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The (almost) All-American Hero

30 August 2013

In 1918, José Mendoza López, an eight year old Mixtec orphan, slipped across the U.S. border in search of relations living around Brownsville, Texas. While living on and off with an uncle, and attending school irregularly, he worked various odd jobs and as a farm laborer. A grade school dropout, Mendoza began getting into fights… and found he was relatively good at them.  As a poorly paid semi-pro boxer, he hitch-hiked around the country, eventually catching the eye of a small time promoter, who marketed the youngster as “kid Mendoza”, managing to place him in lightweight division bouts as far afield as Australia.

In Australia, Mendoza acquired forged U.S. documents under the name Jose M. Lopez, which were good enough to get him a Merchant Marine Able Bodied Seaman certificate. As Jose M. Lopez, he spent the next five years as an American sailor.  December 7th, 1941 found him in Los Angeles, seeking a ship for Hawaii… when the authorities finally caught up with him… thinking he was Japanese.

JoseMLopezConvincing them that he was really Jose M. Lopez of Brownsville, Texas took some time, but he was allowed to return home, where he married and would have settled down as a model illegal alien, if he hadn’t been drafted in 1942. After basic training, he served in the 23rd Infantry, where — from North Africa (where he earned a Purple Heart), to England, to Normandy (where he earned a Bronze Star), to Belgium, he rose to the rank of Master Sergeant…

… and where, outside Krinkelt Belgium, on 17 December 1944 he would earn his Congressional Medal of Honor.

The soldier known as Jose M. Lopez stuck in a hole and praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe (who presumably looks out more for Mexicans than Germans) and more practically firing his machine gun, held off a German infantry and TANK advance that had caught his company, allowing his own unit to withdraw in safety.  As his citation for the Congressional Medal of Honor read:

 Sgt. Lopez’s gallantry and intrepidity, on seemingly suicidal missions in which he killed at least 100 of the enemy, were almost solely responsible for allowing Company K to avoid being enveloped, to withdraw successfully and to give other forces coming up in support time to build a line which repelled the enemy drive.

Although he had been awarded not only the highest military decoration in the United States, but also (under his real name) Mexico’s la Condecoración del Mérito Militar, he found that back in Texas, he was just another “dirty Mexican”.

Re-enlisting in the Army at the outbreak of the Korean conflict, he again saw combat until an officer realized they had a Medal of Honor recipient in the ranks, and transferred him to less dangerous (but perhaps more difficult) duties in graves registry (identifying dead bodies).  He later served as a motor poor supervisor and a recruiter, finally retiring in 1973.

I realize that it was a different world in 1918 when young José came to the United States as an unescorted minor.  And, while the “Dreamers” of today hope for permanent residency, they are talking about those who  either enroll in post-secondary education or join the military.  While José Mendoza López did opt for a military career, today, a twenty-five year old grade school dropout… and one who’d only obtained false papers at the age of 25, would have only one option… a detention center and a one-way trip to Mexico.  And the loss to the United States would be…???



“The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to LOPEZ, JOSE M.” (reproduced at: Home of Heroes (

Todo por Mexico (“Jose Mendoza Lopez ‘El Kid Mendoza'”)

Henry Franklin Tribe, “LOPEZ, JOSE MENDOZA ,” Handbook of Texas Online (

Wikipedia (Jose M. Lopez) … in crying need of a revision!

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