February 16, 2007

Some of Ken Burns’ World War II Heroes are Missing in Action

By Jorge Mariscal

Ralph Mariscal, Jr. graduated from Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles in 1941. Only a few months later, he would be a U.S. Marine. Like thousands of other young Mexican Americans, he deployed to the Pacific Theater and served for the duration of the war.

My father is 84 years old now and his memory is fading quickly. One thing he does remember is his time in the service, his travels to Hawaii and Okinawa, landing with the 5th Marine Division at Sasebo a few weeks after the destruction of Nagasaki, and his participation in the occupation of Japan at war’s end.

With old age slowly robbing him of these and many other pieces of his personal and family history, there is little we can do except to watch with a deep and gnawing sadness.


Ken Burns

An individual’s loss of his history and identity is unsettling. But the loss of an entire community’s history can be even more tragic.

Since Tom Brokaw announced that the World War II generation was to be known as the “greatest generation,” Mexican Americans have struggled to ensure that their contributions be included. The efforts of professor Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez at the University of Texas, Austin, have led to an incredibly rich archive of materials known as the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project.

Now we learn that next September PBS will premier “The War,” Ken Burns’ seven-part documentary on World War II. According to all reports, Mr. Burns’ film completely erases the Mexican-American experience in that worldwide conflict from our national consciousness.

While Burns’ company has not issued an official statement regarding the exclusion of Latinos, his production team says the film isn’t about ethnic groups but individuals and regions. The individuals featured in the film come from Mobile, Ala., Waterbury, Conn.; Luverne, Minn., and Sacramento, Calif.

Surely there are surviving Mexican-American veterans from the Sacramento area. Did Burns and his team seek them out so that his film would not inadvertently reinforce stereotypes that portray all Mexican-Americans as foreigners or recent arrivals?

The contributions and sacrifices of Mexican-Americans in every U.S. war since the mid-19th century are well documented. But in Burns’ 14-hour production, no one will tell the story of Sgt. Vicenta Torres of Arizona, who was among the first troops to land in Italy. How will young Latinas learn about the many “Rosita the Riveters” who built and even flew military aircraft?

What about the scores of valiant young men named Molina, Villa and Baca who died in the Pacific, in North Africa, and on the beaches of D-Day?

Burns himself has yet to respond to numerous inquiries from Mexican-American academic, veterans’ and political organizations. The national outreach coordinator at WETA, the PBS station that will oversee distribution of “The War,” was asked for a description of the film’s content. That was a month ago and still no reply has come.

If Burns were the brilliant historian that PBS and others claim he is, how could he create a seven-part documentary that erases rather than recollects a significant portion of our nation’s memory?

Jorge Mariscal is a veteran of the U.S. war in Viet Nam and professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. Reach him at gmariscal@ucsd.edu.

For information on Hispanics in WWII please visit the site of “U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project” web site (http://utopia.utexas.edu /explore/latino/) hosted by the University of Texas, and if you look deep enough you will find a story on the publisher of La Prensa San Diego, Daniel L. Muñoz.

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