While the Chicano Movement was gathering steam in the US different kind of Chicano movement was occurring in the military in Europe. Latino Clubs were born in the 1970’s in many major military installations in Europe mainly in Germany. These private clubs were formed by military members that shared common cultural interests and values. Out of these individual clubs a larger organization was created that served as an umbrella. The Federation of Latin American Clubs(FLAC). In a way, FLAC was the military equivalent of LULAC.
Latino military personnel were often like fish out of water, their culture and language did not match that of their Anglo cohorts. This was especially true for young enlistees from the barrio. In the fish pond, you had to sink or swim. Young enlistees could not look up and see role models. There were few Latino leaders, officer or enlisted. There was no haven for Latinos. When off-duty some would cluster together. There was a need for a place for Latinos to assemble without fear of harassment and just enjoy the company of other Latinos. Even in the 1970’s racism would rise and show its ugly face.
In the courtyard of officer housing in Heidelberg, where the president of the FLAC lived one evening a huge burning cross appeared. Of course, there were no witnesses.
Our Latino Club at Rhein Main was very much involved in bringing awareness of the Latino experience to the installation. During holidays when there was a carnival or some festive event we would set up a Taco Tent. For three days, we would sell tacos. We would sell a lot of tacos. Lots and Lots of tacos. People would buy not one taco but many tacos. At 50 cents, a taco on a three-day weekend we would sell $20,000 worth of tacos. The proceeds were used to help other families, for the children and reunions. Later a second club was formed and sold burritos. Burritos would not sell as well as tacos. It was fun watching these guys come in and feast on the salsa. There were two containers, one for HOT and one for VERY VERY HOT. We used more of the VVH. Guys could not stay away. With sweat pouring down their forehead they would bravely swear that the salsa was not hot at all. We formed a Tejano Conjunto also.
We rented space at the Zeppelinheim city hall and had our dances there. Somehow people from all over the Frankfurt area would find out about our dances and show up on Saturday night to dance to South Texas polkas. We would fill up the place. We brought a little bit of home to the Frankfurt area military community.
But it was the FLAC conferences that we looked forward to. Usually held in Heidelberg. It was at one of these conferences that I met Father Virgil Elizondo, founder of the Mexican American Institute of San Antonio. I even met Bishop Flores of San Antonio. There were college professors, a college president and several generals that came and gave speeches and passed on their knowledge. The lesson was to understand our cultural origin and be proud of it.
It was a college professor of New Mexico that provided the best lesson. If you come from the barrio and speak Spanish, this is who you are. But right now, you are in this environment, no longer the safe barrio that you are used to. The criteria for survival and advancement in his atmosphere is different.
The enduring lesson was simple. In Spanish, a watch is said to “Andar”. In English, it “runs”. To the Spanish speaking, time is not that critical. In English, it is critical. You can be late to a meeting in Spain without fear of repercussion. In the military, you will be chastised for holding up the meeting. The old saying goes “timeliness is next to godliness”. In the military, it is a religion.
The significance of the birth of the Latino Clubs is that while the Chicano Movement was going on a more peaceful movement was going on inside the military. We were part of the military bureaucracy that was in place. We were hardly noticeable to many. We were loyal soldiers never demanding much from the hierarchy. As we were noticed and the establishment saw that we were as qualified if not more qualified as our White cohorts we began to get promoted albeit in smaller numbers. We used to say that we had to be two or three times as good as our White cohorts to get promoted. Through FLAC we passed our culture and values on to our White cohorts concurrently learning what it took to be competitive in our WASP culture. It was a time for change in American society. It was a time for change in the military. I am proud to have been part of that change.