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Latino History Denied

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Discrimination takes many forms. It's not just the denying of opportunity, it can also be the denying of history.

That is what's happening at the Public Broadcasting Service, which is preparing to release a lengthy documentary on World War II that ignores the contribution of Latinos to the war effort. PBS has acknowledged the omission but has also refused to take any meaningful steps to correct it. The same goes for respected filmmaker Ken Burns, producer of the 14 1/2-hour epic, "The War."

Talk about a blind spot. Latinos take tremendous pride in their military service to the United States, which dates back at least to the Civil War and which has produced more Medal of Honor recipients as a percentage of the population than any other ethnic group. Latinos are especially proud of their stint in World War II, which helped spark the Latino civil rights movement of the 1960s. That generation fought in Europe and the Pacific, then returned home to fight for fairness and respect.

It's a great and wonderfully patriotic story, and it's a shame that Burns and his associates at PBS missed it.

One person who hasn't missed it is Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at the University of Texas who has spent the last eight years attempting to document the Latino experience in World War II. As part of her U.S. Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project, Rivas-Rodriguez and her colleagues have interviewed 550 Latino World War II veterans and put together a database of hundreds of individuals and thousands of photographs. Much of it is reported in the book "A Legacy Greater Than Words."

For Rivas-Rodriguez, the dispute with PBS is not about political correctness. It's about keeping history honest.

"The Latino experience was very important because of what was going on before World War II,'' she told me. "Throughout the Southwest and the Midwest, we had segregated schools and public institutions. We had Medal of Honor winners who came back home and were denied service in restaurants because they were Mexican. That is a very unique and important story that needs to be part of any historical account.''

The Burns film includes African-Americans and Japanese-Americans. But in addition to skipping the contributions of Latinos, it also bypasses Native Americans, which is shocking because one of the more compelling stories of World War II is that of the Navajo code talkers. According to Rivas-Rodriguez, other good stories include those of segregated units made up entirely of Puerto Ricans and "de facto Spanish-speaking units'' of recruits from rural towns in New Mexico who were thrown together so they could communicate with one another and stand a better chance of surviving combat.

Rivas-Rodriguez & Co. wrote a letter to PBS, but the concerns were dismissed. They wrote more letters, eventually getting invited to a meeting in Washington where they were dismissed again. They then launched an e-mail campaign. Soon, PBS was hearing from the American GI Forum, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others. This controversy wasn't going away, and neither were Rivas-Rodriguez and her growing army of supporters.

Last month, PBS seemed to give in a nudge when officials announced they had hired a Latino documentary filmmaker to work with Burns to incorporate into the film new material that would highlight contributions by Latinos and Native Americans. However, a day later a panicked PBS tried to clarify that it never meant to suggest that the film would be re-cut, or re-edited, and new material "seamlessly'' added to the film -- as a PBS spokesman had told The Washington Post a day earlier. Instead, PBS programming chief John Wilson told the Post that the new footage would become part of "the same contiguous experience'' of the documentary, but the film would not be re-cut.

Translation: Whatever they come up with is going to be an addendum to the finished product.

Not good enough, said Rivas-Rodriguez.

"We're not asking for any favors,'' she said. "This is what we deserve as Americans because of what our people have given to this country.''

She's right. PBS has added insult to insult and bungled this whole affair, just as surely as Burns seems to have bungled the telling of an important story. Both parties should make it right, and there's only one way to do that. Re-edit this film, and tell this history the way it really happened.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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