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 Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"

What You Don't Know About Mexico

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
It's been awhile since the U.S. media has said anything about Mexico except the low-down on drug cartels, illegal immigration, and kidnappings. Negativity sells newspapers and sends traffic to media websites because nobody reads a publication that headlines "Plane Lands Safely." Common sense tells the intelligent reader that there must be another side to the story of what Mexicans are like. You're right. Here are a few true stories to help balance media negativity.


A storm of California wildfires, over 2,000 of them, have been especially ferocious this year. On and on our brave firefighters fought against nearly impossible odds, with new infernos continually blazing, unusually high temperatures in the bone-dry State, and the most savage enemy of the firefighter: wind.

Firefighters continued, exhausted, without sleep or rest, to protect our citizens and our resources. More than 870,000 acres, or 1, 350 square miles, have been consumed making the crisis the largest in the State's history. One hundred structures were destroyed, one person perished.

What hasn't received much publicity is Mexico's help in combating the blazes. Even before those from Australia, Greece, and New Zealand, Mexican firefighters arrived to relieve exhausted men on the front lines.

Good neighbors help one another.


There was a time in history when Mexico was accused by a U.S. NAFTA-opposed politician of making "giant sucking sounds." Well, folks, the giant noises that came from Mexico during the Katrina tragedy were not giant sucking sounds, they were giant rumbling sounds, and they came from a Mexican Army convoy driving north to help the U.S. in its time of crisis.

As water rose over the rooftops of New Orleans, the Mexican Army prepared to do battle on our behalf. For the first time since 1846, Mexican military units operated on U.S. soil, as Mexican Army trucks and tractor trailers convoyed north, with Mexican flags taped to the roof tops of the 45 vehicles.

These vehicles, manned by 200 soldiers, officers and specialists, carried water treatment plants, mobile kitchens and supplies to feed the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The convoy included military engineers, doctors, nurses, two mobile kitchens that could feed 7,000 people each per day, three flatbed trucks carrying mobile water treatment plants, and 15 trailers of bottled water, blankets and applesauce. Burritos on the side.

Last time Mexican troops were on U.S. soil (1846), they advanced north of the Rio Grande in Texas (which had recently joined the United States). Mexico, however, did not then recognize the Rio Grande as the U.S. border. There are those who say it still doesn't.

In 1916, Pancho Villa led a group of fighters in a brief raid into Columbus, New Mexico, in what is considered the last battle against foreign forces on U.S. soil. Apparently, nobody is counting Taliban terrorist cells in the U.S.

Mexico planned a second 12-vehicle aid convoy together with a Mexican navy ship steaming toward the Mississippi coast with rescue vehicles and helicopters.

The Mexicans set up consular offices in trailers around the disaster zone to help their estimated 140,000 countrymen living in the region, 10,000 of them in New Orleans. In addition, help was offered by a search-and-rescue group called "topos" - (moles) - organized by youths who dug through collapsed buildings after Mexico City's 1985 earthquake.

"This is the first time that the United States has accepted a military mission from Mexico" for such work, said Javier Ibarrola, a newspaper columnist who covers military affairs in Mexico. "This is something that's never happened before."

Then-President Fox of Mexico had not waited for Senate approval to help us. In an act of solidarity between our two nations, he was strong enough to give an order without wading through red tape.

In the words of the New Orleans flood survivor who was helping reunite lost children with their parents, "When you help someone else out, you help the world."


An ace flier is defined as a fighter pilot who has destroyed five or more enemy aircraft. Charlie Foster was a World War II ace with the 201st Fighter Squadron. What's more, Charlie's heroism beyond the call of duty netted him a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Yet no one made a movie about Charlie Foster, the way they did about Audie Murphy, a famed Medal of Honor-winning World War II hero, in To Hell and Back. No HBO miniseries about Charlie was made by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg the way they made Band of Brothers, the one about WW II's 101st Airborne Division's Easy Company. No Hollywood studio made an Oscar winning film about the 201st, as they did about the Civil War's first all-black volunteer company in 1989's Glory. But in its way, Charlie's tale is as special as those famous stories of heroic actions.

What makes Charlie's story unique is that his real name isn't Charlie Foster, it's Carlos Faustinos, a Mexican citizen. Carlos fought beside American airmen in the Pacific Theater and was a member of the elite Esquadron Aereo de Caza 201, also known as the Fighting 201st.

Not only did this information surprise me, but so did the fact that Mexico declared war on the Axis powers on June 11, 1942. Imagine that. Can't you just see kind, agricultural Mexico declaring war on the Big Bad Wolves Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler? But Mexico did indeed declare war, and they put their men where their collective mouth was.

It was at that time Mexico organized the 201st Fighter Squadron, a select group of Mexican pilots, including Carlos Faustinos'. Thirty-five officers and 300 enlisted men were trained in Mexico, then given additional flight training as P-47 fighter squadron at Pocatello Army Air Base in Idaho, and were then attached to the 58th Fighter Group in the Philippines where they began combat operations. They wiped out machine gun nests, dropped 181 tons of bombs and fired 153,000 rounds of ammunition, acquitting themselves well and bravely. Seven of their pilots were killed in action.

The Fighting 201st wasn't the only heroic group of Mexicans. In a town called Silvis, just west of Chicago, runs a street once named Second Street. It's not much of a street, not even two blocks long, muddy in spring, icy in winter, dusty in summer. On this single street, 105 men participated in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It's the street where Joe Gómez, Peter Macías, Johnny Muños, Tony Pompa, Claro Solíz, and Frank, Joseph, and William Sandoval grew up together. They worked for the railroad, like their fathers who had emigrated from Mexico. These young men, raised to revere freedom, went to war without hesitation.

The two Sandoval families alone sent thirteen; six from one family; seven from the other. According to the U.S. Defense Department, this little street contributed more men to military service than any other place of comparable size in the United States, standing alone in American military history.

In a letter to Frank Sandoval, Claro Solíz described Second Street as ". . . Really not much, just mud and ruts, but right now to me it is the greatest street in the world." He never saw it again. Not one of these boys came home alive.

In honor of their supreme sacrifice, a monument listing the name of each man now stands in Silvis, Illinois. Second Street has been officially renamed Hero Street USA. Next time you're in the mid West, you might want to visit this street of heroes just to say thank you.

Maybe these stories weren't sensational enough to be covered by the media, but they happened just the same.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
July 17, 2008 column
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