Ninety-one-year-old Farmington resident Luis Rodriguez, remembers, as an 18 year-old he enlisted in the army in Puerto Rico and found himself in a segregated unit. He fought valiantly and is proud of his role in protecting this country’s freedom but he says, “There was always a sadness in my heart” regarding the treatment of the 65th regiment known as the “Borinqueneers.”
Celestino Cordova, 85, of New Haven also served in the 65th regiment and although he says he was able to help protect what he considered the American way of life, he too remembers the discrimination he and others endured from other soldiers and military policies. “I spent nine months at the front lines,” said Cordova whose duties including reconnaissance and radio operation. “I’m proud after 54 years we are being recognized for our efforts,” he said regarding the bill, thanking everyone involved.
The bill’s passage comes after a long, national grassroots effort led by Bridgeport native Frank Medina of Orlando, Florida, who created the Congressional Gold Medal Alliance. It’s only goal or ‘mission’ as they described it was to gain recognition for the contributions of the ‘Borinqueneers.”
Now, Cordova and Rodriquez like many Borinqueneers across the nation and in Puerto Rico, most in their 80’s and 90’s, await the president’s signature which awards the Congressional Gold Medal to the 65th regiment, giving their unit, they say, finally its rightful place in the history books. The regiment was the last American military unit to be desegregated.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal (D), who was instrumental in pushing for the bill’s passage and introduced it in the senate, says he intends to bring local veterans who served in the regiment with him to Washington D.C. when President Obama signs the bill. Blumenthal said, “They had to fight in battle while facing discrimination at home; I am surprised that formal recognition is this late in coming.”
Blumenthal said members of both political parties worked closely on the issue, “We get a lot of proposals asking for formal recognitions,” said Blumenthal, who noted the regiment served at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. “This one had merit.” The regiment earned an estimated 10 Distinguished Service Crosses, 250 Silver Stars, 600 Bronze Stars, 3,000 Purple Hearts and two Presidential Unit Citations.
This past week in Connecticut, two of the state’s former “Borinqueneers joined Blumenthal at the state capitol in recognizing the passage of the bill. Cordova and Dolores Nieves attended the ceremony where the Puerto Rican flag was raised over the building. State representatives Hilda Santiago, Angel Arce, Edwin Vargas and Robert Sanchez also attended.
Cordova, who retired as Staff Sergeant, served in the Army for eight years. He was drafted in Puerto Rico in 1951 and eventually sent to Korea. He said that after the war, he encountered more prejudice after moving to the continental U.S. He says he handled it by eventually becoming more involved in organizing the city’s growing Hispanic community, and eventually he became a selectman in 1967 before the city dissolved the position. He is still a delegate to Democratic state committees.
Rodriquez, was honorably discharged from the regiment in 1958 as a Sergeant First Class, and moved Hartford in 1959. His daughter, Beth, says he recently lost his wife and the renewed attention on the “Borinqueneers’ and reconnecting with the others who served has been good for him.
Editor’s note: If you are interested in learning more about the history of the 65th regiment, you can visit: http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/general/articles/borinqueneers.aspx
By Brian Woodman Jr. CTLatinoNews.com