Driving along a tree-lined street in Three Rivers, Texas, Richard Hudson nods at the camera in his passenger sea. “Of course,” he says, “The town’s not the same today as it was when I was a kid growing up here. It’s still a pretty quiet little town.” Today, that town includes well-worn flags waving (U.S. and Texas), one-floor ranch houses with lawns, and empty-looking storefronts, pick up trucks and a Rialto theater with handset letters on the marquee. It does look quiet.
And yet, as Hudson continues, the town is the site of a locally notorious incident that gives John J. Valadez’s film its title, The Longoria Affair. In 1949, it exposed another side of Three Rivers, one apparently built into the town’s original design—as a place with a separate Hispanic community and Anglo community, with road signs in English and Spanish. While Hudson—who is white—insists, “People were not forced to live in certain areas, they could live anywhere they wanted to,” Sara Posas remembers it differently: “The Anglos claimed that everything was lovey-dovey,” she says, “but they had signs that said ‘No Mexicans.’”
Posas is Felix Longoria’s sister-in-law. And, as she goes on to remember, he was an Army private during World War II. Killed during 1945’s battle of Luzon in the Philippines in 1945, Longoria’s remains were not sent home until 1949. At this point, his wife Beatrice approached Three Rivers’ funeral director, Tom Kennedy, in order to plan the services. Kennedy, a newcomer in town who was “trying to fit in,” told her he would see to the burial but… “We can’t let you use the chapel. The whites wouldn’t like it.”
As narrator Tony Plana puts it, “Tom Kennedy would come to regret those words.”
Susan Zamzow, Kennedy’s daughter, offers one view of what happened. As she leads the film crew through the funeral home, flashlight in hand, she laments that now the place is used only for storage, narrating her happy childhood memories. Passing through the rooms where the embalming was done and where coffins were kept, she says, “We ate out a lot because you couldn’t have the smells from the kitchen going into the chapel.” This idyll was ruined, however, once her father turned away Mrs. Longoria, who in her upset and frustration, turned to a Texas activist, Dr. Hector Garcia.
Much like Kennedy’s, Garcia’s story is framed by his daughter, Wanda Garcia, who also leads the film crew through her father’s old office, in Corpus Christi, holding a flashlight. “I have these flashes of the way it used to be,” she says, passing through a large room with charts and old medical equipment. “The people who came in were very, very poor.” Her father treated denizens of the local barrios, who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere, and often provided services for free. People lined up, she remembers. “Seeing my father’s office in this condition makes me really, really sad.”
As both daughters dig through their pasts, they begin to reveal the broader story, a clash between Kennedy and Anglo Three Rivers on one side, and on the other, the town’s Hispanic community and Garcia, himself an Army Veteran Medical Doctor and founder, in 1948, of the American GI Forum, still the largest federally chartered Hispanic Veterans organization in the U.S. Both sides felt hurt: Garcia represented Mrs. Longoria and her family, who felt wronged, and Kennedy and his white neighbors didn’t consider themselves “racists,” as they were soon accused (as Zamzow puts it, “You know, I’m sure things weren’t done politically correct, but that was politically correct for the time”).
The story became more complicated when Garcia enlisted the help of then Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson. Immediately sympathetic to the cause, Johnson felt constrained by notorious political realities, namely, he couldn’t be public about his support for the Hispanic community when he needed to retain the support of his prejudiced white constituency. He arranged for the private to be buried at Arlington, and he and Lady Bird attended the service. However, the film points out, Johnson and his wife avoided cameras on that day.
The Longoria Affair goes on to chart Johnson’s increasing visibility as a civil rights advocate and legislator, as well as Garcia’s work on his campaigns as well as John Kennedy’s in 1960, through “Viva Kennedy” clubs in some 30 states and an outreach effort that included Jackie Kennedy making TV appeals in halting Spanish. When Kennedy backed off a promise to appoint a Hispanic to a prominent position in his administration (“I’ll just say to you that it’s a matter of interest and we’ll continue to see if we can associate them with our administration more closely,” says the president—awkwardly and evasively—during one of his famous press conferences), Garcia and his supporters protest. When Johnson does make good on his promise to enact the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and cites his own youthful experience teaching in poor Hispanic school in Tecula, Texas as a primary reason for his thinking and action, Garcia and his followers feel more fulfilled.
As the film charts a route from the Longoria Affair to the Voting Rights Act, it doesn’t lose sight of ongoing struggles to construct history in Three Rivers. “For many Mexican Americans,” says Santiago Hernandez, mariachi musician and employee of the federal prison in Three Rivers, the Longoria “incident is seen as a turning point in civil rights history.” He continued to work through April of this year to establish a marker in town, in honor of Private Longoria.