I’ve noticed something within the past few days. Everybody in Boston had a smile on their face. They have flocked to the Common in order to romp with their dogs or toss a ball around with each other. At first, I thought all this giddiness resulted from the sudden warm temperatures after frigid, frigid cold. Then I realized it’s that special feeling we all get when Bushie is out of the country. Yes, nothing makes our hearts feel lighter than knowing that Bush is some other country’s problem, even if just for a little bit of time. Every moment like it is precious.
You know that the pilots on Air Force One must be tempted to just leave him behind one day. The Brazilian Ambassador will arrive at the airport and find a note pinned to Bush’s jacket:
“Here is little Georgie. We can’t take care of him anymore. Please find him a good home. He takes his nap at four.” Can heads of state be foundlings?
This time Bushie (who has to be the least traveled president in recent memory (not counting his never-ending vacations at his ranch)) decided that he would pretend to care about Latin America – or, for that matter, pretend that he even knew where Latin America appears on a globe. No matter which Latin American nation he visited, Bushie must have been surprised at the almost universal condemnation.
During his tour, Bush claimed that he cared about Latin America and wanted to improve relations. In the United States he is used to being able to simply say that he cares and people take him at his word. For some peculiar reason, the people in Latin America wanted actual proof of said caring.
How did he try to make good on that? Well, he started by barely spending six hours in Colombia. Hey, he said he wanted to improve relations, not spend the night. After visiting three other nations that he never knew existed before last Tuesday, Bush jetted up to Mexico. Once again, Bush took the opportunity to reiterate his support for a massive wall along the border between his nation and the other. Some in Mexico pointed out that the money spent on the wall, which will accomplish nothing, could actually be used to provide direct aide to the poor in Latin America. This, in turn, might negate the need for migration in the first place. Bush, however, was too busy trying to find a Taco Bell to listen.
Really, though, Bush’s incompetence and his half-hearted interest in Latin America doesn’t surprise me. Another story on Latinos caught my attention much more.
PBS commissioned yet another Ken Burns documentary. This time, Burns set out to chart the little discussed Second World War. How often have I said, “If only somebody would stop and think about that forgotten war!”
Bitch, please. Does the United States even remember that it fought in any other war?
Burns, however, decided that Latinos’ experiences during World War II were simply not important. In seven episodes (fourteen-hours of television), Burns does not once mention any Latino veteran – at all.
Around 500,000 Latinos joined the various branches of the U.S. armed forces out of a total population of about 2.7 million (To put that another way, almost a fifth of all Latinos living in the U.S. served in the military during World War II). The Latino enlistment rate, as would be the case for Korea and Vietnam, was higher than the population at large in relation to their percent of the total population.
Latinos served in both theaters, often with distinction. In Italy, Company Z of the 141st Regiment of the 36th Division consisted entirely of Tejanos, most of them from El Paso. This regiment won wide praise for heroics on the battlefield In particular, Lieutenant Gabriel Navarette from El Paso and Sgt. Manuel S. Gonzales from Fort Davis, Texas, both won the Distinguished Service Cross.
Latinos disproportionately served in the Pacific theater. Government officials specifically selected Mexican American units for service in the Pacific based on a belief that their alleged racial characteristics meant that they could “better endure the hardships.” The War Department, for instance, converted a major chunk of New Mexico’s national guard into the 200th Coast Artillery Corps to defend the Philippines. This unit faced inhuman torture during the infamous Bataan Death March after the U.S. abandoned the islands to Japan early in the war.
Mexican Americans were one of the most highly decorated ethnic groups in the U. S. Armed Forces. Mexican-American soldiers won scores of Silver and Bronze Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart. Twelve Mexican Americans received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Stories of Mexican American service to the United States are easily found. Joe Martínez, born in Taos, worked the sugar-beet fields of Colorado before he enlisted in the army. Posthumously, Congress awarded Martínez their medal of honor for gallantry in the Aleutians.
Of course, this is just a tiny number of things that I could mention. It also totally ignores the home-front.. Nor have I mentioned the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. During that event, white sailors traveling in groups of 10 to 150 men entered Mexican neighborhoods targeting Mexican-American teenagers wearing Zoot Suits. That, though, is a story for another day.
PBS is claiming that they didn’t intend to exclude Latinos. They argue that they couldn’t tell everybody’s story. Apparently if you can’t tell everybody’s story, the stories you decide not to tell are the ones given by Latinos.
Burns and his crew decided to focus on the experiences of four “typical” American towns. Apparently what made these towns “typically” American was their total lack of any Latinos. Still, it’s hard to imagine that not a single Latino family lived in or near Sacramento, California, one of the towns selected for the documentary.
Historically, Mexican Americans in California sacrificed a great deal. During World War II, California Congressman Jerry Voorhis observed:
- As I read the causality lists form my state, I find anywhere from one-fourth to one-third of these names are names such as Gonzales or Sanchez, names indicating that the very lifeblood of our citizens of Latin-American descent in the uniform of the armed forces of the United States is being poured out to win a victory in the war. We ought not to forget that..
Not only did PBS forget, they are entirely unapologetic about this historical omission. To add insult to injury, PBS announced that they would release the documentary on September 16 – The starting day of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Burns’ production company has claimed the documentary is “a look at the human experience” during the war. There’s the problem, in my mind. If Burns said that this documentary was narrowly focused on the experiences of just a few people, the absence of Latinos might be more acceptable. The language he uses, however, suggests that he believes this documentary to be greater than just the people he interviewed. Even the title, “The War,” implies that we are supposed to consider these stories “universal.”
When Burns set out to chart what he imagined as the “human experience,” he already had certain presumptions of who he considered typically “human.” Latinos’ experiences during World War II are Latinos’ experiences. Who other than Latinos could relate to that? The experiences of white Americans, however, shows the human condition to which we should all relate.
Sure, Burns included some stories from African Americans. PBS was also quick to point out, in response to the criticism about Latinos’ absence, that they did include a section on Japanese-American internment. Because, apparently, all minorities share the same experience and acknowledging one groups’ story is really acknowledging all minorities' struggles. So, why bother to learn what is unique about each group? Latinos, PBS seems to claim, are just too sensitive. So what if PBS never acknowledges your existence or contributions to this nation?
In reality, there is nothing more “typical” about Mobile, Alabama than there is about Los Angeles, California. Luverne, Wisconsin is not more “American” than Santa Fe, New Mexico. Burns made clear and conscious choices about those towns based on his own hidden assumptions about which stories he wanted to tell. We are told once again that the white experience is the real American experience, everybody else is just a footnote.
Sometimes we hear a defense of this thinking based on numbers. Latinos, Asians, and African Americans, after all, are “minorities.” Of course, the United States is rapidly becoming a non-white majority nation. In Texas, Hawai’i, California, and New Mexico, that is already the reality. Based on that logic, should we feel at liberty to now ignore whites in the history of those states? Should I break out my Sharpie marker and history book every time we take a new census?
Latinos remain on the margins of U.S. history even after decades of concerted effort by dedicated scholars to recover and write those experiences. If this is how the U.S. treats its own citizens of Latin American descent, is it any wonder that Latin America is a wee bit suspicious of the nation’s intentions?