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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Remembering Dien Bien Phu

One of the (increasingly fewer) reasons to continue to subscribe to the Tampa Tribune is that, unlike the Times, it runs “Today in History.” Yes, I could read it online, but it’s easier to glance at in Mother Trib. A recent entry caught my eye, that for March 12, 1954: “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu began during the First Indochina War as communist forces attacked French troops, who were defeated nearly two months later.”

On March 12, 1954, my family and I were in the midst of moving from Minnesota -- where our ancestors had arrived between the 1860s and the 1880s -- to Arkansas, which my Dad – for obscure reasons – considered The Promised Land. Probably because wild jonquils were blooming when he visited the previous March, while snowstorms still prevailed in Minnesota. Although I deeply regretted the move at the time, eventually I was glad. Arkansas, ironically, allowed me to flourish in a way that Minnesota probably would not have.

So I was in the fifth grade in Arkansas when the fighting began in faraway Vietnam. It was not yet called that, as native names such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were obscured under “French Indochina.” In the sixth grade, I had an exceptionally good teacher and still remember the lively debate we had when My Weekly Reader updated the story. (Did you know, by the way, that this children’s newspaper was founded by a woman, Chicago’s Eleanor Johnson in 1928? Eventually almost every school system in the country adopted it, and millions of my generation learned their current history that way. Of course, that example was too good to be continued by trendy-minded buyers in the ed biz.)

But back to Dien Bien Phu and our sixth-grade debate. Mrs. Rhymer had the sense to ignore the “communist” aspect and put the issue in terms of nationalism, which it was. The debate was on whether we should support the French, our longtime ally going back to when France supported us in our 1776 revolution against Great Britain; or should we support the area’s natives, who were rebelling against colonialism in the same way that we had back then? The answer was clear to me: Of course the French should grant independence and bring their soldiers home.

First, though, they should thank the locals for their help in defeating the Japanese in the recently ended World War II. Didn’t all of Europe’s non-Nazi nations – Britain, Holland, Belgium, as well as the exiled French government -- promise their far-flung colonies freedom if they helped against fascist Germany and Japan? Of course they did. Now, less than a decade later, Europeans wanted to renege on those promises. Everywhere from Britain’s Egypt to the Belgium Congo to Dutch Indonesia, there was fighting. Even as a child, I understood that people who lived in those countries would keep up their rebellions against dominating outsiders until they won.

It probably was clear to some of the men in power, too, but they wanted to keep feasting off the fat of those lands as long as they could. “All the tea in China,” for just one example… The French eventually gave up and sensibly withdrew, but then we Americans stupidly replaced them – and stayed until final defeat at Vietnam’s Saigon in 1973. Even then, most Americans didn’t quite accept that when helicopters evacuated our people off the roof of our embassy, commander-in-chief Richard Nixon indeed had surrendered.

The longest war in American history, it was because of a lack of historical context. Most of us never heard of Dien Bien Phu or other places in “Indochina” until our brother or cousin was drafted to go there. Misled by rhetoric about communists, we failed to understand that we actually were fighting against freedom fighters who never would quit. For that delusion and ignorance and willful arrogance of power, upwards of 50,000 Americans gave their lives. Millions of non-Americans died. And most of us still don’t understand. Better we should have debated My Weekly Reader.

Remembering Jim Holmes

I can’t remember exactly when I first met Rev. Jim Holmes, but it was early in his mission at St. John Presbyterian Church on North MacDill. His congregation was made up of West Tampa Hispanics, and they provided a free lunch to those of us who showed up in the fellowship hall and promised to raise money for the Judeo-Christian Clinic that they were building. With a lot of help from Jews, liberal Christians, and some atheistic do-gooders, the clinic aimed at the working poor. Thanks to Democrats in the 1960s, the extremely poor did have Medicaid, but there was (and is) a big gap between being eligible for Medicaid and being able to buy health insurance.

Healthcare professionals, especially from USF’s Medical School, donated their time, and over the years, countless numbers of people benefited from the evening clinics. Even last year, five years into the Affordable Health Care Act, Judeo-Christian Clinic reported some 36,000 patient visits. Back in the seventies, annual fundraising dinners grew bigger and bigger, filling the old Egypt Temple Shrine and finally moving to the downtown Hyatt. That was a bit too classy for me; I preferred more simple settings. I think Jim did, too. Although he continued to serve on the clinic’s board, he left the Presbyterian ministry relatively soon after achieving this and other successes.

Success isn’t easy, and I avoided an earlier conflict between Jim and House Speaker Lee Moffitt. Jim wanted a “Good Samaritan” law that would protect his volunteer physicians from being sued. That was understandable, but Lee’s counter argument was sensible, too. If a physician with the best of intentions nonetheless accidentally injured a patient and caused lifetime disabilities, why should insurance companies be off the hook for liability simply because the doctor was donating his time? Many things are complicated, especially legal issues, and require thoughtful compromises. Tell it to Trump supporters.

I called my old friend Jack Price about Jim. Jack worked for the Tampa branch of the National Coalition of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) back in the seventies, and of course he helped Jim with the Judeo-Christian Clinic. Jack has lived in Gainesville for years now, and he was at the NCCJ’s national office in New York City for years between Tampa and Gainesville. He’s 86 now and didn’t travel to the memorial service; I didn’t go because I was out of town. Tampa icons, including Sandy Freedman and Pat Frank, praised Jim in the Times, but I want to add what Jack said on the phone: “He was a noble soul who never was afraid to stand alone.”

Way Back in Our Collective Remembrance

I think I know a lot about Florida history, but Jack can fill in blanks I didn’t know I had. In this conversation, he educated me on the origin of West Tampa’s St. John Presbyterian – as well as that of the Columbus Avenue Methodist church in Ybor City that you can see from I-4. Both began because of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

You know about that conflict through Ernest Hemingway’s novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and through Picasso’s surrealistic painting of the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica. Art lives on after politics is forgotten, but the politics of this place and time was vital, both to the world and in faraway Tampa. The war began when Spain’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coupe led by Francisco Franco, a fascist and friend of Hitler.

Most of Tampa’s Spanish-speakers were leftists who supported the democrats, not Franco. Hundreds of Ybor City women, in fact, marched to Tampa City Hall in 1937, where they presented the mayor with a petition protesting US neutrality. (You can see a picture of their parade in my Real Women, published by the University of Tampa.) Indeed, it is possible that World War II could have been avoided, or at least lessened, had the US taken on Hitler’s protégé in Spain. By 1939, however, it was too late, as Franco was firmly the nation’s dictator -- and the bombs he dropped on his fellow Spaniards had proved a testing ground for Hitler’s airplanes and armaments.

Ties between church and state had been inseparable in Spain for centuries, with the Catholic Church invariably supporting the royal family and the military. And that brings us to the origins of the Protestant churches in West Tampa and Ybor: They began with Catholics who renounced this church/state alliance. According to Jack, our mutual friend Willie Garcia, a now deceased attorney, was a boy at mass in Ybor’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help when the priest began praying for Franco’s victory. His father snatched up the children from the pew during the prayer, and they left the church never to return.

And yes, for those of us who were early fans of “Saturday Night Live,” I am talking about the same Franco who, month after month, made SNL’s news by being pronounced “still dead.” He died in 1976, after ruling Spain with an iron fist for decades.

Meanwhile, the Latin American nations that had revolted against Spanish colonialism in the 1800s remained independent. From Argentina to Mexico, we insisted on “the Monroe Document,” which stated that European nations had no right to colonize the Western Hemisphere. But later, in another failure to think broadly and in historical context, we completely ignored that policy in the Eastern Hemisphere. A lot of American lives could have been saved had we pondered that.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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