WTTW documentary: Parish remembers 12 killed in Vietnam

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, April 21, 2022

A memorial and mural honor 12 parishioners who died fighting in the Vietnam War at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the South Chicago neighborhood. (Miguel Zuno, Zuno Photography, WTTW)

When Edgar Vargas was growing up in South Chicago, it was in many ways an idyllic childhood, kind of the Mexican American “Wonder Years,” he said. The neighborhood was full of big families, and kids would run around together.

“It was the kind of place where your parents would say to be back when the streetlights came on,” said Vargas, producer of “Our Soldiers, Our Lady of Guadalupe,” a documentary premiering on WTTW’s “Chicago Stories” April 29. “And if someone saw you misbehaving, they’d be on the phone to your parents.”

But that same tight-knit community buried five of its young men, killed in Vietnam, over six months in 1968. By the end of the war, a dozen soldiers from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish were listed as killed in action, perhaps more than any other parish in the United States.

The parish dedicated a memorial for its fallen soldiers in 1970, 12 years before the U.S. Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated.

“I’d like to think I was there for the first Memorial Day celebration” when the memorial was dedicated, Vargas said. “But I can’t remember.”

As it approached its 50th anniversary — and after feeling Mexican American soldiers were slighted by Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary released in 2017 — Vargas decided it was time to tell the story.

“What was most surprising to me was how many of the guys, even when I approached them, had not talked about their Vietnam experience, or still weren’t ready to talk about it,” Vargas said. “But they would say, ‘Good luck on the documentary,’ and they would have this look, like, ‘Get it right.’”

While Vargas, who was 8 years old and a student at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in 1970, isn’t sure if he was there for the first Memorial Day observance, he remembers seeing young men in uniform. They were at church, at family parties, on the streets.

For many, they were following in the footsteps of their fathers, uncles and older brothers.

When young men came back from Vietnam, to a country torn by protests over the war, those older men tried to integrate them into the community, offering to help them find jobs in the steel mills, inviting them to join the local American Legion Post, suggesting they play softball or come to a boxing league. But the Vietnam veterans had a hard time feeling like they fit in, even at Our Lady of Guadalupe, created in 1923 as the first Mexican parish in Chicago, Vargas said.

“A lot of the young men, when they came back, they recognized it as their parish, but they weren’t churchgoers,” he said.

Bishop Placido Rodriguez, a Claretian priest who ministered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish during the war, appears in the documentary. He recalls that time being a test of faith for the entire community.

“All the parishioners — we were shaken in our faith,” Bishop Rodriguez says in the film. “We were all concerned. We needed to reflect on the morality of war.”

Martin Castro, whose grandparents were among the first parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe in the 1920s, said the Mexican American community has repaid this country for the opportunities it’s received with their service.

“It proves how much our community has given,” said Castro, now president and CEO of Casa Central, in the documentary. “Their sacrifice is too humbling for words. We have paid for our citizenship with our dearest blood. We love this country, and we just wish she loved us as much as we love her.”

Vargas said he hopes people who watch “Our Soldiers, Our Lady of Guadalupe” learn as much about the importance of understanding and telling their own stories as they do about what happened to one parish during the Vietnam War.

“If you’re Mexican American, it’s a call to tell your own family’s history, wherever you are, whoever you are,” he said. “Otherwise, we just don’t know. I’m always amazed at people’s personal stories, even talking among friends. The takeaway should be: Tell your stories. Save your photographs. … I think there’s an audience for the stories. I could say that for all immigrant groups. How did we get here? Why did we stay here? What led us in this direction, rather than that direction?”

“Our Soldiers, Our Lady of Guadalupe” premieres on WTTW-Channel 11 at 8 p.m. April 29.



  • television
  • parishes

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