The Undocumented Immigrant Who Became A WWI Hero

The Undocumented Immigrant Who Became A WWI Hero

By: Rodrigo Ayala -

He was repeatedly told he didn't belong, but chose to stay anyways and fight for what he thought was right


Denver, Colorado. US, 1917

A federal patrol stops a group of working young men in a beets field. They have to make sure these workers have legal documents. All look nervous, especially the one with tanned skin hiding in the back. When they ask for his name they realize he doesn't speak any English. Finally, after much arm waving and sloppy translation efforts from the rest, he says his name's Marcelino Serna. The officers inform him that he cannot work in American territory without papers, but Marcelino has a proposal: rather than be deported, he offers his services to the US Army to fight in the Great War. 

He offered himself as a volunteer to fight in the war.


Marcelino Serna mexican wwi hero army


Knowing how tough and cruel the battles were, and the number of deaths happening every day, the officers accepted the offer and took him to the closest recruitment center. After just a few weeks of training, Serna was deployed to European territory, to Liverpool to be precise. He was later transferred to France to be part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which was the largest in US military history, involving 1.2 million soldiers. Marcelino fought bravely and never backed down from a fight. He moved as if he'd been raised in a battlefield. 




Chihuahua, Mexico. 1916

Career opportunities were thin in the ground. Born on April 26, 1896 in the state of Chihuahua, when Marcelino Serna came of age he had spent months looking for a better job. Many of his friends had already fled their hometown and crossed the Rio Bravo in search of a better life.Serna was so desperate that he followed his friends' steps. When he was only 20 years old he decided to pack his bag and head north. 

Marcelino Serna mexican wwi hero chihuahua


He managed to cross the border, and a month later, he settled in El Paso, Texas, as a maintenance assistant. In his eyes, anything was better than the misery he had endured in his hometown. His luck changed when he was offered a job at a beet field in Denver. He was getting a better pay and it was a good job for someone his age and physical condition. 



Europe, 1917


The violence rose like a tidal wave and the battles were bloody and endless. The number of dead soldiers kept mounting and there was no end in sight. 

Soon, the leaders of the squad realized that this brave soldier wasn't an American citizen and offered Serna the chance to go back to Mexico and save his life. He refused. For the first time in his life, Serna felt he was useful and he was fully committed to the effort.


Marcelino Serna mexican wwi hero soldiers


His superiors were honored by the humble nature of this Mexican soldier who had proven his mettle in battle. They really needed someone like him to win the skirmishes and in many occasions he showed his bravery and dexterity. When the war was over, he returned to the US and told the El Paso Times what had happened when a German gunner reached them:


“When I got close enough, I threw four grenades into the nest. Eight Germans came out with their hands up. Another six were in the nest, dead. I held my prisoners until help arrived.”


Marcelino Serna mexican wwi hero wasteland


In another confrontation, he hurt a sniper and followed him to his camp site. There he opened fire and approximately 26 men surrendered to him. He took them as prisoners and when he brought them back to his rendezvous many of his comrades said they should be immediately executed. Serna was opposed to this, showing a great sense of compassion.


Recognition and awards

His outstanding performance gave him the right to become an American citizen and settle in El Paso, Texas. He lived there until his death on February 29, 1992. He was buried with military honors.

Marcelino Serna mexican wwi hero registration card

His bravery shown in the battlefield won him two Purple Hearts, a Victory Medal with three campaign bars, French Commemorative Medal, a French St. Mihiel Medal, a French Verdun Medal, a Victory Medal with five stars, and Purple Hearts of the Armed Forces. He is one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Texas. 

Not bad for a boy who crossed the border in search of a better life.

Marcelino Serna mexican wwi hero headstone



War has many sides and perspectives, but the only thing that's true is what people are willing to do to survive.



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Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards