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Learning a lesson: ‘It’s not enough to be proud’ of Mexican roots

You can tell William Luna that you are proud of your Mexican roots, but you have to be ready for a question.


“It’s not enough to be proud,” Luna, a historian of Mexico and Mexican-American culture told me. “That’s synthetic pride if they don’t know anything about their culture and history.”

Luna will educate anyone willing to listen.

He is a military man, recognized by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2006 for serving from 1955 to 1961 with the 11th Airborne Division as a paratrooper and in the Special Forces as a Green Beret. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.

A native of East Chicago, Ind., Luna has lived in Chicago for 30 years. He has been a teacher, steel-mill worker, boxing coach and mid-level manager, among many jobs. He loves books and owned a Mexican bookstore in Pilsen in the 1990s.

Over the course of decades, Luna has put together dozens of display boards with stories of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who left an imprint on the U.S. He speaks to veterans groups and colleges.

The Museum of Mexican Culture and History, at 3610 W. 26th St., to which he has donated countless hours and artifacts, will be part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s open house next month.

The museum is a small bare-bones operation, a stark contrast to the modern vibe of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. “They’re not history,” Luna said. “They’re art. It’s aesthetic. It’s not threatening. It’s all glitz.”

Luna is opinionated and has a strong voice, which makes him seem younger than 76. He is a curmudgeon, but when he says Mexican history is undervalued in this country, I see his point. He wants Mexican Americans to connect to their history the way proud African Americans and Jewish people do with theirs.

And he seeks a general acknowledgment of the positive influence Mexicans have had on this country. “This country is obsessed with a black and white paradigm,” he said. “The rest of us fall between the cracks.”

If you ask Luna about the civil rights movement in the U.S., he will talk about Dr. Hector P. Garcia’s movement in the 1940s.

Garcia was a Mexican-born doctor who served in the U.S. Army and received a Bronze Star. He rallied for desegregation of schools and hospitals in Texas and pushed for the American G.I. Forum. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Garcia to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the first Mexican American to be so named.

A Chicago charter school was named for the famous doctor, and Luna helped with that cause.

When he speaks to students, Luna tells them about Jose Cuautemoc “Bill” Melendez, an animator who helped bring Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons as well as Bugs Bunny and Bambi to television.

On subjects of American pop culture, aviation, astronomy or professional sports, Luna can tell you about oft-forgotten links to Mexico and Mexican Americans.

Yet too many here are ignorant of their rich history, according to Luna.

“Ignorant is not a bad word,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re dumb. It means we ignore information. Our people are in survival mode.”

Luna thinks it’s never too late to learn. He is putting together a course syllabus on the Mexican-American civil rights movement that he will teach at the Little Village Community Council, housed in the same building as the museum.

I should probably take it. In just one day with him, I learned quite a bit.

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