The events surrounding the arrival of Generalissimo Antonio López de Santa Anna in San Antonio in 1836 are widely known. Not so widely known was that one his descendants would arrive in San Antonio — also in uniform — 107 years later.
Hector Santa Anna learned to be an Army Air Force pilot at Brooks Field in San Antonio, less than 10 miles from where his ancestor laid siege to the Alamo. The generalissimo left San Antonio on his way to defeat at San Jacinto. His great-great nephew, a newly minted U.S. Army flier, left San Antonio to join the 486th Heavy Bombardment Group in England.
Hector Santa Anna would fly 35 combat missions at the controls of a B-17. He earned two Distinguished Service Medals, five Air Medals and a Commendation Medal — a noble contribution to the victory in Europe.
He was one of a very few Mexican-American pilots in World War II — that and his family tree isolated him even in the mass of humanity serving in the U.S. armed forces during World II.
“There weren’t many Latinos taking flight training as an aviation cadet. It wasn’t easy being the only one. They would single you out, you know? With a name like Santa Anna, you stood out. Some would accept you, and others would not,” he said in an interview in 2003.
Hector Santa Anna made the Air Force a career, retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1964. He later obtained a university degree, worked for the Federal Aviation Administration and served on President Nixon’s Committee on Aging and his Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People. Hector Santa Anna died in 2006.
The colonel’s story, like thousands of others, might have been lost had it not been for a project launched by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a newspaper reporter turned journalism professor. In 1999, she set out to interview as many Latino veterans of World War II as she and her students could. Students learned interviewing, writing and editing while working on the oral histories, and the rest of us got a glimpse of a history that had heretofore been minimized or ignored.
Finding veterans eager to tell their stories is easy enough. Finding the funding to meet the demand is nowhere near easy. The project runs on a shoestring — $37,000 total covers supplies, postage, software and computer needs, some part-time help, and occasional travel. “We get no money in direct assistance from UT,” Rivas-Rodriguez notes. To bridge the gap between demand and resources, Rivas-Rodriguez says she taps a network of friends and colleagues who do everything from interviewing veterans in other states to military fact-checking to designing and maintaining the website. The volunteer help is appreciated, but she needs full-time staff to supervise and put final and professional touches on the product.
In all, the project’s students have interviewed 970 veterans and civilians in the project’s 14 years. Rivas-Rodriguez ambitiously took on interviewing veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars as well. “The other thing is we have some new digital initiatives we’re trying to launch,” she said. For $25,000 Rivas-Rodriguez said she could do more, including short audio and video documentaries and even create a smartphone app so that family members can record stories from the website.
Rivas-Rodriguez spends a lot of time raising money the best way she can. The mission has not only led project participants into hundreds of homes and memories, but the credibility it has accrued makes it a voice for Latino veterans. Rivas-Rodriguez was among those drafted into a high-profile battle with the Public Broadcasting System. The Ken Burns documentary series “The War” originally did not even mention the participation of Hispanics.
Protests over that glaring omission forced PBS to hire Austin documentarian Hector Galán to fill the holes in the Burns series.
The passion to tell those stories that have for so long been ignored drives Rivas-Rodriguez, and that passion is fueled by notes from the families of vets like this one: “My father is still here Army Strong standing tall at 94 now.
I was wondering if there is a way to allow him to share his war stories with you. He is in good mental conditions and also remembers such great stories about growing up and also being in WWII.”
A little money and some cooperation from the good Lord will keep that 94-year-old vet’s story from being lost.