WASHINGTON, D.C. – After a decades-long effort to get recognition, on Tuesday President Obama signed a bill into law that grants a Hispanic Army unit, the 65th Infantry regiment known as the Borinqueneers, the Congressional Gold Medal.
The regiment was made up of mostly Puerto Rican servicemen who participated in both World Wars and the Korean War — segregated from their fellow soldiers.
Inside the White House, President Obama said the legislation “honors military heroes from our history.” Outside, loud pounding of the drums could be heard by bystanders, and the traditional Puerto Rican music Bomba y Plena played in honor of the legendary military men inside.
A few of the Borinqueneers were in attendance for the bill signing and received a standing ovation.
The Borinqueneers, a unit comprised of soldiers mostly from Puerto Rico, are the last segregated group to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States. The black Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers received the award years ago.
“It was a very special moment, this honor took long to come our way, but it´s never too late when the good things come,” U.S. House of Representative, Pedro Pierluisi, told Fox News Latino outside the White House.
“It’s a great moment for Puerto Rico and we remind everyone today in the U.S. that we are U.S. citizens and that we contribute to the wellbeing of all our fellow citizens, and this includes defending our freedom and rights whenever we have had to do it, like it was case in the Korean War and others,” he added.
Retired Army Private Juan Negrón, a Borinqueneer who lives in Buffalo, New York said he never thought that this moment would come. But he said he was satisfied the U.S. government finally recognized their bravery because he thinks the 65th Infantry regiment deserved the recognition after so many struggles.
Saying he never felt discriminated against during his time as an active military duty, despite belonging to a segregated regiment, Negrón, who fought in the Korean War, said he feels that the situation for veterans now is worse than when he first left Puerto Rico.
“There are more of us, and I would like to see things improve for veterans,” he said. “And in the future [I want] to see improvements in medical services offered to veterans and more employment for those fellow veterans that are unemployed.”
Madelina Vega Acevedo, the daughter of deceased Borinqueneer Sgt. Paul Vega Acevedo, said she was pleased that her father was recognized for his efforts – if posthumously.
“I´m very happy because he was a righteous man, and even after his death this is a great recognition one that exalts his effort to fight and defend democracy, and I'm here to represent him,” she said.
In Puerto Rico, Pierluisi said commemorations to honor the Borinqueneers will continue. A bust will be erected with their names on it and it will also include a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor once it is available.
Pierluisi said leaders in Puerto Rico will attempt to finally create a list identifying all of the Borinqueneers that are alive in the hopes of better understanding their needs and current situation.
“The Borinqueneers exemplify the American traditions of patriotism, sacrifice and service,” said New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who was born in Puerto Rico. “I am proud to see our nation bestow this long overdue honor on these heroes.”