Exclusion, Otra Vez

No Latinos in WWII Documentary on PBS

By Nancy De Los Santos
Published on LatinoLA: September 21, 2007

Exclusion, Otra Vez

After a hard day's work as a truck mechanic my father enjoyed nothing more than to lie on the couch and watch his favorite TV show, "Gunsmoke." But, being a proud Mexican American, he'd often ask, "Aren't there any Mexicans in Dodge City?"

This question has irked me all my professional life, and has come up again as I ask, "Why were there initially no Latinos in "The War", a fourteen hour documentary film by preeminent documentary filmmaker Ken Burns? Why did the national Latino community have to protest to PBS and the series' sponsors to ask for inclusion? And why are many in the Latino community still upset after interviews with Latino servicemen have been edited into the series?"

Film scholar Richie P?®rez wrote in a 1990 article, "From Assimilation to Annihilation: Puerto Rican Images in U.S. Films," that discrimination against Puerto Ricans by the mass media takes three main forms: Dehumanization: Images presented that ridicule the culture and language. Job Discrimination: Puerto Ricans blocked from working in the industry as actors, actresses, writers, producers. Exclusion: The mass media refusing to acknowledge that Puerto Ricans exist, the complete absence of a Puerto Rican image.

Mr. P?®rez' conclusions can be applied to all Latino images presented in all forms of movies, television shows, and documentaries.

In the 1995 documentary The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood Images, a film I co-wrote and co-produced, actor John Leguizamo said about the Latino image in movies, "We've been short changed for the most part...We've always had to play either drug dealers, killers, murderers, or we're maids and illegal aliens, and always at the bottom of the food chain." But, Leguizamo adds, "I'd rather have all the negative stereotypes in movies than not be presented at all."

To be ignored is the worst form of discrimination. To be excluded from the small or big screen - society's mirror - is to be excluded from society. Exclusion, as if you don't even exist, is the deepest cut, and wounds for generations.

This documentary series was in production for over six years. It's incredulous no one at PBS or on Mr. Burns' production staff thought to ask why there weren't any Latino voices in the film. The reasons presented for this exclusion include: Latino servicemen didn't come forward when a call was sent out to ask World War II Veterans to talk about their stories with Burns' producers. And, the series focused on the experiences of servicemen in only three or four cities.

My father, who served in the Navy during that war on a refueling ship never spoke of his experiences. My brother, who served in Vietnam, is only now - forty years later - able to share some of his life as a Marine during that time. This is probably the norm for most servicemen, and maybe more so for Latinos who may not take advantage of social services that can aid in the healing process necessary after a war experience. And one of the cities the Burns production team visited is Sacramento - A city with a Latino population of over 21%.

It's easy to find a mother lode source of information on the over 500,000 Latinos - Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Nationals, Cubans, and other Latinos who served in the war - with one Google search. "Latino servicemen in World War II" will get you to The U.S. Latino and Latina Oral History Project of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin. Headed by professor of Journalism, Maggie Riva-Rodriguez, this project has interviewed countless servicemen and servicewomen, and has published a book on the subject.

In my own family, my father and seven of his brothers served in The Big War. Candido, Eliseo, Jessie, Pete, Ramon, and my father, Nick De Los Santos returned home to Eastland, Texas. Air Force man Ernest returned home too, but only after surviving a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Charlie was killed in action in Normandy, 1944.

Only with continued pressure by Latinos nationwide on PBS and the film's sponsors did Mr. Burns agree to hire filmmaker Hector Galan to add Latino stories to the mix. The result is about 28 minutes of interviews with two Latino servicemen and one Native American serviceman added onto the end of the first program, just before the credits. Not a big change to Mr. Burns' film, but clearly a concession.

So why are some Latinos still angry? They're insulted to be considered an "in addition to." They don't want to be an afterthought, added only after they have protested and shamed the other into submission. Latinos want to be included from the beginning, from the get go, from the first thought, not the last.

In response, Latinos in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Antonio, and other cities across the nation will be protesting this Sunday. In LA, they'll meet in front of the KCET studios on Sunday at 3:00, and express their opinion. To express my concern about this production, I've decided to suspend my family's membership to KCET for one year.

But, I'll be watching "The War", like so many Americans, because I feel empowered when I view ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I'll be watching because I want to see the two Latino and one Native American veterans talk of their experiences. I'll be watching because I won't allow Mr. Burns' exclusionary tactics prevent me from viewing what is surely an emotional and influential film about the heroic experiences of many during WWII.

But if my dad were alive to watch this documentary series, I think he would have to ask, "Weren't there any Latinos in The Big War?"

About Nancy De Los Santos:
Nancy De Los Santos lives and works in Solano Canyon, the last barrio of Chavez Ravine.

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