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Latinos built their own VFW post in Fresno after WWII. They’re fundraising to keep it open

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ALTUS, OK, UNITED STATES

11.11.2021

Photo by 2nd Lt. Cameron Silver 

97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs  

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Col. Blaine Baker, 97th Air Mobility Wing commander, and Mr. Larry Hurd, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 4876 commander, look on during a Veterans Day Ceremony at the Jackson County War Memorial in Altus, Oklahoma, Nov. 11, 2021. The mission of the VFW is to foster camaraderie among United States veterans of overseas conflicts, to serve our veterans, the military and our communities, and to advocate on behalf of all veterans. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Cameron Silver)

Juan Esparza Loera

The Fresno Bee

After the late judge Armando Rodríguez and fellow Mexican Americans fought in World War II, they returned to an unfriendly environment in Fresno in the mid-1940s.

They and their families were restricted from enjoying public swimming pools, movie theaters and other facilities during certain hours or totally banned.

Veterans like Rodríguez had the doors shut on them when they tried to join organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“They didn’t want us,” Rodríguez, who died in 2017, recalled during a 2011 talk at Fresno City Hall about the history of his hometown..

The Mexican American veterans bought property on Blythe Avenue in west Fresno, obtained surplus military materials from Hammer Field and the Fresno fairgrounds, and proceeded to build their own VFW post.

It took seven years before the E.G. Henry Gutiérrez VFW Post 8900 was completed in 1954, not because of a shortage of volunteers but a lack of funds.

The first fundraiser, a wienie roast, netted $3.75.

The post, the largest in the state with 345 members, is back to fundraising in an effort to repair a fallen roof that has crippled events at the popular hall. The post is still negotiating with its insurance company to make repairs to the 50-year-old roof.

The roof collapse, according to the Fresno Fire Department, was caused by aging infrastructure and the weight of air conditioning units. No one was injured.

VFW Post 8900 Commander Willie Tate had been on his job for about a month when the roof collapsed on July 21.

“We have to do the demolition process first,” said Tate during a fundraiser at the post’s 1½-acre park last Saturday. That should take up to 45 days, depending on if asbestos is found in the rubble, he said.

The hall has been popular for dances, dinners, quinceañeras and other events. The post has refunded $40,000 to individuals and groups who had made down payments to use the hall between the time the roof collapsed and into 2024, said Tate.

“Although we’re a veteran institution, it’s still a business and we can’t function unless we have our hall and our, you know, our bar and and, you know, to bring revenue back into this post,” said Tate, an Army veteran who joined the post in 1991.

The VFW Post, said Tate, is much more than the events held at the hall. It provides the color guard for the Veterans Day Parade in Fresno, sponsors a Boy Scouts troop and a 4-H club, includes a ladies auxiliary, hosts a ministry that provides food monthly, and supports Justin Garza High School students.

“We’re very instrumental in the community,” said Tate, who retired from the state Department of Corrections in 2014.

VFW Post 8900 has its supporters

Fresno City Councilmember Annalisa Perea, whose district includes the VFW Post 8900, toured the hall recently along with a representative from Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria to assess the damage.

“We expedited inspectors going out there to clear them to have the ability to bring an appraiser on site to determine how much the estimated repairs would be,” said Perea on Wednesday afternoon. “The goal would be to assist them with raising funds to help cover the costs.”

It is not known how much of the cost the insurance will cover, but a VFW Post 8900 supporter started a GoFundMe account on Tuesday to raise $450,000.

“We are seeking any monetary donations that would explicitly go towards clean up of old roof material, damaged HVAC units, structural inspections and then the rebuild of the hall roof along with new HVAC units,” said Jimmie Roberts.

Javier Hernández, 71, remembers his days as a Marine in boot camp during the Vietnam War era where “they treated me like crap. They treated me like I was part of another world.”

Joining VFW Post 8900 drew him closer to other Latino veterans, he said. “I’m glad to be an American,” said Hernández while streaming the Aug. 19 fundraiser on Facebook.

Hernández, a retired accountant, captains the post’s honor guard, which participates in funerals for military veterans.

Grace Solís, once a member of the VFW Post 8900 Women’s Auxiliary, understands the importance of the post.

“I’ve been involved with it since the 1990s,” said Solís, who was able to join the auxiliary because of her ex-husband’s military ties. “They do a ton of things. They do the Stand Down every year, which provides free legal, medical and educational services for veterans.

“It’s a venue where veterans can come and feel like they’ve got a place to go.”

Mexican American veterans provided the labor

Tate, who was born in Arkansas and grew up in southwest Fresno, knows the history of the post.

“After World War II, a lot of the Mexican American veterans came back home. They weren’t welcome by other white-established posts,” said Tate. “So they decided to get together and purchased this property.”

Tate said volunteers brought in some structures from the Hammer Field military installation near Shields and Clovis that serve as the north and south portions of the post. Solís said “a $1 donation of barracks” kicked off the project.

“They basically worked out of these two structures for a couple of decades,” said Tate.

The main hall that connects the two original structures was completed in the late 1970s, he said.

In the meantime, members continue to meet in the park behind the building to conduct meetings and business.

“We’re still going to move forward. This is not going to stop us,” said Tate.

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