Statues, in many cases, honor a person who symbolized leadership, bravery, and who set the example that others follow.
The California Mexican-American Veterans Memorial, known as “El Soldado,” is different, though. It represents not an individual, but an entire culture of patriots.
Consequently, with Latino Heritage Month coming to its close, the California Department of Veterans Affairs’ Minority and Underrepresented Veterans Division wants to highlight the statue for all that it embodies.
“El Soldado stands to remember California’s Mexican-American veterans who fought during World War II, but essentially encompasses all Hispanic and Latino veterans and their countless examples of heroism,” CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani said. “Some of their names now grace schools, post offices, and other public buildings. We honor them as comrades and dearly appreciate their service to this great nation.”
In 1948, their bravery inspired a group of Sacramento-area wives, mothers, grandmothers, and sisters to begin raising money to commission what became the El Soldado statue. Sculpted in Italy at a cost of $4,000, they dedicated it in Sacramento’s old Mexican-American Center in 1951. Moved twice since, it now faces the State Capitol after restoration in 2016.
The Mexican-American veterans it represents undoubtedly inspired new generations of Latinos to serve – fighting in Korea, Vietnam, Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We must continue to honor our own Hispanic and Latino veterans year round and also never forget La Sociedad de las Madres (Society of Mothers), who are the main reason for the establishment and funding of El Soldado,” said Rosie Gaytan, treasurer of the California Mexican-American Veterans Memorial Foundation.
More than three dozen Latino service members have received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery and valor against an enemy.
CalVet pays tribute to them on its own Hispanic Medal of Honor Wall. Californians included Harold Gonsalves, who became the only Hispanic Marine to receive medal during World War II. He sacrificed his own life to save other Marines in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
They include Ysmael Villegas, a soldier who in 1945 charged six different foxholes on Luzon in the Philippines, killing several Japanese soldiers before one of them shot and killed the man his Army comrades called “Smiley.” His death compelled them to continue the charge and finish off the enemy that day.
“The men were so incensed at his death,” First Lieutenant William D. Zahniser described, “they charged the position and couldn’t be stopped.”
Our wall includes Army PFC David M. Gonzales who, also on Luzon in 1945, dug out three soldiers buried by dirt and debris after a 500-pound bomb struck their position before falling to enemy fire.
And it includes Army Sgt. Alejandro Renteria Ruiz who, on Okinawa in 1945, twice charged a Japanese gun placement, killing every enemy within. Ruiz died in 2007 and rests in the cemetery at the Veterans Home of California-Yountville.
So many heroes, so many patriots – immortalized in stone.