Latinos Omitted From Ken Burns' 'War' - A Blessing in Disguise?

New America Media, Commentary, Roberto Lovato Posted: Sep 25, 2007

Editor's Note: Ken Burns' World War II documentary is stirring controversy because of its lack of Latino representation. But NAM contributing editor Roberto Lovato says that in the scheme of things, perhaps it is a good thing. Lovato is a writer based in New York.

Private First Class Jose Peralta stopped smiling. He looked straight at me and answered the unsettling question about war, “I would go to Iraq if they asked me.” His chubby companion, PFC Garcia, and his female companion, PFC Juarez, nodded soberly in agreement while their immigrant parents smiled politely.

Their radiant brown hands and faces glowed against their starched straight white uniforms. But, instead of drawing the usual looks of admiration from onlookers, their regalia -- shiny black shoes, tight white slacks, hats and shirts with shiny medals -- drew stares of disgust on the Manhattan-bound D train. Riding from the working class immigrant part of Brooklyn near the Navy Yard to Union Square, the historic center of peace marches in Manhattan since the end of the Civil War, they didn’t seem to let the stares distract them. They are committed; they are proud. They are also ten years old, members of the Coastal Patrol Cadet Corps (CPCC).

PFC Peralta and his fellow cadets are but a few of the thousands of Latino children targeted for early indoctrination into the military by programs designed for the very young. The Coastal Patrol Cadet Corps website states clear goals: “Our activities are designed to build upstanding Americans, with physical and mental stamina, discipline and obedience. Instructions are given in numerous categories, including military discipline, leadership, infantry drill, rifle drill, seamanship, navigation, first-aid, communications, boat handling, drum, bugle and band instruments.”

I asked PFC Peralta if he knew anything about the Latino PBS “The War” controversy about Latino representation raging across the country. “No. I don’t know nothing about that,” said the son of immigrants from Puebla, Mexico. But he had, he told me, already made up his mind about the military: “I’m gonna be the captain of a navy ship.”

I thought about that earlier encounter with PFC Peralta and his crew as I watched Ken Burns’ "War" documentary Sunday evening. The 14-and-a-half-hour epic was as much about the current and future PFC Peralta’s as it was about the septuagenarians and octogenarians featured in the film. The controversy around whether and how to include Latinos should matter to all as should the issues around artistic license.

One can only imagine the agony Burns experienced as he was forced to correct his Latino oversight. A reviewer at The New Yorker magazine said those scenes had a “tacked-on” feel to them. Placed at the very last ten minutes of the first episode, the East Los Angeles accent and bolero music do, in fact, make the Latino characters and stories seem completely foreign to the "small town USA" stories at the heart of the entire epic.

The controversy around the documentary will have done more than the documentary itself to educate the country about the more than 500,000 Latinos who enlisted during World War II. Premiering during a historical moment of unprecedented anti-immigrant, anti-Latino sentiment, "The War’s" “Oh-yeah,-Latinos-fought-too” feel will not likely inspire future PFC Peralta’s to enlist. Indeed, from the perspective of peace activists, Burns’ jerky editing of Latinos into history (i.e. even his Southwestern United States-focused “The West” documentary included only two Latino characters out of a cast of 80) may actually be a good thing.

Those who depend on war and those who advocate peace know the future of the U.S. military itself depends on the decisions of young Latinos like Peralta. As Larry Korb, former assistant secretary of defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics in the Reagan administration Defense Department, once told me, “Latinos are very important to the national security of the United States,” adding that, “A decrease in Latino enlistment numbers would make things very difficult for the armed forces, because they are the fastest-growing [minority] group in the country and they have a very distinguished record of service in the military.” If he were secretary of defense, Korb would “be very worried about the possibility of decreasing Latino numbers. I’d be thinking about how to make do with smaller numbers of troops or with further lowering standards for aptitude, age, education and other factors.”

The Pentagon needs 22 percent of the Armed Forces to check off “Hispanic” on enlistment forms if it is to meet recruitment and deployment goals by 2025. As if mounting a major offensive on a domestic adversary, the Pentagon is, unlike Burns, spending millions to find out about the world of PFC Peralta: what he wears, where he hangs out, what kinds of groups he belongs to, what he reads, what he watches on TV, his grades, his dreams.

Members of the Pentagon’s many and well-funded recruiting commands are a permanent feature of urban school systems; programs like the No Child Left Behind guarantee that schools give recruiters PFC Peralta’s home phone number, address and other information. Even popular children’s restaurant chain Chuck E. Cheese is doing its part to make sure PFC Peralta gets the martial message when he’s not at CPCC. Puppet shows at some restaurants include military music and Chuck E. Cheese television has broadcast images of Latinos and others in the Army giving food and supplies to children in Iraq.

Burns failed to fulfill promises to activists that he would “seamlessly” integrate the Latino portions of the film. But his failure will do little to inspire PFC Peralta and other Latino kids to enlist between now and 2025. Hopefully, documentary filmmakers of future U.S. wars will lack Latino subjects because there will be fewer PFC Peralta’s to film.

Thank you, Ken Burns, for barely including us in your "War."



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User Comments


native american on Oct 09, 2007 at 23:58:48 said:

Gen. Villa, your comments are on point, well stated.


Pancho Villa on Oct 03, 2007 at 19:27:22 said:

Someone should tell James Hogan above that separate but equal is no longer tolerated. No need to segregate our part of history.


Hugo Romo on Oct 03, 2007 at 16:32:53 said:

Mr.Lovato, I share your concern for our Mexican American/Latino youth being targeted by the Arm Forces recruiters.We are not invisible when there's a war to be fought. Latinos as most people of color are heavly recruited when the country needs bodies for cannon fodder. The war in Iraq & Afghanistan are based on lies and misinformation. We were wrong in Vietm=nam & we're dead wrong in Iraq. Anytime one is called upon to lay his life for his country you best make sure you are on the right side of good. All recruited must question and seek out the truth.

One can argue if WWII was "The Good War" after all we were fighting the evil fascist Nazis. No war is good, whether justified or not. Don't get me wrong , I'm not a peacenik, As I believe the need to defend oneself as an individual or as a nation of people. In the 1940s & 30s Mexican American/ Latino youth were joining as young warriors to fight for their country and help combat the fascists in Europe & South Pacific. The Mexican has had a long history of serving in the military and very much holds warrior valor in high regard. There were over 500,000 of our fathers,brothers & sisters,tios & primos who participated in "The Good War". You'd never know it by watching Ken Burns documentary.

Burns is not the first to deny us our place in history. I grew up in ELA watching old war films. As I grew older I realized that we were never represented. The only type of character portrayed would be someone named "Lupee" (Lupe), who had boyish qualities surrounded by MEN (white of course) and this boyish Mexican would be praying scared to death to some religious statue. Hollwood has gone as far as making a movie about Chicano war hero, Guy Gabaldon in "Hell to Eternity" based on a true story of Galaldon capturing 1500 enemy soldiers single handedly in the South Pacific, except our Mexican war hero was transposed to a blond blue eyed white man, Jeffery Hunter. These are only but a few examples of the many such discrimantory practices in film.

Mexican Americans/Latinos WWII were subjected to second class citizen treatment even though their sacrfices were monumental in scope. So much so that they were the most decorated non white soldiers in WWII.

Let's not forget our American Indian brother's contributions that are equally forgottened or omitted. There were many code talkers and foot warriors who have also made the ultimate sacrifice. These truths have been ignored save the recent film Windtalker about the NAvajo code talkers with Adam Beach & Nicolas Cage. Again the strong brave white man & child like qualities for the Indios.

There is absolutely no excuse... does a community have to take it to the next level of anger and ugliness to get the proper attention that is rightfully theirs? Perhaps then we will get the respect due instead of more of the same old line, "no no Pancho we already went to the final cut... or we're already in post production therefore we couldn't possibly include your people's contribution..." and whatever other bullshit they dish out.

We cannot allow these injustices to continue without our community to speaking out as one voice in protest, BASTA YA !


Hugo Romo on Oct 03, 2007 at 16:32:09 said:

Mr.Lovato, I share your concern for our Mexican American/Latino youth being targeted by the Arm Forces recruiters.We are not invisible when there's a war to fought. Latinos as most people of color are heavly recruited when the country needs bodies for cannon fodder. The war in Iraq & Afghanistan are based on lies and misinformation. We were wrong in Vietm=nam & we're dead wrong in Iraq. Anytime one is called upon to lay his life for his country you best make sure you are on the right side of good. All recruited must question and seek out the truth.

One can argue if WWII was "The Good War" after all we were fighting the evil fascist Nazis. No war is good, whether justified or not. Don't get me wrong , I'm not a peacenik, As I believe the need to defend oneself as an individual or as a nation of people. In the 1940s & 30s Mexican American/ Latino youth were joining as young warriors to fight for their country and help combat the fascists in Europe & South Pacific. The Mexican has had a long history of serving in the military and very much holds warrior valor in high regard. There were over 500,000 of our fathers,brothers & sisters,tios & primos who participated in "The Good War". You'd never know it by watching Ken Burns documentary.

Burns is not the first to deny us our place in history. I grew up in ELA watching old war films. As I grew older I realized that we were never represented. The only type of character portrayed would be someone named "Lupee" (Lupe), who had boyish qualities surrounded by MEN (white of course) and this boyish Mexican would be praying scared to death to some religious statue. Hollwood has gone as far as making a movie about Chicano war hero, Guy Gabaldon in "Hell to Eternity" based on a true story of Galaldon capturing 1500 enemy soldiers single handedly in the South Pacific, except our Mexican war hero was transposed to a blond blue eyed white man, Jeffery Hunter. These are only but a few examples of the many such discrimantory practices in film.

Mexican Americans/Latinos WWII were subjected to second class citizen treatment even though their sacrfices were monumental in scope. So much so that they were the most decorated non white soldiers in WWII.

Let's not forget our American Indian brother's contributions that are equally forgottened or omitted. There were many code talkers and foot warriors who have also made the ultimate sacrifice. These truths have been ignored save the recent film Windtalker about the NAvajo code talkers with Adam Beach & Nicolas Cage. Again the strong brave white man & child like qualities for the Indios.

There is absolutely no excuse... does a community have to take it to the next level of anger and ugliness to get the proper attention that is rightfully theirs? Perhaps then we will get the respect due instead of more of the same old line, "no no Pancho we already went to the final cut... or we're already in post production therefore we couldn't possibly include your people's contribution..." and whatever other bullshit they dish out.

We cannot allow these injustices to continue without our community to speaking out as one voice in protest, BASTA YA !


ray perez on Oct 01, 2007 at 02:17:30 said:

Hey Ken Burns..Si Se Puede!

1.4% of the population, people! That was the hispanic population of the US in 1940 according to the US census. It was only 6% in CALIFORNIA! So if other groups served in larger numbers and weren't specifically singled out in the documentary, then why single out latinos? I demand that Ken Burns revise "The Civil War" to also include latino contributions! While we are at it, all text books and documentaries must make extensive inclusion of the Latino experience with respect to the Revolutionary War! OK, everyone's contribution to preserving liberty should be honored but who is doing the white-washing now? Might over-representing one group's historical contributions be in order to promote today's political agenda of that group? As that group is by far the fastest growing major ethnic/racial group, it looks like we will see more of this flexing of the muscle in the future. Si Se Puede!

www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0056.html


joseph bell on Sep 25, 2007 at 18:39:55 said:

I just finished a conversation with an ?intelligent ?Civil engineer and retired from Federal Service .about the subject of this warm and fuzzy WAR would be a recruitment show for the under privileged ?I guess i win ?if that what being right is about . Thank you .. Music and all , Down with Burns and his timing for the Bush administration ,take it off PBS


Richard Burrows on Sep 25, 2007 at 16:16:31 said:

Is the writer not aware that episodes of Latino contributions to WWII have been added to the Burns' "War" documentary??? (Along with some variation in some areas/times so that the tender ears of some citizens will not be inflicted with actual "Army talk." Times have changed; some people can't make it.


Marta Barbosa on Sep 25, 2007 at 14:14:33 said:

I saw the first part of Burns' WAR (with the tacked-on section of the two Mexican-American men.)
Though I'm almost obsessed with the "Why" of this horrific moment in history, and watch every documentary I find on the subject, I didn't bother looking at the rest.

In the most negative John Wayne sense, this was a "heroic" and romantic gloss-over with obtrusive, over-the-top Jazzy music.

This was the worst tragedy in the history of the world; MILLIONS of real human beings died. Yet, this "documentary" was so warm and fuzzy it serves as a recruitment video for the Iraq and other wars to come.

I'm delighted Burns' myopia left out the Latinos; maybe they will be less likely to enlist in future insanity.


AL BARELA on Sep 25, 2007 at 12:00:24 said:

I was still a child when the U.S. entered the war.
My native place of birth is New Mexico, a state that has long been, and has long officially listed its laws bilingually (Attention all you English-language-only proponents) because of its Hispano history. I was still a child when the U.S. entered World War II. Even before then there were already latinos serving in the military. Many of our native sons were among those soldiers captured in Corregidor, and forced onto "The Death March", causing New Mexico great anxiety.
(I met a couple of the survivors early in the '50's where all of us worked at a state hospital.) When it was my turn to become an enlisted man, my fellow draftees were for the most part latino.


Erin on Sep 25, 2007 at 11:16:30 said:

I've only watched part of "The War" so my viewpoint is skewed. I was shocked when I saw the title to this article because the segment I saw had a man who grew up in California, but was from Mexico originally. He wanted to be in the Navy, but they said he was too small--not burly enough. And he talked about going in to the marines. Was that the only part with any Latinos in it? That would indeed be sad.
Although the military music and puppet shows at Chuck E. Cheese kind of freak me out more than they make me think those establishments care about Latinos. I had no idea kids were recruited for a military career so young. I am not trying to knock our armed forces, but it just seems too young to me. I hope their experiences are positive and help them pursue their dreams.


Julie on Sep 25, 2007 at 11:08:57 said:

Thank you for the great analysis. An even more tragic aspect to this targeting of latinos is the fact that the latino community has been OPPOSED to the Iraq War to a greater extent than the public in general -- and from the outset. In other words, they were way ahead of the so-called neocon experts but still end up being singled out for recruitment (including non-citizens). What an outrage!


Erin on Sep 25, 2007 at 10:48:58 said:

I've only watched part of "The War" so my viewpoint is skewed. I was shocked when I saw the title to this article because the segment I saw had a man who grew up in California, but was from Mexico originally. He wanted to be in the Navy, but they said he was too small--not burly enough. And he talked about going in to the marines. Was that the only part with any Latinos in it? That would indeed be sad.
Although the military music and puppet shows at Chuck E. Cheese kind of freak me out more than they make me think those establishments care about Latinos. I had no idea kids were recruited for a military career so young. I am not trying to knock our armed forces, but it just seems too young to me. I hope their experiences are positive and help them pursue their dreams.


james hogan on Sep 25, 2007 at 10:34:08 said:

I think that the story of latino soldiers in WWII should be told. However, despite the pressure brought by the hispanic caucus and others....no one in particular is required to tell it. Those interested just gather the resources (la raza or univision should help) and tell the story. Does the pressure on Burns simply mean there is no one else who can tell it...or is this some victumhood stuff?


Moses Palacios on Sep 25, 2007 at 08:03:14 said:

Well written Mr. Lovato. Who knows, maybe they'll leave us out of the Alberto Gonzales documentary too.

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