A Historic Perspective of Hispanic Sailors in the United States Navy:
The Story of Admiral David Farragut and Bandmaster Jose Contrereas



Joes Contrereas

Since the inception of the Navy, the need for able bodies has almost always superseded any racial ideology. Naval historian, Dennis Nelson, noted that it was a "remarkable fact" that there was little mention of race or ethnicity in the early logs of the Navy.  Ever since John Adams established our Colonial Navy, Latinos, Hispanics, and Chicanos have served our country with distinction.  It can be said that the path of democracy in the United States was forged through the blood, sweat, and tears of our immigrant population, who came to America with hopes of a better tomorrow.

Thirty-nine Hispanics were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is more than any other identifiable ethnic group. The story of the hard-working immigrant family parallels the Navy's proud core values: honor, courage, and commitment, and this spirit of determination is illustrated through the stories of two pioneer Navy Sailors, the Navy's first Admiral, David Farragut and Bandmaster Jose Contreras.

            In addition to being the first full Admiral of the Navy, David Farragut is also known as one of the Navy's greatest. While his career is a hallmark of Navy history, his background is often overlooked. However, it is in this background that the true American immigrant experience can be seen.

Admiral Farragut's father, Jordi Farragut Mesquida, was from Minorca, Spain and was the Captain of a Spanish merchant ship. This ship was operating around the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico when the United States declared its independence from Britain in 1776. After Spain announced its support of the United States, Jordi changed his name to a more Anglican moniker, George Farragut.  He then enlisted as a Lieutenant in the South Carolina Navy and went on to serve with great distinction. During his career, he married and had a son, James Farragut.

After losing his wife to yellow fever in 1808, George called on his friend and fellow Navy Officer, David Porter, to help with family matters.  Since he felt that he was unable to care for a small child, George Farragut asked Commodore Porter if he could take his son to raise him as his own. His friend agreed, and in 1809, James Farragut was adopted into his new family. Immediately, Commodore Porter introduced the eight year-old Farragut to the Navy.  James went to sea with his newly adopted father and received his first naval appointment to midshipmen one year later, at the very young age of 9.  At this time, James changed his name to David to show respect for his new family, and a Navy legacy began. 

It was during the Civil War that David Farragut altered the course of the Navy forever. After his astonishing victory over the Confederate Navy in New Orleans on April 28, 1862, the United States Navy honored Commodore Farragut by creating the rank of Rear Admiral. It was on June 16, 1862 that David Farragut became Rear Admiral Farragut.  He went on to support the Union campaign at Vicksburg and was instrumental in the success of securing the Mississippi River fort, Port Hudson, from the Confederates.

In 1864, Admiral Farragut solidified his place in the Navy's history books.   He displayed his tenacity in battle by confronting the last Confederate stronghold of the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile Bay.  As his armada arrived in the bay, they were met with mines anchored to the sea bottom, known as torpedoes. One of his ships, the Tecumseh, struck a mine and sunk immediately. The entire armada came to a halt. Understanding the importance of moving forward in battle, he uttered his famous words, "Damn the torpedoes, all ahead full." Inspired by his bravado, the armada steamed through the mines and won a decisive victory. For his efforts, the Navy again created a new rank, Vice Admiral, to which he was appointed.  His promotions were not done, however, because shortly after the war, President Lincoln promoted Farragut to the newly created rank of Full Admiral.

            Admiral David Farragut died in 1870 and received a hero's farewell. His funeral procession, escorted by 10,000 soldiers and sailors, was led by Ulysses S. Grant through the streets of New York.  

Shortly after Admiral Farragut's death, the United States began work on reconstructing the Union. For many immigrant and foreign-born citizens, the effects of the Reconstruction as well as the turbulent years that followed, had a negative social impact. Between wars with Spain and Mexico and the arrival of the Jim Crow laws after the Civil War, life for non-white citizens became difficult. For Hispanics, Latinos, and Chicanos, life along the border states of California, Arizona, and Texas became especially burdensome.  Schools throughout the country began to segregate along racial and ethnic lines. Signs reading "For Whites Only" sprang up, making it extremely difficult for minority groups to go to school and to get jobs. 

One example of the social policies of this time was President Herbert Hoover's Mexican-American Repatriation Campaign of 1929.  This campaign was a reaction to the pressures felt at the beginning of the Great Depression by white Americans who were afraid of losing their jobs.  In this failing economy, they did not want to compete for income with other minority groups around the country.  With support from the Mexican Government, U.S. officials in California, Arizona, and Texas began to push, often through force and persuasion, over 500,000 Mexican-Americans into Mexico.  This was a time of great tension in the local Hispanic populations.  Mirroring social policies, the U.S. Navy became more racially divided.

Although discrimination in the Navy against Hispanics and Latinos is not well documented, it is known that many Latino and Hispanic Sailors were given menial labor jobs and were sometimes harassed by crew members. Another Hispanic sailor who was drawn to the United States Navy, and persevered in spite of this harassment, was Bandmaster Jose Contreras.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted a conference and brokered the treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War.  Shortly after the treaty was signed, Japan became increasingly frustrated over the concessions President Roosevelt forced them to make and that they believed to be unfair.  As a result, tensions developed between the people of the United States and Japan. 

Fearing the vulnerability of our West Coast defenses, Roosevelt ordered all of the Navy's sixteen battleships to the west coast.  Further, he instructed the Navy to make plans to embark upon on a circumnavigation of the world.  It is argued that Roosevelt sent this "Great White Fleet" around the globe in order to show Japan and others that the United States Navy could project power anywhere at a moment's notice.  On December 16, 1907, President Roosevelt bid farewell to his fleet as they departed from Hampton Roads, VA.  On January 1, 1909, the Navy fleet returned home to Hampton Roads.  Over the course of fourteen months, the fleet had travelled some 43,000 miles and visited 20 ports of call on six continents.  The mission was a resounding success as our Navy Sailors served as excellent diplomats across the world.

As a young boy in Valparaiso, Chile, Jose Contreras experienced first-hand the power and allure of the United States Navy's Great White Fleet.  It was in the harbor of Valparaiso that this fleet "paraded in review," and "performed maneuvers for the entertainment of the crowds onshore" and the President of Chile.  One Navy sailor described the impact of these maneuvers in Valparaiso as follows:  "The sixteen battleships roared out a salvo such as no one in Chile had ever heard before.  The effect of the thunder was electric."  Witnessing these Navy ships steaming in and out of port and hearing the salvo of the canons had a tremendous and dramatic impact on Contreras.  Within a year, he enlisted as a Navy Musician aboard the USS Maryland and left his home country of Chile forever.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "America is another word for opportunity."  For Jose Contreras, the U.S. Navy ship he saw in 1909 in the port of Valparaiso was his opportunity. He enlisted as a Musician Second Class that very year and remained on active duty until 1938, retiring to a job on the Washington Navy Yard where he served until 1955.   After enlisting, it was not long before Contreras' hard work and dedication to the Navy began to pay dividends.  It was through his immense talent and ability as a musician that he was called to the Navy Music School in New Port, Rhode Island to serve as an instructor in 1923.

Despite the social tension resulting from the discrimination that existed when Jose Contreras entered naval service, this hard working Hispanic immigrant became responsible for shaping the lives and careers of many Navy Sailors.  Another amazing achievement for Contreras happened in 1919 when he was assigned to the newly forming official band of the United States Navy, known as the "World's Finest", located in Washington. D.C.  This was a high honor for any musician. Shortly after this assignment Contreras was promoted to the rank of Bandmaster, the highest rank attainable by a musician at that time.


Navy band posing with instruments on ship

It was President Calvin Coolidge who officially recognized The United States Navy Band by signing Public Law 661 in 1925.  During the 1920's, The United States Navy Band gained national recognition and became a presidential favorite. The band was heard in concerts aboard the presidential yacht, the Mayflower, important functions at the White House, and at prominent local clubs and hotels.  As an original member of this elite ensemble, Bandmaster Contreras performed on many of these high profile ceremonies that carried national prominence.  One such ceremony found Bandmaster Contreras beside President Coolidge as our nation welcomed home Charles Lindbergh from his historic flight across the Atlantic in 1927.  Again, in 1929, Bandmaster Contreras was on hand as the nation welcomed home Admiral Byrd from his historic trip and flight over Little America, South Pole.  Additionally, Contreras was heard on NBC radio in 1927 as part of Arthur Godfrey's "Hour's of Memory". 



Portraits of Instructors, Musicians School, Newport RI

Bandmaster Contreras retired from the Navy in 1938.  However, he continued to work for the Navy at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. until 1955.  A retirement letter from Secretary of the Navy, C.S. Thomas, dated 10 October 1955 reads, "During your many years of service, you have had an active role, both in a military and civilian capacity, in the growth of our Navy to its present formidableness. The loyal, conscientious attitude which you have displayed in carrying out your assigned duties has made you a valuable asset to the Navy."

Jose Contreras was a young musician who had seen first-hand the power of the United States Navy's Great White Fleet as an opportunity to succeed.  He followed his dream to serve and become a musician, took the chance for a better tomorrow, and reached the top edges of his profession.   Like Admiral Farragut, Bandmaster Contreras symbolizes the spirit of hardworking U.S. immigrants, who helped forge the path of our Democracy.

It was near the time of Contreras' retirement that life for Hispanics in the United States began to improve.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1940's and 50's provided a voice for our minority groups.  Notably, for Hispanics and Latinos, events like the Zoot Suit Riots and the work of Dr. Hector Garcia's "American G.I. Forum" began to change the tide of discrimination.

Through our nation's social history, there have been times that define our culture. When discrimination and prejudice converged at a point, drastic measures were often the result and violence ensued.  Usually, those times were clouded in the debates of who was right or wrong, who made the first move, and ultimately, the consequences of the action taken.  The defining moment is when the culture being discriminated against rises up and says, "No more".   For Mexican- Americans, this moment came in the first week of June 1943 with the event known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

During the early months of World War II, Los Angeles saw an enormous increase in its Mexican-American population. As a result of this increase, racial tensions began to develop.  Signs like "Negros and Latinos on Wednesdays Only" began to pop up around town.  As G.I.'s began to head off to war, Mexican-American youth in Los Angeles began to act out in frustration over these discriminatory practices. One example of this was through the use and wear of Zoot Suits.   These suits had gained popularity in the African-American communities and were made famous by entertainers like Cab Calloway.  The suits were a visible display of the social power that these youth desired.  However, the wearing of these suits incensed the local authorities, including Navy personnel, who viewed it as openly mocking the clothing ration that was put in place during the war.  In addition to the Zoot Suits, Mexican-American youth began to act out their frustration by antagonizing Navy Sailors, accosting them on their way back to base after their nights out on the town.  Eventually, the Navy Sailors retaliated, and the result is known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

One reporter described the scene as "a mass of humanity locked in violent struggle, arms swinging, legs kicking, shrieking with anger."  Eventually, the Navy gained control of its Sailors and restricted their liberty.  However, the damage had been done.  Because both groups were wrong with many faults, historians have debated the results of the riots through the years.  What should be noted, however, is that the riots marked a pivotal moment for Mexican-Americans.  It was that time in history when someone took a stand and said, "No more."

Another turning point in the Civil Rights movement for Hispanics came from        Dr. Hector Garcia.  After returning home from his service during World War II,   Dr. Garcia established a private medical practice in his Texas hometown.  While treating veterans, he became increasingly aware of the intolerable discrimination against service members who had just fought and died for freedom and democracy.  Motivated by this injustice, Dr. Garcia formed the "American G.I. Forum" in 1948.  This group's motto was "Education is Our Freedom, and Freedom Should be Everybody's Business."  This group was charged with eradicating the racism of Chicanos in the work place and at schools.  

A tipping point for Dr. Garcia came in 1948, when the body of service member, Felix Longoria, was brought home to Texas for burial.  The local military cemetery officials refused to bury him in his hometown national cemetery.  Infuriated, Dr. Garcia and the American G.I. Forum initiated a letter-writing campaign and called upon Congress to help bring an honorable resolution to this injustice.  It was a Navy World War II veteran and freshman senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, who intervened and secured an honorable burial for Private Longoria in Arlington National Cemetery.  With this success behind him, Dr. Garcia went on to fight for voter rights and the fair treatment for students along the border-states.  Some consider Dr. Garcia to be the father of the Chicano Movement in the United States.

In 1954, the same year that Jose Contreras retired from national service, the Supreme Court heard the case of Hernandez vs. Texas.  The high Court ruled that Hispanics were, in fact, a separate ethnic group and were actively being discriminated against.  This simple ruling had an immense impact because it gave Hispanics complete protection under the 14th Amendment, and opened the door to legal action for those being discriminated against.  The tide for discrimination in America seemed to be turning.

A little-known quote by Admiral Farragut says, "First be sure you are right; then go ahead."  Looking back through the history of the Hispanic culture in the United States as well as in the navy, one can see success stories, pain, failures, doors opened and doors shut.  How do we know what is right and how do we move forward?  In a recent study of adolescents in America, 60% of students aged 17-19 felt discrimination from classmates.  Of the same students polled, 63% said they felt discrimination from adults.  With all the legislation surrounding border security, we currently seem to be in a time of heightened discrimination in the Latino and Hispanic communities.  In the past, the Navy has mirrored our nation's social standards.  The path of equality continues through the works of those like Edward Hidalgo, the first Hispanic Secretary of the Navy.  It was SECNAV Hidalgo who started the Hispanic Officers Recruitment Conference in 1979, which later became ANSO, the Association of Naval Service Officers.  This conference successfully raised the Hispanic enrollment at the Naval Academy.  Under his watch the number of Hispanic midshipmen rose from five in 1976, up to 200 by 1980.

It has been recently reported that over 1 million legal immigrants living in the United States are being underutilized.  Many of these individuals are well-trained doctors and lawyers who had successful practices in their home countries but are unable to get employment, other than in lower paying menial-labor jobs.  Many Hispanic communities across the country are impoverished.  People living in these areas could very well be the next Admiral Farragut, or Bandmaster Contreras. The Navy, as seen in the past, can provide the opportunity of that "America" of which Emerson wrote, and Bandmaster Contreras witnessed as a young boy.  Hispanic Sailors have a proud tradition and heritage of service, and their stories represent the Navy's Core Values honor of honor, courage, and commitment.




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