I’ve come to say goodbye to the boys
Because I am off to war
And even if I fight in faraway lands
I am fighting for my rights, my homeland and my honor
These are the lyrics to an original song performed by boricua cuatro guitar player Marcos Melendez in the PBS documentary, Latinos in America. Melendez is not only a musician; he is also a World War II veteran and former member of an exclusively Puerto Rican military unit of the U.S. Army, the 65th Regiment, also known as the Borinqueneers.
In the film, Melendez shares how he used this particular song to boost his fellow soldiers’ morale while on a ship en route to an overseas battle. “I grew up in the Army. [The Army] made me a better man,” he adds. In recognition of Memorial Day, ‘LLERO honors the Borinqueneers.
The Unit is Born
The first ever Puerto Rican military group was established in 1899 by an Act of Congress, which authorized the “Porto Rico Battalion of Volunteer Infantry.” The volunteers were officially made part of the U.S. military in 1908. After the passage of the Jones Act in 1917, which granted Puerto Ricans citizenship, even more men joined the army. The 65h Infantry Regiment, the last segregated unit of the Army, was officially established on September 14, 1920 after successfully protecting the Panama Canal.
Puerto Ricans had been volunteering for military service to prove their patriotism and for a better quality of life for themselves and their families for decades. Melendez says he enlisted in 1939 for the promise of “better food, more money and good living.” Up until that point the Puerto Rican servicemen were given the moniker “Borinqueneer” which derives from the Taino word for the island, “Borinquen”. The 65th Infantry Regiment consisted of Puerto Rican men who saw frontline action in World War I, World War II and The Korean War. It wasn’t until March 1953 during the Korean War that the unit diversified, adding Mexican-American, Filipinos, African-American and other Caribbean soldiers.