A Historical Omission Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and colleagues were puzzled to learn of a major World War II documentary to air without the voices of Latino veterans. And then the campaign began.
By Reginald Stuart
For nearly a decade, Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and a small army of students and volunteer colleagues around the country have been aggressively chasing and documenting a rapidly vanishing chapter of American history — the American Latino and Latina experience during World War II.
Along the way, they recorded nearly 600 interviews of about two hours each. They found thousands of pictures of Latinos in uniform, assigned to segregated units by language and, more often than not, treated with much the same disdain as their Black and Asian brothers and sisters. They found families who had as many as five sons in the war at one time and even an American of Mexican descent who had been repatriated to Mexico during the Depression only to be called to duty during the war. He gladly reported to serve.
“This is why the Latino experience is so unique,” says Rivas-Rodriguez, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and creator of the school’s U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project. It is one of the most ambitious of several small efforts around the country to document the Latino experience in WWII before all those who know about it first-hand die.
“These people are so proud of their service,” adds Rodriguez, a former newspaper reporter whose largely volunteer corps continues to build an archive of work.
Rivas-Rodriguez and her team were more than a bit surprised last fall when they learned at a WWII gathering in New Orleans that a major documentary featuring no Latino veterans would air this month on PBS stations around the nation. The series debuts Sept. 23 and will be featured prominently on public programming for weeks.
“The War,” a $10 million, 14-hour, seven-part series was being produced by noted documentary producers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Burns has produced blockbuster documentaries for PBS in the past on the Civil War, baseball, jazz and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. His work is gold to PBS. For this project, Burns and his team spent six years researching in Germany, Japan and the United States and talked with nearly 500 veterans in deciding how to make the film. The final version is built around interviews with 40 rank-and-file veterans in four cities — Mobile, Ala.; Waterbury, Conn.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Luverne, Minn. — and film clips of the war.
Rivas-Rodriguez and Gus Chavez, a retired administrator at San Diego State University, began making a fuss once they learned of Burns’ documentary. Chavez was a volunteer for the oral history project and had contributed several interviews of Latino WWII veterans from the San Diego area. He used the project for the university as an outreach tool for Latinos.
By early this year, they launched a grassroots campaign, called Defend the Honor, to approach local PBS stations about their concerns. They also contacted a broad base of Latino leaders, including the League of United American Citizens, Latino members of Congress, the American GI Forum and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. They joined the chorus voicing concern over the absence of Latino veterans in such a major national history project touted by its producers as “the first documentary series to comprehensively chronicle the broad sweep of America’s experience during the war.”
“Ken was certainly very aware of the criticism and was saddened by it,” says Joe DePlasco, one of Burns’ spokesmen. “Ken is very sensitive on race,” he adds, noting past documentaries produced by Burns and the fact that “The War” dealt head on with Japanese Americans who fought in the war while facing internment of their families and confiscation of their property; and Black Americans who faced racism while serving their country.
DePlasco also stressed that it was never Burns’ intent to portray “The War” as the definitive work on the American veteran experience in WWII, a point reinforced by PBS Vice President Lea Sloan.
“It is a story that doesn’t document the accomplishments of any one group,” says Sloan. “It was very much a personal story. The premise of Ken’s film was to talk to the townspeople of four communities and talk of their experiences of being thrown into battle.”
By early spring, critics had the attention of Paula Kerger, the head of PBS. Kerger acknowledged the concerns of the critics but offered little relief, says Rivas-Rodriguez. Kerger explained that the documentary had been completed last year and that it was PBS’s policy not to interfere with the artistic freedom of Burns.
In April, Rivas-Rodriguez, her colleagues and several lawmakers had a private meeting with Burns. In addition to airing their opinions about the omission, they offered assistance to Burns in locating Latino veterans and in accessing thousands of pictures from the families of Latinos who served in WWII. Burns promised to add Latino voices to the program.
A month later, Florentine Films, Burns’ production company, the American GI Forum and the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of major Hispanic organizations, announced an agreement that was drafted in consultation with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They decided to add interviews with one American Indian and two Latino veterans to the documentary. The interviews, which are about 28 minutes long, will be placed at the end of various segments of the series and will run before the credits.“We’re very happy with the outcome,” says Sloan, echoing the sentiments of other major financial backers of “The War.” Representatives of General Motors and Anheuser-Busch Inc. offered similar comments when contacted.
Ryndee Carnery, manager of advertising and marketing at GM, which has underwritten a significant portion of Burns’ production costs since 1987, says the company was “OK” with Burns’ decision to include Latino voices in “The War.” She added that GM did not order any changes, however. “We have a completely hands-off policy regarding subject matter and content and don’t have any intentions of altering this policy,” she says, noting the importance of respecting artistic freedom.
“We wanted inclusion in the documentary,” says Antonio Gil Morales, national commander of the American GI Forum, a 60-year-old congressionally chartered advocacy group for Latino veterans. “Unfortunately, for us, they had already finished the whole thing. Coming into the scene as late as we did, I think we got some satisfaction out of it. Of course we wanted more, but given the time, it’s a fair deal. The fact that PBS let this go on for so long is another issue,” he adds.
Ditto, says Mike Getler, the PBS ombudsman.
“I think their problem is they didn’t think about all this in the beginning, and that reflects a weakness in the system,” says Getler, who has written several columns on the topic. “It may be that nothing would have changed, but having thought about it at least makes for fuller and more open explanation and challenge,” Getler wrote in one of his columns.
Rivas-Rodriguez, the spark who started the fire, was not part of the agreement. She says she and many of her colleagues felt Burns was allowed to “marginalize” Latino and Latina WWII experiences.
“I’m kind of torn,” Rivas-Rodriguez says, when asked whether she would be watching the series. “There are people calling for a boycott of the sponsors and the documentary. I would hate to see that happen out of respect for the people who were interviewed. They have stories to tell. I would hate to see us disrespect them the way our people have been disrespected. I think we’re better than that.
“Maybe we’re not going to get more than 28 minutes, but we aren’t going to let go of this one.”
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