The generosity and caring spirit of these veterans lives on in the archives of PN magazine
Feliz Navidad! And, no, I’m not talking about the 1970 Christmas classic by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano.
Feliz Navidad has a special meaning within Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) that predates that song by many years. PVA had a chapter in Guadalajara, Mexico, from 1964 to 1984. During these years, and before and after the chapter officially existed, the veterans in Guadalajara, or what became known as “Quadalajara,” always found ways to give to the less fortunate in their community.
I’ve studied PVA history intensely over the past few years, and for me, there’s something that bothers me, not in PVA’s history but in how this group in Mexico was portrayed in the 1989 film Born on the Fourth of July. The small part of the film that took place in Mexico highlighted booze and brothels. That was definitely something that took place, but they were far from their only activities.
Veterans with spinal-cord injuries first started going to Mexico after World War II. One of the first was James Seybold. James spent his time in Mexico City. His great column, Mexico, A Paradise For Paraplegics in the May 1955 issue of PN, offered tips for those wanting to escape. As he put it, “Did you have a hard and trying winter?
And you Californians, did the smog and fog drive you to distraction?” I can’t imagine the smog was that bad in California in 1955, but I guess they thought so. Whatever the reason, paralyzed veterans soon started going to Mexico in greater numbers, primarily for the low cost of living and the weather.
To write about everything Quadalajara isn’t something I would attempt. And fortunately I don’t need to, as Jack Tumidajski did a wonderful job in his book, Quadalajara: The Utopia That Once Was. The book is available on Amazon (what isn’t) and is a recommended read.
What I did want to mention here was some of the outstanding work in giving back to the community by these paralyzed veterans, particularly during the holiday season. The January 1964 PN article Paraplegics Brighten Orphans’ Christmas noted, “The more than 350 orphans in Hospicio de Cabanas, the State orphanage here, were slated to have the best Christmas in the history of the 176-year-old institution, thanks to American paraplegics who live in this mile-high city.”
This was the first of many more Christmas parties to come. It was an event that grew in size over the years and made these paralyzed veterans cherished community members. Needy Guadalajara Children Get Merry Christmas in the February 1966 issue of PN told it well: “It was a big and unforgettable Christmas for 1,500 needy children in Guadalajara, Mexico, thanks to the generosity and hard work of the 60 paraplegics who raised 7,500 pesos for the biggest Christmas fund yet.
A poverty-stricken Catholic school, an equally poor public school and all the orphans at the state Orphanage were guests of the Americans at three separate parties. Both schools received swings and teeter-totters, plus soccer, volleyball, baseball and other games equipment. Every child received a bag of candy, an orange and home-baked cookies baked by
American women in Guadalajara, who backed the paraplegics’ traditional Christmas observance.”
Somehow, those details must have fallen to the editing room floor in the making of Born on the Fourth of July. But fortunately, the generosity and caring spirit of these veterans lives on in the archives of PN magazine.
It seems people either love or loathe José Feliciano’s song, but there’s no denying it has become a Christmas classic. When you hear it this year, I want the image on the previous page to pop into your mind — veterans in their stainless steel wheelchairs helping and celebrating with children in Guadalajara.
Feliz Navidad, and yes, I want to wish you a merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.