‘The War’: What is it good for?

On the one hand, there is art, and on the other is identity politics. Or such is the belief of acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, who expressed this sentiment in a feature published by the New York Times. The two things, he said, “don’t mix.” The War, his approximately 15-hour, rather definitive-sounding documentary on World War II, which focuses on stories gathered in four U.S. cities, originally contained no material acknowledging the roughly 500,000 Latinos who served, a significant percentage of whom were Medal of Honor recipients. According to the director, the number of Latinos who came forward to be interviewed was exactly zilch.

(Such a high-profile documentarian is Mr. Burns that apparently potential subjects must seek him out, and not the other way around.)

His conviction might be steadfast in his own mind, where he is clearly more an artist (he calls The War an “epic poem”) and less a kind of journalist, but as a gentleman noted at the September 22 Defend the Honor - San Antonio Coalition protest, Burns, whatever his faults, is commonly regarded as the Narrator of the American Story.

In order to put to rest the initial controversy caused by the “oversight,” Burns appended an additional 29 minutes of footage to the doc (two interviews with Latinos, one with a Native American), whose first installment aired on PBS September 23.

Admittedly, Burns’s vision was modified, which in the eyes of some, like director Hector Galan via USA Today, “smacks of censorship.” (Though he goes on to say that WWII “goes to the heart of the Latino experience.”) To others, including members of the Defend the Honor Campaign — which according to its website seeks to “Preserv`e` the Legacy of Hispanics of the World War II Generation” — Burns’s supplementary footage is nothing but a means to “silence critics.”

Why did Burns not set out to tell a more thorough story in the first place? Why should Latinos, a minority group virtually hunted by military recruiters at present, continue to give their families to wars when recognition for service is nigh, even on federally and taxpayer-funded public television?

These queries, among others, were posed by demonstrators on Saturday, September 22, at the Defend the Honor rally and march, which began at 9 a.m. at the VFW on 10th Street and proceded to the KLRN building at 501 Broadway.

“Maybe we haven’t been voicing ourselves loud enough … We’re here, and we’re American,” affirmed Joe Ramos, one of the first individuals to offer his thoughts to this writer before the march down Broadway commenced. It was already too warm out, but camaraderie — to say nothing of passion — was thicker in the air than the heat as people greeted one another.

Jaime Martinez, chairman of the César Chávez March for Justice Foundation, was so fervent he declared his desire to speak on the record before he knew which paper’s representative he was addressing. He told of his proud family history — his father and uncles served, he says — and recalled Chávez’s participation in WWII. “Heroes like him came back to serve the community.” Burns’s documentary, he proclaimed, is a “slap in the face.”

Father Richard Peña blessed the rally, and participants raised signs proclaiming, “Join the revolution, stop Ken Burns,” “Ken Burns ‘The War’ is a misuse of taxpayer dollars,” “Ken Burns/PBS has disrespected our heroes,” “Racism by omission,” and “For Mike Vela, our Grandpa.” Many individuals carried posterboards with the names of Latino Medal of Honor recipients branded upon them.

Though the rally took place at KLRN’s studios, according to Coalition spokesperson Peter Vallecillo, KLRN’s board wrote a “strongly worded” letter to PBS’s board in March, particularly criticizing The War as a teaching tool. “Even though the protest took place in front of KLRN, we did make it known that KLRN was not responsible.”

Lined up on both sides of the street, the crowd of all ages (about about 150 to 175 people, according to Vallecillo), listened and chanted as Latino veterans were honored, and speakers threatened to boycott The War sponsors Bank of America, Anheuser-Busch, and General Motors. “We were there!” rang through the loudspeaker. The War, it was obvious, is part of a bigger issue: the ongoing struggle against Latino invisibility.

Cane in hand, Henrietta Rivas, Defend the Honor Co-Chair Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez’s mother, could be seen handing out buttons to protestors. Asked about the turnout of that day’s march as it came to a close, she said it was “Wonderful. Better than we expected.” I wonder, will the same be said of The War? •


Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez will speak about her efforts to ensure that Latino participation in WWII is not forgotten at Our Lady of the Lake University, in the Providence West Social Room, on September 28 at 7 p.m.

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