To the Line of Fire! Mexican Texans and World War I

To the Line of Fire! Mexican Texans and World War I

To the Line of Fire! Mexican Texans and World War I

To the Line of Fire! Mexican Texans and World War I


Winner of the 2009 Robert A. Calvert Prize

In January 1917, German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram to Germany's Mexican ambassador, authorizing the offer of U.S. territory in exchange for Mexico's alliance with Germany in the Great War.

After the interception of this communication, U.S. intelligence intensified surveillance of the Mexican American community in Texas and elsewhere, vigilant for signs of subversive activity. Yet, even as this was transpiring, thousands of Tejanos (Mexican Texans) were serving in the American military during the war, with many other citizens of Mexican origin contributing to home front efforts.

As author José A. Ramérez demonstrates in To the Line of Fire!, the events of World War I and its aftermath would decisively transform the Tejano community, as war-hardened veterans returned with new, broadened perspectives. They led their people in opposing prejudice and discrimination, founding several civil rights groups and eventually merging them into the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the largest and oldest surviving Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States.

Ramérez also shows the diversity of reaction to the war on the part of the Tejano community: While some called enthusiastically for full participation in the war effort, others reacted coolly, or only out of fear of reprisal.

Scholarly and general readers in Texas history, military history, and Mexican American studies will be richly rewarded by reading To the Line of Fire!


During the summer of 1917, less than two months after Pres. Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany, José de la Luz Saenz, a twenty-nine-year-old schoolteacher and father of three from Dittlinger, Texas, a small company town in southeastern Comal County, joined ten million other Americans in registering for the first military draft in the United States since the Civil War. Passionate and idealistic, with dark skin and Indian features, Saenz had spent the last several years campaigning against school segregation in Central and South Texas, inculcating cultural pride into his Mexican and Mexican American students at every opportunity. When he was later inducted into the army, he eschewed the military deferment that his wife and young family might have secured for him, regarding military service as a chance to prove his loyalty to his country. Besides, he reasoned, the military contributions of Tejanos to the Great War (as World War I was more commonly known initially) would provide them with leverage for a future civil rights campaign at home. “Let us demonstrate once and for all that we are worthy of fighting for [human] rights,” he wrote to his ethnic counterparts, glorifying the overseas mission of the American military in much the same manner as President Wilson, “so that in the future we may be accorded those same rights.”

Saenz was one of thousands of men from the Tejano community inducted into the American military during World War I. But not all of these inductees were as upfront about their ancestry as the Dittlinger resident. One such individual was David Cantú Barkley. Born in Laredo, Texas, in 1899 to Josef Barkley, a career army man, and Antonia Cantú, a South Texan of Mexican descent, Barkley acknowledged only his Anglo roots when he enlisted as a private in the army. Fearful that the military might treat him and other soldiers of Mexican ancestry like African American servicemen, whom most officials considered inferior and often assigned to labor battalions instead of combat units, the light-skinned Tejano took every precaution to conceal his heritage in order to serve on the front lines—which he eventually did. Ever distrustful of his superiors, he even warned his mother about using her Spanish surname in their correspondence. “Please don’t use the name,” he reportedly asked her in one letter.

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