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Vigils, bands and flyovers mark Memorial Day in Los Angeles County

Flowers placed before a memorial in Boyle Heights honor the many Mexican Americans who died fighting for the U.S.
(Rosanna Xia / Los Angeles Times)

In the middle of a bustling five-point intersection in Boyle Heights known as Los Cinco Puntos, dozens of veterans and families gathered before noon at a humble memorial honoring the many Mexican Americans who gave their lives fighting for their country.

Hands raised to hearts as Tony Zapata, a helicopter crewman during the Vietnam War, began the Pledge of Allegiance. The observance concluded an overnight vigil during which Zapata and colleagues stood guard for 24 hours — a tribute and reminder of the large but sometimes overlooked military community on this side of town.

“There have been thousands and thousands of people of Mexican descent who have served this country,” said Zapata, a longtime resident of Boyle Heights who for decades has helped lead this annual ceremony on Memorial Day. “Back in World War II, there was a lot of discrimination — but they overlooked that, they did what they had to do for their country. They did what they had to do for their community.”

Alongside family barbecues and picnics on the beach, communities across Los Angeles County on Monday honored and remembered the nation’s fallen heroes. Helicopters and vintage aircraft flew over Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes and the Eternal Flame at McCambridge Park in Burbank. At the Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood, Mayor Eric Garcetti paid tribute to the many men and women who have fought and died for the United States.

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Military and police bands played across the region. Parades marched through communities in the San Fernando Valley. Many gathered in San Pedro before the battleship Iowa, hanging U.S. flags along the pier.

At Los Cinco Puntos, a helicopter from the Los Angeles Police Department roared overheard as Junior ROTC cadets from Garfield High School performed the presentation of colors. For more than 70 years, residents and community leaders have gathered here on Memorial Day.

Built in the years after World War II, this towering concrete pillar has long been a symbol of pride for the Eastside community. More than 500,000 Latinos fought in the war, including 350,000 Mexican Americans, who have the highest percentage of Medal of Honor winners of any minority in the United States.

Many from East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights also fought and died in Vietnam, said Juju Sands, who organizes the ceremony with Zapata each year. And many from the community’s younger generations are active military members or in junior training programs, she added. Sons and daughters of veterans remain active in the community’s traditions. Some stepped in this year to stand guard at the memorial.

“There are a lot of military families here, but some people just don’t know that, ” said Sands, whose father, Ruben Amaro, served in Vietnam. “They think this is just a Latino community with taco trucks.”

It’s not easy to get to Westwood or Palos Verdes for the larger Memorial Day ceremonies, she said, “so everyone congregates here.”

With her arms raised toward the crowd, Sands called out the wars in which those sitting before her had served: Vietnam. Kosovo. Iraq. Afghanistan. She clapped for three veterans in the front row, all in their 90s, who fought through World War II.

Joining them were longtime leaders from the community. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who grew up in Boyle Heights and went on to become the first Mexican American woman elected to Congress, spoke of the commonalities that unite all Americans and urged her community to remember that “freedom is not free.”

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“Our democracy and freedom are precious and fragile … and in today’s world, more than ever, they are under attack constantly — both at home and abroad,” she said in a tribute to those who died to defend the “ideals, values and convictions that make us proud to be American.”

“While we cannot possibly equal their sacrifice, rich or poor, young or old, each of us in our own way has the power to do our part to ensure their sacrifice was not made in vain.”

Teresa Gonzalez, clutching a large rose and photos of her son, who served in Iraq, nodded along quietly from the first row.

Gonzalez has lived down the street for more than 30 years. Each time she walks past this memorial, she said in Spanish, her heart is touched with compassion for all those who sacrificed their lives to protect the people in their communities.

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After the ceremony, she stepped toward the looming memorial and cradled the rose to the ground. She looked toward the sky and mulled over the words she wanted to say out loud. In Spanish, and then again in English, she declared:

“For everybody.”


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