Gil Coronado: Padrino of the National Hispanic Month

Ricardo Romo is the author of books including Latinos in America and East Los Angeles: History of a Neighborhoodformer president of the University of Texas at San Antonio and a member of four presidential commissions on higher education issues.

Gil Coronado, photographed during his service as Director of Selective Service during the Clinton Administration.

The role of staff, advisers, and bureaucrats in making laws in Washington, DC is often buried in the filing cabinets of elected members of the US Congress and Senate. These elected officials, who have the unique privilege of introducing laws, often benefit politically from their policy-making activities. Their political position is linked to their ability to introduce and pass laws. When Colonel Gil Coronado was invited to attend a White House ceremony hosted by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 after the passage of Public Law 100-408, he entered a rare political space that few Latinos do not elect had ever occupied. This is an account of how an important law was born thanks to a persistent champion of Hispanic heritage.

Each year, millions of Americans honor National Hispanic Month, from September 15 to October 15. Among other events, they celebrate the arrival of 86 Latino sailors in three small ships that landed more than five hundred years ago in the Americas. These sailors from Spain and Portugal braved unknown waters and maneuvered the ships guided by a Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus, across the Atlantic and landed in one of the natural harbors of the Caribbean islands. Their landing marked a new era of exploration and colonization in the history of the world. For years, Americans have celebrated Columbus Day in honor of the intrepid Italian navigator Columbus. The Latinos who sailed with Columbus were also major contributors to the discovery of what has been described as a “New World”.

Latinos have long celebrated historic moments, such as the establishment of America’s first continental community, St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, more than fifty years before the Mayflower landed. Texas school children read about the incredible eight years of travel [1528-1536] of the Spaniard, Alvaro Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who criss-crossed Texas with Estevan, a Spanish-African Moor. The history of Latinos in America is deep and of great significance.

National Hispanic Month is especially important for showcasing the rich diversity of more than 60 million Latinos, the largest ethnic minority in the United States. The celebrations reveal a range of different cultural traditions. There are distinctions among Latinos in their histories, immigration status, Spanish dialects, food, music, and religion.

A National Hispanic Month celebrant in San Antonio. Photo of the author.

The inspiration for the National Hispanic Month celebration can be traced to a San Antonio Westside native, Colonel Gil Coronado [Ret.]. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson first issued an annual proclamation designating the week comprising September 15 and 16 as National Heritage Week. Coronado thought differently – a week was insufficient to pay special homage to the rich and enduring plethora of Hispanic traditions. Five US presidents, from Johnson to Reagan, took part in the first Hispanic Week celebrations before it became a month-long event. The story of Coronado’s “Padrino” or “Godfather” role in lobbying for the month-long celebration is notable.

Coronado’s quest to add more weeks to National Hispanic Week began in 1985 when the U.S. Air Force assigned him to the Inter-American Defense Board. [IADB] in Washington, DC The IADB provides the Organization of American States [OAS] with technical and educational advisory military services on matters related to military and defense issues in the North-South Hemispheres. In Latin America, the OAS is equivalent to NATO. While working with the OAS, Coronado participated in meetings with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus where he befriended Los Angeles Congressman Estevan Torres, the Caucus Chairman, and Elvira Castillo, Executive Director. of the Caucus.

President Ronald Reagan attributed his 1980 victory to the increased voter turnout of Latinos who joined the Republican Party in the late 1970s. Working with marketing guru Lionel Sosa, another San Antonio native, Republicans turned joined national vendors of food, beer, and household goods in declaring the 1980s “the decade of Hispanics.” The standard explanation describes this decade as a time when the growing Latino population rose to national prominence.

The formation of Latina mariachi bands in the Southwest is a recent update to this tradition. Photo of the author.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Coronado and members of the Hispanic caucus debated whether the 80s meant a special Hispanic designation. Improvements over the decade in education, income and home ownership, for example, have been modest at best. Coronado proposed that the seven-day celebration of National Hispanic Week was far from enough. Many Latinos believed that the annual celebration of Hispanics should model Black History Month, which was officially designated in 1970. So the movement to designate National Hispanic Month began with Coronado and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

In 1988 Coronado, assisted by Elvira Castillo of the Hispanic Caucus, prepared the bill to change National Hispanic Week to National Hispanic Month. California Congressman Estevan Torres asked Coronado to join him in the House to witness the co-sponsorship of 218 U.S. Congressmen, enough to pass the bill unanimously. With the lead sponsorship of Utah Senator Orlin Hatch, the bill also passed the US Senate without much fanfare. President Reagan signed the new law and invited Coronado to the Rose Garden for a special White House event. At the September 13, 1988 ceremony, Reagan recognized Colonel Coronado “as a strong supporter of Hispanic heritage and the United States of America.”

Coronado retired from Selective Duty in 2001 and returned to his hometown of San Antonio where he currently resides. He is active in the Rotary Club and proud of his status as an alumnus of Lanier High School where he attended until dropping out in 10th grade to join the Air Force. A traditional vocational high school, Lanier offered him a poor and limited choice between auto mechanics and body and fender repair courses. He wanted something better and decided to quit school in the first semester of 10th grade.

After changing his birth certificate to make him older and eligible for military service, he reported to the Air Force recruiting office – he was 15. Recruiters asked him to come back in six months when they tested him and gave him a medical. He passed both and they drafted him into the US Air Force. He had just turned 16.

After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Coronado traveled to a base in Louisiana where he excelled in typing classes. The typing lessons led to work on signal and code communication. He also earned a spot on the base basketball team. In the mid-1960s, the Air Force deployed it to Southeast Asia where US military forces were engaged in the Vietnam War. Upon his return to the United States, he held a command position at Lackland Air Force Base. During his thirty-seven years of service in the United States Air Force, he received a Legion of Merit, a Bronze Star Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal, a Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, and a Distinguished Presidential Unit Citation.

Coronado’s most memorable assignments included commanding the U.S. Air Force Base in Torrejon, Spain, as well as serving as Director of Selective Service under President William Clinton. Coronado is proud of his military service and his chance to serve his country. He pointed out to me that in the military he was “judged and evaluated by his ability, efficiency and proven results and not by a zip code”. Schools were known to track working-class Latinos in vocational courses versus college courses. The San Antonio school district will honor him for his contribution to Hispanic heritage, a well-deserved honor for a high school dropout.

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