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 Stuart, Reginald | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, September 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

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


Stuart, Reginald, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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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 Novice 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 Bums' 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. …

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