WWII veteran’s run-in with police led him to fight to change Houston institutions

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October 7, 2022

This story first appeared in the Texas Standard . An excerpt can be viewed below. To watch the full story, click here.

This story is part of a Hispanic Heritage Month collaboration with Voces Oral History Center based at UT-Austin’s Moody School of Communication.

In the 1940s, Latinos did not hold positions in Houston’s police and fire departments. 

A World War II veteran named Ernest Eguia, along with hundreds of other Mexican-Americans, helped change that.

Eguia was born on Nov. 7, 1919, in Lockhart. His parents brought him to Houston as a toddler. He dropped out of high school and later got his GED.

But first, like millions of men of his generation, Eguia was drafted into the Army during World War II. He served in the European theater as a forward observer for the artillery and stayed in Germany months after the war ended serving with occupational forces. Then, he came back home.

Just days after arriving in Houston, Eguia had a run-in with police. He was in a car with his friends when the police unit swerved in front of them. Eguia yelled at the police, they were pulled over, and he was taken to the station.

“The police officer that brought me in was telling him that I was one of the guys that was in the car and that I was one of the smart ones. The guy says ‘smart what?’ ‘He’s a smart Mexican.’ And I said, ‘well, I think I see that things haven’t changed since I left here four years ago,’” Eguia said.

Eguia was indeed “a smart Mexican.” Though he had left school early, he was not afraid speaking up about discrimination. Then, a friend persuaded him to join the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. There had been a headline-grabbing story about how a Mexican-American Medal of Honor recipient had been denied service in a nearby town. The man, Macario Garcia, was wearing his uniform and protested. When a fight broke out, Garcia was arrested. His case galvanized Mexican-Americans across the country.

Eguia recognized there was work to be done in his backyard.