One of the stories we’ve covered for THUD is the ongoing controversy with Ken Burns’ The War – the upcoming PBS documentary series about World War II that neglected to highlight the achievements of Latinos or Native Americans. The Hispanic community, from Congressmen on down, responded by urging Burns and PBS to reconsider re-editing the documentary to contain segments on Latino veterans – although they had to threaten a boycott to do it. (Smooth move, PBS.)
One of the more prominent speakers on this issue has been Raquel Garza, a Project Manager at the University of Texas at Austin’s U.S. Latinos and Latinas & WWII Oral History Project. She’s been quoted in Newsweek, as well as working alongside the Oral History Project’s founder, Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez in the grassroots organization Defend The Honor, which was formed as a response to Ken Burns’ initial cut of The War.
Ms. Garza recently took the time to talk to THUD about The War, as well as the World War II Oral History Project and Latinos in entertainment.
Ken Burns has finally agreed to re-edit portions of The War to include stories of Latino veterans. How are you feeling about his decision? And do you think that the July deadline for Burns to deliver a cut of The War for DVD distribution is enough time to correct his mistakes?
At this point, we’re still waiting to see how the additional footage will be included. If it’s not done in a meaningful way, what’s the point? As for the July deadline, I hope they work well under pressure. That seems a very short time to try to get something like this done.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Can you talk about the first time you became involved with The War, and when you realized that Burns had initially ignored the contributions of Latinos in World War II?
I first saw a preview of the documentary in New Orleans at the International Conference on WWII hosted by D-Day The National WWII Museum. From the hour that I got to see, the documentary looked great. But then, during the Q&A session, it became clear that this wasn’t the documentary I was hoping it was. Carmen Contreras Bozak, a WAC who served overseas and a Project interview subject, asked if women in the military had been included and was told that they were not. Samuel Sandoval, a Navajo Code Talker, asked if Native Americans had been included and were told that they had done those interviews, but in the end decided to structure the documentary by cities and now the interviews didn’t fit. After the Q&A, I spoke with Lynn Novick and asked if Hispanics had been included and were told they hadn’t.
How did you decide this was an issue that needed pursuing, and what can you tell me about the development of this campaign to get The War amended? Was it something that started small and became this huge story?
Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, the project director and founder, was alerted to the problem she decided that something needed to be done. She, along with Gus Chavez and others, decided to form the Defend the Honor campaign. It’s a grassroots movement more than 7,000 strong that is pushing for the inclusion of Latino/a veterans’ and civilians’ stories.
They met with PBS in March and were not taken very seriously. But the Defend the Honor campaign was not so easily deterred. They started organizing letter writing, emails, and phone calls and PBS finally took notice. So did the media.
Obviously, one of the things that put pressure on PBS and Burns was the involvement of several Latino members of Congress. While I agree that The War needed to be changed, it seemed like another example of the federal government impeding on what should be considered “free speech.” Can you discuss the involvement of these members of Congress?
I can’t really speak to the congressional efforts, as that is something I am not involved in. But I think it’s important to note that if tax dollars are being spent on something, then tax payers/their representatives should have a say.
One of the things that struck me about this is that Burns said that he and his researchers couldn’t find any compelling stories or Latino veterans to interview, but part of The War’s narrative centers around Sacramento, California. Do you think that was laziness on his part, or was this an honest mistake?
I hope that it was an honest mistake. And while I don’t want to accuse any one of laziness, it looks that way. If he relied on veterans coming forward to talk to him, then yes, it was lazy. Any good reporter (and I was a reporter once, I don’t know about how good…) knows that you have to dig and work hard to find the truth of things. If you’re relying on people to give you the story, you will never know the whole story.
Obviously, documentary filmmaking is a subjective art form with its own point of view. However, Burns is a documentary filmmaker who frequently paints his features as “definitive” statements on a single subject with names like Baseball, Jazz, and The War. Do you think it’s the responsibility of a documentary filmmaker to offer the most complete portrayal of a subject as possible? And should this only apply to filmmakers like Burns who set their work up as the definitive film on the subject?
This is difficult because with these subjects they are so big and there is so much to talk about that something is bound to be left out. I think his “titles” are too big, too general. Of course a viewer would think “THE WAR” is definitive—with a title like that, how could it not be? I think everyone needs to be careful with how things are worded. If we called ourselves The WWII Oral History Project, wouldn’t you think we would interview everyone and have stories about everything?
Can you talk about the history of the U.S. Latinos and Latinas & WWII Oral History project? What are its goals, and how did you get involved with this project?
The Project began in 1999. Dr. Maggie was inspired to learn more and record this history after speaking with frontrunners of the Hispanic Civil Rights Movement – like Pete Tijerina, who helped found MALDEF– most of them had been veterans and used the GI Bill to pursue their education and fight for civil rights.
The Project’s initial goal was to capture 200 interviews; we’ve since recorded more than 550. Right now we’re in the process of getting them onto our new Web site, which is being built. Most importantly, the goal is to create an awareness of the contributions made by the men and women of the WWII generation.
I began with the Project when I was a student of Dr. Maggie’s. I started writing stories from interviews other people had done and then did interviews of my own. I know this is going to come across as incredibly cheesy, but I really felt this was a great opportunity to do something meaningful.
What’s one story from your work with the Oral History project that you feel is particularly moving or notable? Are there any stories of characters or figures that deserve their own documentary?
There are so many stories that are moving and notable. I have many favorites – some of the most touching are the tributes provided for those who were KIA. One that particularly struck me was that of Johnnie W. Flores, who was KIA in Germany. His nephew compiled all the information he could on his uncle. “My generation is the last to have seen or known Johnnie, though only through short, fleeting, youthful memories,” said Fred Flores, who was 7 when he received news his uncle died. The photos they sent us are great.
Some of our subjects have had movies made about them, such as Guy Gabaldon, who served in the USMC. He’s known as the “Pied Piper of Saipan” because he would use the Japanese he learned as a child to round up Japanese soldiers, women and children that were on the islands where he served.
Of course, he was turned into an Italian American for the film and was played by tall, blond Jeffrey Hunter. Mr. Gabaldon, who passed away last year, had a sense of humor about it though. In a letter he wrote to the Project, he said, “But Jeffery was jealous that he didn’t have my good looks – hijole!”
From a historical perspective, how important was World War II to the Chicano Movement of the sixties and seventies? Is this one of the reasons why you felt Burns should have included Latino and Latina stories in The War – because the repercussions from Latino contributions wound up having a tremendous impact on American culture?
In my opinion, because of these guys, the Chicano Movement had the opportunity to protest so loudly. These were the guys who got the ball rolling, who came back after serving with white men and women and realized that they were just as good as anyone else. They weren’t going to be treated like second-class citizens again. So yes, WWII for Latinos was a huge catalyst.
I want to be fair to Ken Burns, but I think there is a lot about that time period that he never stopped to think about. In the Indianapolis Star, he said “We weren’t looking for that which makes these groups distinct. We were looking for that which makes human beings the same.”
But at the time, human beings were not the same. Ask the Japanese citizens interned in the civilian camps; ask the African American soldiers who were segregated; ask the Mexican American soldiers who, even though they were not segregated in the military, had been segregated every where else. History is subjective. It’s time that history is told from someone else’s point of view.
It seems that Latino and Latina characters on television are still very stereotypical, if not in their mannerisms, then certainly in their professions. Beyond this controversy over The War, what are your thoughts on how Latinos are currently portrayed in television?
I think some shows do a pretty good job of including Latinos in a meaningful way and not just as a punchline.
I think they’ve done a pretty good job on “Grey’s Anatomy” of creating characters who are just “people” – Christina isn’t eating stir fry and Callie isn’t coming in with pan dulce for everyone. But, really, there’s so much going on in there “personal lives” that there’s no time for stereotypes. I wish more TV was like that.
We’ve come a long way from the Frito Bandito, but there’s still a long way to go.
The War airs in September on your local PBS station, and the website for the US Latinos and Latinas & WWII Oral History Project is here. I definitely recommend checking it out.