HUMBOLDT PARK — Growing up in Humboldt Park, Marcos Torres never saw Puerto Rican veterans represented in annual neighborhood pride parades or learned about his culture’s contributions to the United States military.
“How sad is it that we almost act like they are not part of the Latino community?” said Torres, whose uncle served in the Army, received a Purple Heart and was a victim of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. “We do a poor job of representing our veterans.”
Following in his uncle’s footsteps, the 35-year-old Puerto Rican veteran served as an honor guard and funeral soldier in the Army from 2009 to 2010, and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Fort Sill in Oklahoma and North Riverside Armory in the Chicago suburbs. During Torres’ time in the military, he saw few soldiers that looked and talked like him, he said.
In 2019, Torres sought to build a local community of Puerto Rican veterans who, like him, have long felt unwelcome or underrepresented by veteran communities, called American Legion Posts. Legion Posts were chartered by Congress in 1919 as service veteran organizations. They now have chapters all over the country and nearly 2 million members — but Torres found none locally were Latino-focused.
“I wanted something that represented the community we are from and to show youth that veterans looked like them, talked like them, ate the same food as them,” Torres said. “It’s important.”
After delays due to the pandemic, Torres officially launched his post earlier this year. It’s called Vazquez Post # 939 in honor of Puerto Rican soldier Jason Vazquez, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. Torres was one of Vazquez’s close friends and funeral soldiers.
Torres timed the launch party last week to match National Borinqueneers Day, a national holiday recognized by Congress in January to honor the Borinqueneers, Puerto Rican soldiers in the 65th Infantry Regiment who fought in both world wars and the Korean War. It was one of the first mostly Latino regiments fighting for the United States.
The regiment’s members endured years of unfair treatment and discrimination for expressing their Latino culture while fighting for the United States, and only recently have they been nationally recognized for their contributions. In 2016, the regiment’s soldiers were honored with a Congressional Gold Medal.
On April 13, friends, family and veterans from all over the city joined the launch party at the American Legion Tattler Post #973, 4355 N. Western Ave. in Ravenswood, to honor Vazquez and celebrate the post and the Borinqueneer holiday.
The Vazquez Post has about 40 members and five officers and plans to meet weekly at the Ravenswood space owned by the Tattler Post until Torres can secure his own space. Latino veterans who wish to join can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Thomas Rosata, one of the roughly 61,000 Borinqueneers who fought in the Korean War, was among those at the launch party.
“I want to honor the Borinqueneers because I am Puerto Rican and I served in the U.S. army and Jason was Puerto Rican,” Torres said. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants. Because of them, we are able to have a post named after a Latino from Logan Square. They did it.”
‘Jason Was The Best Of Us’
Jason Vazquez grew up in Logan Square and attended Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy and Charles Darwin Public School. His mother, Lisa Perez, described her son as a trendsetter who liked to make his own T-shirts. He liked playing basketball in the Brentano gym after school and was a mentor to friends and family.
Perez said Vazquez wanted to join the Army to serve his community and represent his Puerto Rican roots. He had planned to join the Police Department after returning home, but he was killed just three weeks after being deployed to Afghanistan. He was 25 years old.
“He always told me he was going to be a superstar,” Perez said while wearing her son’s Army shirt and a hat with his name on it. “He was going to make it famous. His name was going to be well-known.”
More than a decade after Vazquez’s death, his words are coming true with the post named after him. Perez said it’s an honor that will help keep his name alive and his spirit close.
With tears in his eyes, Jason Vazquez’s father, Anthony Jose Vazquez, said it was emotional to see the celebration honor his culture and his son’s life.
“My son had friends everywhere, and the post opening in his honor is going to get bigger and bigger,” said Anthony Vazquez. “It’s going to become something that we as Latinos have never had.”
Torres said he thinks about his friend often and felt a responsibility to honor him. He said Vazquez’s courage can be an inspiration to veterans and the broader Latino community.
“Jason was the best of us,” Torres said. “He had just gotten accepted to the Chicago Police Department. He was a strong pillar of the community.”
‘We Are G.I. Joe’
Torres hopes his group can boost representation, educate the non-veteran community about Puerto Rican culture, uphold the history of Latinos who went to battle and create a more inclusive veteran organization with resources, events and community partnerships for its members. He also wants to pump fresh blood and energy into the American Legion institution.
The support, companionship and healing veteran communities can provide are critical to people reentering society after serving or those suffering from PTSD, substance abuse and trauma, Torres said. He knows veterans who need help, evidenced by some who killed themselves during the pandemic.
Military suicides increased in the past year,, according to CBS News. Torres wants to lend support to local veterans who are struggling.
“A young guy, 45 years old, recently committed suicide,” he said. “It breaks my heart into a million pieces. People are hurting. I know my guys need” help.
Torres said he wants more Latino veterans to join his community to help him “change the face of the American Legion” and show that different kinds of soldiers exist — not just white men or white action figures seen at the store or in media.
People think Latinos “don’t fit the stereotypical description of a soldier,” he said. “We are G.I. Joe. There are many different G.I. Joes.”
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