April 13, 2007


PBS and Ken Burns capitulate on WWII documentary

Hispanics hail this as a victory!

When acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns first previewed his much anticipated documentary on World War II, Hispanics were shocked to see that Hispanic contributions to the war had been completely excluded from this lengthy project. They were outraged, asking the question how you could not include Hispanics when they contributed over 500,000 soldiers to this war and were one of the mostly highly decorated ethnic groups.

Hispanics took this slight by Ken Burns personally and set out to defend the honor of all Hispanics who have served in the military.

World War II was a changing point for the Hispanic, in particular for the Mexican-American, communities. Mexican-Americans who volunteered to serve and died for their country in Europe came back to a country that continued to discriminate and discount them. They came back and realized that they were not afforded equal rights. In Texas, the American GI Forum was created when Dr. Hector Garcia had to fight for the rights of injured veterans returning from the war yet were refused to be treated by the military hospital. The GI Forum then gained national notoriety when the body of Private Felix Longoria was not allowed to be buried when the only funeral parlor in his home town refused to bury his remains stating “that white folks wouldn’t like it.”

There were of course other Mexican-American groups such as LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) that were also fighting for equal rights, including voting and school integration. But it was this war that emboldens these groups and changed the way they viewed themselves as Americans.

Morally outraged, The Defend the Honor Campaign was organized, led by Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez head of the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project at the University of Texas, starting a campaign to change the documentary. And, once again, the power of the internet came into play as thousands of emails started circulating, at first, informing and then organizing a vast array of support for the campaign.

A meeting was held with PBS, which initially stood by the documentary and Ken Burns, with Burns insisting that he would not change a thing. But the pressures keep mounting from the Hispanic community which included just about every Hispanic organization and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The pressure became too much and Ken Burns finally made the right decision to go back and add the Hispanic experience to the documentary (see the front page story for complete details.)

For the Hispanic community and the organizers of the Defend the Honor Campaign, this was a victory. At this point, we are not sure exactly how Burns will incorporate the Hispanic community into the documentary, but this experience does give an insight into what the Hispanic community can accomplish and what impact they can have once they get behind a common cause. Now the question is can this type of action be translated to the voting booth?

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