November 21, 2003

Latinos’ Vietnam Stories: From Fieldworkers to Warriors

By Miguel Angel Báez
Noticiero Semanal

Corcoran/Visalia, Calif. Nov. 15, 2003 — They took the farmworkers from here to fight farmwokers from Vietnam, says Charley Trujillo in the documentary “Soldados: Chicanos in Vietnam,” based on Trujillo’s book of the same name.

They were Latino soldiers that left one day from Corcoran and headed to Vietnam. There were five: Larry Holguin, Miguel Gastelo, Frank Delgado, José Barrera and Charley Trujillo. They were all teenagers, they were all farmworkers.

Four of them came back. Barrera didn’t have the same luck. “After all these years everything is still fresh,” says Elfida Barrera, José’s mother. “I wonder what kind of person he would be today, how he would look like.”

Those who had better luck did come back. But better luck is only a saying because some of them don’t even know the difference anymore.

“I was happy to come back but the guilt made me feel trapped. Often I would ask myself and continue to ask myself ‘who’s better, those who, like me, came back, or those who died overseas,’” said Larry Holguin, one of the five Vietnam veterans from Corcoran featured in the documentary.

For Holguin it was not easy to talk about his experience. It was only when Trujillo asked him on several occasions that he conceded to talk. And then he was willing to open up and say what he has kept inside for 35 years, memories that were repressed in his mind.

In the documentary “Soldados: Chicanos in Viet-Nam,” which was recently aired on PBS, Trujillo and Sonya Rhee captured the testimonies of the four veterans and their families, as well as the testimony of Elfida Barrera, the woman whose son was killed in the war. Those veterans fought in a war that, for many, never should have happened.

Holguin volunteered himself to the draft in 1967 “because we thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. One of his best friends died in Vietnam. When they brought back his body, his family and friends couldn’t see him. They wouldn’t let them have an open casket.

His friend’s death was one of the reasons that motivated him to join the Military and go fight, until reality hit him.

“Reality hit me overseas,” Holguin said.“We take so many things for granted and it shouldn’t be that way. Life is really precious and that’s the only thing important.”

Holguin said that this war taught him to value the simple things in life. “I learned to value life, kids, hot food, a place to sleep,” he said. In the battle field life is different. They teach soldiers how to fight, they teach them how to kill. They learn to supress their feelings. “The crying part is hard because you don’t know how to cry no more, you feel no compassion,” he said. “I’m not proud of what I did.”

They learn to live with all the consequences of war. They have friends and then they loose them.“You get to know them but you don’t get to know them,” Holguin said. “You have a friend and then you turn around and he’s gone.”

This is the reality of war.

Holguin is 55 years old and he’s a retired correctional officer. He’s married and has an 18-year-old son. After the war, life for this Vietnam veteran was never the same again. It would never be.

“The military trains you, they program you but they don’t program you to release all that pressure. You never go back to normal,” Holguin said. “The hard part is having people to try to understand you. I cannot tell them about something that I’m not proud of.”

From a Book to a Documentary

Charley Trujillo lost an eye in Vietnam. When he returned from the war he went to college and later became a high school teacher and a writer. Sadly he noticed that none of the books about Vietnam included Latinos.

“I started reading plenty of books about the Vietnam War for about 20 years and they wouldn’t mention Latinos,” Trujillo said. “The biggest group were the Chicanos and Latinos and they never included us and I thought this was a good opportunity to include this group,” said Trujillo talking about his book, later made into a documentary.

After reading the book, Sonya Rhee, a graduate of the film school at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, contacted Trujillo to partner up and make a documentary based on Trujillo’s work. The documentary would focus on the five veterans from Trujillo’s hometown, Corcoran.

“I am one of them,” Trujillo said.

“The documentary is based on the book, but is different. In the book I interviewed 19 soldiers,” he said. “The documentary is about the five soldiers from Corcoran.”

A Story That No One Wants to Hear

In February 1966, Frank Delgado was drafted to Vietnam. He was only a teenager. He was 19 years old. At that age he had to change his lifestyle to include weapons and Delgado would never forget that. “Nineteen years old, our last year of being a teenager and we were in a war,” Delgado said.

“Looking back now you see no point, all those wasted lives. When you are 19 you want your first car, your first date... instead you are miles away from home killing people. It wasn’t worth it.”

He spent 18 months away from his family seeing the dead soldiers and civilians, witnessing and being part of the atrocities of war. The aftermath, as Holguin said, is never the same.

“At first you suppress everything. You didn’t want to talk about it and people didn’t want to really know,” Delgado said.

“When we came back we thought that everybody was going to support us but that didn’t happen. Only my immediate family gave me that support. War taught Delgado a lot of things. He has now taught his family to value and support those men who fight in wars, but he also has taught them to hate war.

“Me and my family are anti-war. We support our troops 100 percent but not the war. I was a warrior, I was there,” Delgado said.

“Iraq is becoming another Vietnam, but people don’t see it. I am totally against it. People don’t think it’s about the oil. If it’s not about the oil then why the hell don’t we invade China or Korea.”

Delgado is 56 years old. He works in a dairy in Visalia. He was about to lose his brother Steve in Vietnam, but one of those miracles of war saved his brother’s life.

He is a strong critic of the current conflict in Iraq. He criticized Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld because recently Rumsfeld referred to the deaths of soldiers in Iraq as “necessary”.

“How is this necessary?” Delgado questioned.

About being part of the documentary, Delgado said he feels lucky to have a chance to share his experience.

“To me, I represent over two and a half million of us that went to war,” he said. “I feel fortunate that I can tell my story for those millions that can’t do it.”

When Hope Dies

Elfida Barrera kept her hope for a long time. But there was a point when this hope died. Today, after more than 30 years after the death of her son, Barrera keeps wondering day after day, about how José would look like.

“I didn’t want him to go,” said Barrera in her house in Corcoran. “I didn’t like the idea but he had already decided.”

José Barrera volunteered in April 1970. He received training for several months and then, in September, they sent him to Vietnam.

“I had this thing, that he was going to come back. I never lost hope,” Elfida said. But it was a month later after his departure, that Elfida received the bad news.

José died in combat.

Since then, Elfida maintain memories of her son. She is happy that a documentary is telling the story of her José.

She has a wall in the living room of her home full of medals and pictures of José. Sometimes, when she feels sad, se goes into her son’s room and imagines how he would look like today; she imagines how the son that the war took away from her, would be today.

The war That Shouldn’t Have Been

Vietnam caused millions of deaths on both sides. Day after day, the media would report a body count. People were dying every single day; kids from Vietnam and kids from U.S. During that time, the United States was passing through a historical moment. The Vietnam War coincided with different social movements of the time: civil rights movement, the hippie movement and the farm-workers movement led by César Chávez.

The American people didn’t want the war. Millions and millions of soldiers and civilians died in a war that shouldn’t have been.

Veterans such as Holguin, Trujillo and Delgado, should have had a normal life.

“When I came home, my parents went to pick me up. They were crying and I didn’t feel anything,” Hol-guin said.

Nothing. He didn’t feel anything. They had programmed him to feel nothing.

“You never go back to normal. You go to work, get a good car, but no matter what, there is always something missing.”

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