SOUTH CHICAGO — Twelve soldiers who belonged to Our Lady of Guadalupe in South Chicago, the city’s first Mexican American Catholic church, died during the Vietnam War — a death toll believed to be higher than any other parish in the United States.
Some of the Southeast Side soldiers — including Peter Rodriguez, Dennis Rodriguez and Alfred Urdiales Jr. — were still in their teens when they were killed.
The fallen soldiers’ and their fellow service members’ experiences, as well as the community’s efforts to honor their sacrifices, will be covered in the WTTW documentary “Our Soldiers, Our Lady of Guadalupe.” The film airs 8 p.m. April 29 on WTTW.
“I hadn’t talked about [the war] in years,” Vietnam veteran Angel Rosario said at a behind-the-scenes panel discussion Wednesday. “… After 50 years, I thought if [the documentary] is giving me the opportunity, I decided, ‘OK, it’s about time.'”
Our Lady of Guadalupe traces its origins to a wooden structure “where the Mexicans went to worship because we couldn’t go to any other church,” said Marty Castro, president and CEO of social service agency Casa Central.
As Our Lady of Guadalupe grew, social life for many Mexican Americans in South Chicago began to center around the church. It offered services in Spanish, hosted carnivals and rented event space for wedding receptions and other life milestones, documentary producer Edgar Vargas said.
Vargas has attended Mass at the church since his youth and studied at Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Decades-old photos and 8-millimeter film footage of parish life, taken by Vargas’ father, are featured in the documentary.
As young parishioners were drafted or enlisted, the trauma of the war hit Our Lady of Guadalupe — and South Chicago as a whole — especially hard, given the deep bonds between neighbors, panelists said.
“You grew up with not just your siblings, but you grew up with the cousins, and everybody knew each other,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of Voces Oral History Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which maintains a collection of interviews with Latinos affected by the Vietnam War.
Rosario, who enlisted in the military assuming he would be drafted anyways, said he felt an obligation to go to Vietnam after his loved ones had served in World War II and the Korean War.
“When it came time for Vietnam, initially we didn’t have a clue as to what Vietnam was,” Rosario said. “But I knew my uncles served, and I knew I had to serve.”
The tight community and family ties in South Chicago also shaped neighbors’ responses to soldiers returning from war.
Though Americans’ anti-war sentiment grew as the conflict dragged on, many of South Chicago’s Mexican Americans “were proud of our men who were serving and dying for our country,” Castro said.
The most visible reflection of that pride is at 91st Street and Brandon Avenue, where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Mural was dedicated on land donated by Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The memorial was completed before the war ended and 12 years before Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was completed in 1982, executive producer Dan Protess said.
Young veterans who survived and returned from Vietnam, including Rosario and artist Roman Villarreal, showcased just how much potential was lost in the community due to the Vietnam War, Castro said.
“Roman is a fabulous artist, a sculptor and painter, and so he was able to come back and give back to the community,” Castro said. “Think about the 12 men who didn’t make it back to our community — what more could they have done?”
For many of those who survived and returned to South Chicago as veterans, Our Lady of Guadalupe served as a spiritual support — even for non-traditional believers like Rosario.
“I had a deal with God the rest of my life,” Rosario said. “I can hear a person talk, I can hear a priest talk — it doesn’t mean anything to me. What mattered was that God and I have an understanding, and he really helped me at a really bad time.”
Though Rosario became visibly emotional several times during the panel discussion, he said he’s glad to have contributed to the documentary and shared his experiences alongside his fellow veterans after so many years of silence.
“I did it for my family,” Rosario said when asked why he chose to participate.
“Our Soldiers, Our Lady of Guadalupe” is the fifth of six episodes in the documentary series “Chicago Stories,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Friday with an episode about Jane Byrne, the first woman elected mayor of Chicago.
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