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Guerra: Honor Latinos' sacrifice even if 'The War' doesn't


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What an outrage.

Ken Burn's "The War" will still include no Latinos, never mind that an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 were involved in World War II, 13 of whom were awarded Medals of Honor and an untold number of whom received medals for bravery.

How could this happen?

History has never been a recollection or a retelling of the past.

It has always been a memory of the past. And like all memories, history has always been selective, which is why Burn's "The War," a 14-hour documentary, has become such an important issue among Latinos, who are totally absent in his Public Broadcasting System documentary of World War II that was originally scheduled to premiere on — you guessed it — Sept. 16.

A national uprising of Latinos who were angered by the exclusion of their heroes in the 14 hours prompted PBS to announce, first, that Burns' documentary would include Latinos. But then it was announced that Latinos would only be included in extra footage that would be played during station breaks and after the actual documentary.

It has to be painful to all Americans, I am sure, who gladly served this nation's military needs, who paid higher war taxes and who put in the extra effort to live out their patriotism.

It has to amaze them that Burn's film project — funded with tax dollars, by the way — was six years in the making, and it is inexcusable that among its 40-plus interviews, only Caucasians, Japanese Americans and African Americans were included.

Americans of all kinds paid the dear price to defeat the Axis powers.

And how could it happen that a 14-hour documentary be made that didn't include a single Latino?

What this is really about is that in 2007, too many Americans — like Ken Burns — still see Latinos as recent immigrants, as late arrivals, history notwithstanding. Blame it on how history is taught, and how Americans are seldom taught that Jorge Farragut, a Spaniard, fought off British forces in New Orleans during the American Revolution before distinguishing himself in the War of 1812.

And blame it on the lack of lessons about South Texas Latino cattle-raisers who drove herds of cattle to New Orleans so that the besieged revolutionaries could feast on steak — and probably, some carne guisada and tripas — while the British military laid siege on New Orleans.

It is true that during World War I, Latinos became suspect to other Americans after a coded dispatch sent by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to Germany's ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, was intercepted. The message, whose authenticity is still questioned, offered Mexico the possibility of regaining the half of the territory seized by the United States after the Mexican American War if it would attack the United States.

True or not, it resulted in few Latinos serving in World War I forces.

When World War II came, however, Latinos volunteered in droves to prove their loyalty to the United States and many distinguished themselves in battle. At home, Latinas became a backbone of the nation's home-front effort, clocking in daily at bases and war-time factories and tending vegetables in Victory Gardens. My mother's "Victory Chicken Coop" — that's what she called it — was operational through my 10th birthday in 1957.

It is little wonder that when Burns' omission of Latinos came to light, thousands sent e-mails and called PBS to protest the exclusion. But the result was as insulting as the exclusion.

Latino war stories will be included in station breaks of Burns' "The War."

I wonder what that tío I never met, Adalberto Ramón, a National Guard staff sergeant who was shot between the eyes by a sniper in Italy, or what my scout masters, two of whom spent the better part of World War II as prisoners of war in German concentration camps, would think of it all.

Ken Burns notwithstanding, I will forever honor their heroism.

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