Last month, President Bush saluted the famed Tuskegee airmen as they received the Congressional Gold Medal, affirming that the sacrifice and service of African-Americans had finally been granted its place of honor in the nation's remembrance of World War II. But Hispanic Americans of the Greatest Generation are still battling for acknowledgment, and their fight has now embroiled celebrated documentarian Ken Burns and PBS television.
Emmy-award winner Burns is noted for TV series chronicling everything from the Civil War to the histories of jazz and baseball, but it's his new opus on World War II that has earned the ire of Latino groups. The 14-hour film War, set to air in September, focuses on the lives of 40 Americans in four U.S. cities Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Luverne, Minn.; and Sacramento, Calif. And the fact that not one of the 40 subjects is Latino that has Hispanic veterans' groups and politicians crying foul.
In a recent NPR interview, Burns said the series had included the voices of Japanese-Americans and African-Americans because theirs had been "an amazingly different kind of American experience." That only further angered critics. "We are not going to tolerate this omission," said Antonio Morales of American GI Forum after a meeting with PBS officials.
There are no definitive numbers for what proportion of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were Latinos. The D-Day World War II Museum in New Orleans has put the number at 250,000-500,000, but since there was no designation on military forms for Hispanic only Black and Asian the real number is hard to determine, museum officials acknowledge. But there is no question Latinos served honorably and bravely.
One of the leading critics of Burns' film is Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a University of Texas journalism professor who has been leading a decade-long effort to collect the oral history of Hispanic contributions during World War II. She was alerted to their contribution as a journalist covering Mexican-American civil rights groups, many of whose leaders had been World War II veterans.
"The Latino experience is really rich and very unique. We are very disappointed," Rivas-Rodriguez said. "This is the story of not only our parents, our grandparents, but our tios and tias. This is not a Puerto Rican issue, not a Mexican issue, not a Cuban issue, but all Latinos and Latinas. This is one of the few times we all agree on something."
As criticism mounted in Latino media, Burns issued a statement saying he was "dismayed and saddened" by an assumption that anyone was intentionally excluded. "For thirty years we have made films that have tried to tell many of the stories that haven't been told in American history" and he went on to ask viewers to "refrain from passing judgment on our work until they have seen it."
But Rivas-Rodriguez points out that too often the Hispanic experience has been ignored or reshaped in modern media: The 1960 movie Hell to Eternity was based on the experiences of Navy Cross winner and Hispanic U.S. Marine Guy Galbadon, but when Hollywood told his story, Jeffrey Hunter played him as a blue-eyed Italian-American.
PBS had announced plans for "an unprecedented national community engagement campaign" to encourage local programming and educational outreach efforts to accompany Burns' series. But critics are pushing for more. "We can't continue to produce our own documentaries that only we watch," Rivas-Rodriguez said. "If a documentary purports to be an American experience we need to be in that."
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has added its weight to the criticism of the publicly funded network, and PBS has responded saying it is taking the "situation very seriously" and is "now working intensively to determine how best to proceed and have made a commitment to respond to Latino leaders soon."
There was no shortage of material if Burns had chosen to include Latino subjects: A quick glance at the University of Texas web site U.S. Latinos and Latinas and World War II reveals the stories of numerous veterans, from farm-worker families in South Texas to famed members of the so-called Aztec Eagles, the 300-member Escuadron 201. The Eagles were an all-Mexican expeditionary force, organized after Mexico declared war on the Axis powers, which trained in the U.S. and then flew combat missions in the Philippines. Only five members of the squadron are still alive and one of them, pilot Reynaldo Perez Gallardo, nicknamed "Pancho Pistolar" after a Disney character, tells his story on the website. For critics of Ken Burns' latest effort, the point is that stories such as those of Gallardo should become part of the national memory when America honors its Greatest Generation.