History graduate student Valerie Martinez has read scores of books about WWII but only a few chapters about the subject of her dissertation — the conflict’s Hispanic servicewomen.
“There was a lot of great material available on the Hispanic men who served in World War II, but there were only chapters here and there that spoke to the servicewomen,” Martinez said. “They deserve to be honored in more than just a chapter.”
Martinez placed ads in local newspapers, traveled across the country and sent out over 400 letters to Latino veterans in the hopes of determining the whereabouts of the servicewomen. Although it took almost a year-and-a-half for her searches to yield any results, Martinez wasn’t discouraged. Martinez met with a number of Latino servicewomen, and eventually turned to UT journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez’s VOCES Oral History Project as a source for additional information. Rivas-Rodriguez’s project interviews Hispanic war veterans and records their stories to preserve the triumphs and struggles of the contributors.
“A lot of these people who had grown up in segregated communities are thrown in with the general population in World War II,” Rivas-Rodriguez said. “They were treated as Americans for the first time, not just as Mexican-Americans. It gave them the chance to compare themselves with other people and let them know their skin color had nothing to do with what they were capable of.”
Maria Sally Salazar, one of the women interviewed for the VOCES project, served as a Private First Class in the Women’s Army Corp. Her interview was a source inspiration for Martinez’s dissertation. In an interview for the VOCES project, Salazar recounted her experience arriving home after the war.
“To me, it was an experience I would not change for anything in the world because not just anyone can have that,” Salazar said. “My nightmares are with me, and my dreams are with me.”
Martinez was struck that many of the women, despite the difficulties associated with serving, said they would do it all over again.
“Just hearing their struggles and knowing that these women made these choices for themselves just fascinated me,” Martinez said. “Maria Sally Salazar used her sister’s birth certificate to join, and a lot of the women did things like that, too. The fact that these women were determined to do this out of the bounds of the law was amazing.”
Rodriguez and Martinez both said, for servicewomen such as Salazar, the fight did not end when they returned home. Though they served alongside other Americans, they struggled to assert their rights as American citizens.
“A lot of veterans came back home wanting first-class treatment,” Martinez said. “Even in uniform, many of them recounted being denied service. A lot of the Hispanic men were spearheading the fight for their rights, but it’s
important to recognize that the women, also as veterans, were a part of that struggle.”
Martinez said she found it crucial to convey the contributions of these women to the future generations of Latinas.
“These women have no idea how important they are,” Martinez said. “That was something I wanted to show them and to show the country. The biggest joys that I’ve had have come from letting these women and their families know the importance of what they did. They’re a part of history. These women will get a book written about them.”