Burns Film’s Just One Example of Bad Times For Latinos

By Albor Ruiz
Daily News
September 16, 2007

THESE ARE NOT the best of times for Latinos. It’s not only Alberto Gonzales. It is also that not even the Latino soldiers who died for this country – their country – during World War II are recognized and given their place in the history of the nation without a fight.

It could not have been easy for famous documentarian Ken Burns to create “The War,” his new seven-part epic about World War II, while completely ignoring the contributions of about half a million Latinos. Give him credit, though; somehow he managed to do it.

After Burns worked for seven years interviewing people in four cities, until recently not one single Hispanic voice could be heard in the 14-hour documentary. It was as if no Latinos had fought in WWII.

The director said that during all that time and in all those cities, not one Latino came up to be interviewed. Even if this were the case, one would think that in the name of fairness and historical accuracy, an effort could have been made to seek out some Hispanics and tell their stories.

Some changes were made to the final version of “The War,” the one that PBS will air beginning Sept. 23, but only after a storm of outrage and protests by Hispanic leaders and activists. Burns reluctantly agreed to add three on-camera interviews, two with Latino veterans and the other one with a Native American.

The Latino reaction: big deal.

As Margie Rivas-Rodríguez, a University of Texas journalism professor and director of the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project, has asked: “Will the material be significant? Will it have to do with the Latino experience, or will it simply be an interview with two men? Will it be respectful not only of the two men now included somewhere in the documentary but of Latinos in general?”

That “The War” had completely erased from the history of the U.S. the service of hundreds of thousands of Latinos is not only a huge embarrassment for PBS – which produced the documentary with Burns – it is a reflection of the anti-Latino bias prevalent in the country today.

“Of course, by blotting us out this way, Burns and PBS only feed into the anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic sentiment so rampant in this country today,” said Angelo Falcón, president and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York City.

Together with Rivas-Rodríguez and others, Falcón founded the “Defend the Honor” campaign to demand that Latinos be given their proper place in the Burns documentary.

Nowadays, one has to wonder why the fact that, for better or for worse, Hispanics are fighting and dying in Bush’s war in Iraq along with whites, blacks and Asian-Americans, is seldom mentioned. And why, at the same time, there is so much talk about “illegals taking American jobs,” “immigrants refusing to learn English” and other such nonsense.

The facts, though, speak for themselves. Latinos have participated in every U.S. war including the Civil War. Over the years, they have received dozens of Medals of Honor and many more Purple Hearts.

Today, there are about 130,000 Hispanics in the armed forces, and just as an example, one of the first U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq was José Gutiérrez, an immigrant from Guatemala who wasn’t even an American citizen.

No, these are not good times for Latinos – and not only immigrants. The mood, though, is not conciliatory. As Rivas-Rodríguez said: “We don’t have the time or the patience for the Ken Burnses and PBSes of this world to do it right ‘next time.’ We deserve respect today. And we won’t accept anything less.” aruiz@nydailynews.com

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