remember my tone, but I did notice that he seemed disoriented. He did not speak again or, more precisely, I did not give him a chance to say anything. I am sure he regretted challenging me the way he did. I cannot say he was afraid because the Germans in New Braunfels do not fear Mexicans. The old German walked away embarrassed, slipping through the crowd. Just as well. I did not need advice, especially from a German. Why did he not counsel his own, who clearly needed guidance at that time? Onlookers with big ears began to gather. Nothing had happened, just a German making full use of his farm Spanish and a Tejano using the language of Shakespeare.
The government, that is, the people paid for our first meal. They will also pay for everything at the hotel on the corner to the west of the square. Its location explains why it is named Plaza Hotel. It is like many others around our big and rich state of Texas that hang their well-known sign at their entrances, "We don't serve Mexicans here." I had ceased being a Mexican, at least since eleven o'clock. An abundance of cordial behavior and a pleasant mood reigned over our meal. A person named Mr. Holstead gave us some containers with violets on behalf of his good wife. The liquor that my companions guzzled down is beginning to have its effect, and this was making for an increasingly lively scene. A young German named Werner suddenly approached me and said, "I speak a little Spanish, know Mexicans, and I call many of them my friends. I want us to start being good friends and to continue this during our military service." Since I take everyone as they come, I could not help but express my gratitude and reciprocate. I just cannot explain his strange behavior.
I sent my wife the following postcard after I ate.
New Braunfels, Texas February 25, 1918
My beloved wife:
I arrived safe and sound at New Braunfels and just finished my first meal on Uncle Sam's tab. We will leave for San Antonio at 3:50 p.m. I will write all of you as soon as I know my new address. May God take care of my family.
We participated in an important program at the small town square at two in the afternoon. A man who may have been the mayor spoke to us in a pleasant manner from the small gazebo. They photographed us and told us when we would leave for the railroad station. Prior to this, we had walked to a booth where the ladies of the American Red Cross of New Braunfels gave us some comforters, or campaign bags, filled with items that we would absolutely need in the military.
It is impossible to describe the sad and moving scene when we left. The moment was solemn when my companions had to say good-bye to their loved ones. I had already gone through that ordeal, I knew what it meant. Millions can probably testify to what I say. None of my family members or the few friends I had in New Braunfels were there. Only two Mexican gentlemen, one I did not recognize, approached me with the usual "Good-bye, good cheer, and have a good trip." I had to show some appreciation because I knew that underneath the curt language, they were sincere and meant well.
When we were ordered to "march," I fell into formation and received a bag from one of the ladies from the Red Cross. I thanked her with all my heart, and away I went. When we arrived at the station, Mr. Adams, the sheriff of Comal County, told me in Spanish, "Be happy and say something." I responded in English that he should stop being pretentious, but because I knew whom I was dealing with, I added, "I have no reason to talk, but I want to assure you that my silence does not mean I am sad." He responded, "Oh, you speak good English." I then told him, "You said it. I only wish to express myself in my country's language." Anyone who thought I was obstinate was making a mistake. I simply did not feel comfortable, and the people around me did not inspire confidence or encourage me to be friendly.
I was responsible in everything else I was doing. However, I could not suddenly erase what I know about the German people from Comal County, as encouraging as the change from civilian to military life might be.
The train arrived and we barely had time for a quick good-bye before New Braunfels began to recede into the horizon. So many hearts were torn with pain, like the many others in villages, towns, and cities throughout the country.
Nothing special happened during our short trip. We made it quickly, in one hour, and barely had time to reminisce. I sat next to a Mexican man already in uniform. He had volunteered and thought he would be assigned to the air force. He spoke of the great opportunity we have in the military. I do not place much weight on this, but hope he is right. The soldier was Jesús Jiménez. I gave him the cigarettes I received at the station. I had no use for them. He transferred to our train on its return trip to Houston.
The train stopped before we reached San Antonio. The passenger cars were disconnected. Another engine was waiting for us and took us down a second line that had been built to transport troops to the center of the camps. The camps, Fort Sam Houston and Travis, were a brand new sight for us. Two large national flags above the barracks floated majestically with the wind. The movement was indescribable in this human honeycomb. Thousands and thousands of men were working everywhere. Some of the soldiers lived in good wooden barracks—the ones at Fort Sam Houston were constructed with expensive brick. Others lived in campaign tents made of good, thick, and water-resistant canvas. We stayed at Camp Travis.
As soon as we arrived, a sergeant who had been waiting ordered us to form a double column and, while we were in formation, marched us toward some distant barracks where we would undergo our first physical examination. We were ordered to "halt" before entering a building, and a tall, thin, and young black-mustachioed officer received us. He had a serious look and, worse than that, showed an exaggerated sense of military self-importance. All that arrogance, in my opinion, was unnecessary. We were nothing but "rookies." Despite this, he did not surprise us. We just thought he was offensive. The officer was more ridiculous than arrogant, and probably had been a bad, pretentious person as a civilian. He believed he was more powerful now that he was a person of importance. The fellow explained why he was inspecting us. Since the inspection did not measure up to his expectations, he scolded us. He did it so cruelly and without reason it felt like he was pouring boiling water over us. This gave us a bad early impression of military life. Whoever survives the great adventure will have to report this. After the inspection, which was nothing more than a farce, we went to our barracks where they fed us and gave us everything to make our bed. We selected metal cots and looked for a place to make our beds. They soon called us into formation. We made our mattress by filling our white canvas sacks with straw, and then we ate for the first time at Camp Travis. The night left us full of strange emotions. If we survive the campaign that starts today, we will probably remember this evening as a joyful one, although we would be suffering indignities.
Five soldiers in our barracks are ill, two have measles, two have tonsillitis, and one has indigestion. The problem with the first two has placed us under the strictest quarantine and close guard. I cannot sleep. The soldiers make so much noise. Some have been playing cards, others entertain themselves with dice, while still others sing or squawk. The cigarette smoke is the worst problem. Everyone except me shares in this pleasure. It makes me dizzy and nauseous. It was a horrible first night.
Tuesday, February 26
The sergeant's whistle, like the kind the city police use, woke us up early. He came into the barracks to tell us that we were to fall into formation in fifteen minutes. We did as ordered. Two officers were present. They called out our names and told us we were to continue filling the same places in morning formations or else face serious penalties. They called us into formation after breakfast and ordered us to clean the headquarters area. Some picked up pieces of paper and cigarette butts. Others had to clean the kitchen, while still others had to place the latrine and the shower area in order. I was with the last group.
One of my first tasks was to figure out my address to receive mail. It is the following: 42nd Company, 11th Battalion, 165th Division Brigade. I barely had time to write this letter:
42 Co., 11 Bn., 165 D. B. Camp Travis, Texas February 26, 1918
My dear wife:
I hope that all of you are doing well. I am fine, thanks to God. We arrived at the camp yesterday and were quickly placed in quarantine because two soldiers had German measles. They placed two guards over us during the day and two during the night. We cannot leave the barracks. This is good because they will not be taking us out to do physical exercises for at least two weeks. I will be ready for the difficult and demanding tasks as I remain inside, only eating, bathing, and sleeping. We have nothing else to do but sweep and we even fight over the brooms because we get bored with being idle. I think I will like this life.
We get so excited with the many shiny rifles and the sound of the bugle, and this is not even taking into account the many balloons and the airplanes that flutter over us like vultures.
Tell me that all of you are doing well and I will be happy. You could come to San Antonio as soon as Aunt Barbarita is out of danger. Tell me everything that everyone has been doing. Mocha was well when I left her, poor thing. My Sam was happy waiting for me to take him to the ranch. I will take him when I return. Hellos for everyone.
We cannot go anywhere or see much of anything since we are locked up. We entertain ourselves by hurling insults at the poor rookies who are arriving and passing by our barracks.
Wednesday, February 27
About an hour after breakfast, we received orders to clean the barracks, make our beds, clean the dining area, and the bathroom.
A German from New Braunfels works with the cooks. He is a good fellow, a new man. His name is Antón Venhauer. We arrived together.
Last night, some buddies from the northern part of Texas arrived at our barracks. One of them is always very sad. He seems ill since he does not speak with anyone, and he is always pensive. He looks frightened or seems to be afflicted by something related to fright.
We entertain ourselves with so many of the new recruits. Once off the train, they form two columns like we did once. They are in disarray and very badly dressed, just like when we arrived. We have come to call this kind of recruit a "rookie."
Some of them arrive with different types of colored caps, others with broad-brimmed "cowboy" hats or small head coverings associated with urban life, while still others wear "panamas." The poor laborers wear their little head coverings. Many of them carry the bags the ladies from the Red Cross gave them when they left their towns. The different streamers the men wear to signify their counties of origin are especially colorful, and in many cases very funny. The ribbons with the names of the local board and county come in all shapes and colors. Often, they simply carry cards or labels of all types, common and ordinary, like the ones that appear on railroad shipping bags for corn, beans, or potatoes. We really respect the insignias that identify us as government property. Some of us believe we should pin them on the lapels of our civilian coats.
Excerpted from The World War I Diary of José De La Luz Sáenz by Emilio Zamora, Ben Maya. Copyright © 2014 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
"For Democracy, Humanity, and Justice",
Introduction, by Emilio Zamora,
The 360th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division,
Mexican Americans in the Great War, by J. Luz Sáenz,
My Personal Diary,
Reporting at New Braunfels,
The Brigade Station,
How Carrejo and Four Others Died,
A Horrible Night in "No Man's Land",
Toul, Choloy, and Rampondt,
Moving across the Rubble of the Battlefield to Reach the Enemy and Occupy the Line of,
Fire: Montfaucon and Dead Man's Hill,
Five Days and Nights in a Foxhole in Romagne,
How We Destroyed Hindenburg's Impregnable Trenches,
Simón González and Others,
Hipólito Jasso Receives a Shrapnel Wound,
Dark Night, Cold Night, Horrible Night in Villers-devant-Dun,
Memorable March from Pont-Sassy, France,
Memories of the European War, Our Last Campaign, Five Days and Nights,
Thanksgiving and Then to Germany,
In Zeltingen, Alemania, by the Moselle,
Mexican Americans Attend School,
The Texans and Oklahomans: An Occasion for Drawing on a Postcard,
Prodding That Produces Favorable Results,
Article of War No. 105 and 2,175 Bottles of Champagne,
A Portrait of Zeltingen,
On the Last Cattle Train and Cars 40 and 8,
The Mongolia, American Steamship,
How Boston Receives Us,
Demobilizing the 90th Division,
Epilogue: The Voice of a Claim That Demands Justice,
To the Memory of the Mexican American Heroes Who Died in the Great World War,
Defending the Democratic Principles of the American Union,
List of Honor,