September 26, 2003

A Legacy of Service:

Mexican-American Defenders of California

By Jennifer C. Vo and John P. Schmal

The state of California is a very special place for many people. Millions have come here from other parts of the United States and from around the world to live, work, and prosper. And many of these people embrace their new lives in this western state. As the world’s fifth largest economy, California has a great deal to offer the many people who make their way to the Golden State in search of a better life.

My name is Jennifer Vo and to me and my family, California is a very special place. This may be due to the fact that - I am an eleventh-generation Californian of Mexican decent. In 1781 - when an expedition was organized to bring a small group of civilian settlers from Sonora, Mexico to take part in the founding of El Pueblo de Nuestra la Reina de Los Angeles del Rio Porcioncula - an escort of several dozen Mexican soldiers serving under the flag of Spain were recruited. One of those soldier recruits who took part in this important expedition was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Juan Matias Olivas, an Indian from Rosario, Sinaloa.

From my earliest memories, my family has always expressed its pride in its California roots. When my mother, Sarah Melendez Basulto Evans, was just a teenager, she went to her grandfather’s funeral in Oxnard, California. After the church service, the family had driven to the Santa Clara Cemetery in Oxnard for the burial service.

Recounting that day thirty-nine years ago, Mom told me, “Once the graveside service had ended, my Uncle Simon [Melendez] took me for a long walk, pointing out the various tombstones for many of our ancestors. I was amazed that he could recount so many stories and names from our family history. As we walked along, Uncle Simon explained to me that our family had been in California for a very, very long time. For him, this was a great source of pride. I remember his words very clearly when he said, ‘Our family has known no home but California. This is where we belong.’ From that day forward, I have always felt a great emotional attachment to California, the land of my ancestors.”

Sarah also told me that Uncle Simon had explained to her that our California family has had a long and proud tradition of military service extending back to our earliest California ancestor. One generation after another had joined the military to defend the only land that we could call home. And, although Mexican Americans in California have been treated unfairly at times, our resolve to defend this state and this country has never wavered.

As I was growing up, my mother expressed these sentiments to me, and for this reason, I have always told people that I am proud to be a descendant of the California pioneers. And, over time, I have gradually learned the details about my family’s military service. From the first moment Juan Matias Olivas entered California - and for the better part of nine generations - my family has played a role in the defense of California. And, in some cases, members of my family had to make the ultimate sacrifice to safeguard the security of California. Over a period of two centuries, the flags, the causes, and the surnames have changed, but my family’s legacy of military service to California has endured.

Writing in Hispanic Heritage Month 1996: Hispanics - Challenging the Future, Army Chaplain (Captain) Carlos C. Huerta of the First Battalion, 79th Field Artillery stated that “Hispanics have always met the challenge of serving the nation with great fervor. In every war, in every battle, on every battlefield, Hispanics have put their lives on the line to protect freedom.”

As Mexican-American citizens of California, my family has carried on a proud tradition of military service. When our nation has been in need, my ancestors - from the earliest days in California - answered the call with a sense of pride and obligation. This sense of duty is a deeply held tradition to all Mexican-Americans.

Although I have inherited my dark eyes and thick dark hair from my Mexican ancestors, I am also German and Anglo-American through my father’s side of the family. For this reason, it is not readily evident to some people that I am Mexican-American. As a result, I have - on occasion - heard friends and acquaintances express less than flattering opinions about Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans.

Such comments and criticisms - although they were undoubtedly based on ignorance or fear - hurt me and were an affront to my family’s pride and dignity. I can only say - in response to such hurtful comments - that I hope those people are reading this article. If I could speak to them today, I would tell them that my family - for two centuries - has been fighting for their freedom.  And when my Uncle Luciano Ortega and my Cousin Chello Ortega were killed in action during World War II, they were sacrificing their lives for the freedom of all Californians.

DEDICATION:  This work is dedicated to my ancestors who have defended California for two centuries:

1. José Matias Olivas - Soldier in the Service of Spain, 1781-1798

2. José Pablo Olivas - Soldier in the Service of Spain, 1804-1817

3. José Dolores Olivas - Soldier in the Service of Spain and Mexico

4. José Victoriano Olivas - Civil War Veteran  (1863-1865)

5. Joseph Luciano Ortega - World War II - Killed in action, Philippine Islands, November 19, 1944

6. Chello Ortega - World War II - Killed in action, Pacific Theater, June 1945

7. Raymond Ortega Melendez, Korean War Veteran and Career Soldier

8. Donald Ortega Melendez, Korean War Veteran and Career Soldier

9.  Simon Ortega Melendez, Korean War Veteran

10. Eusebio Basulto, Jr., Specialist, Fourth Class in Military Intelligence

Jennifer Vo and John Schmal are the authors of “A Mexican-American Family of California:  In the Service of Three Flags” which will be published by Heritage Books on November 1, 2003.

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