'The War'? I'm Sticking to 'Law and Order'

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns may have done Latinos a favor: By initially excluding Latinos from his production of The War and grudgingly tacking afterthoughts on African- and Latino-Americans to his series, he has caused a chill to flash through our community that reminds us of our most basic truth: Things for Latinos in the twenty-first century are not good enough for us to be complacent.

The statistics bear this out: There are 41,926,302 million Latinos in the United States.

  • 45% of Latino children under age 18 live in poverty (4,181,320 children);
  • 30-35% drop out of high school;
  • 20% of our students leave high school without a diploma or GED;
  • Latinos account for 90% of all immigrant dropouts;
  • In California, one of the few states for which there are available statistics, only 24.4% of the college-age youth are in college.

Latinos lag behind every other group in college graduation:

  • 57 % completed a bachelor's degree.
  • Only 28 % of those initially enrolled part-time finished a bachelor's degree.

Few Latinos have attained post-graduate degrees, a fact attributed to the low rate of college graduation: In California in 2000 Latinos comprised more than 30% of the state's population, but they were only 4.8% of the state's physician supply. Only 4.2% of new PhDs in history (my own field) in 2007 are Latino. I cannot tell you how many Latinos have earned PhDs in all fields. When I was in grad school, I heard it that 2% of all PhDs were Latino but I have not been able to find a credible statistic.

Was Burns merely thoughtless? Or did he ignore two major racial and ethnic majorities in the United States intentionally, (he also overlooked African-Americans) steeling himself for the firestorm that was sure to follow?

My father was fishing off a pier in San Francisco when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Navy but was rejected because he was asthmatic. Not one to be deterred, he turned around and signed up with the Merchant Marines who ran the Liberty ships that carried supplies to our troops. He went down twice; the second time; the injuries were so critical that he was in a coma for months. When he left the hospital, he had a metal plate atop his skull where bone used to be. When he passed away, the Stars and Stripes adorned his casket. Folded, it now sits in my mother's dining room along with his service medals and photos.

I remember standing next to my father during at a baseball game, singing the Star-Spangled Banner with him, our hands over our hearts, and I could see the tears in his eyes. What was behind those tears? Nothing that he would ever tell us about. Like most people who went to war, he had little to say about it. My dad was a deeply emotional person. I am sure that the memories of the war and his injuries were part of the emotion but when he would try to describe what he saw and experienced, he would get choked up and the tears would start. There was no doubt in our minds that he had beheld horrors unimaginable to us in our safe, clean, American city. My father was not one to dwell on the discrimination Latinos suffered. His had done his duty as any patriotic American had.

With only a couple of exceptions, all of my father's friends in the mixed Salvadoran-Af(c)migrAf(c) and Mexican-American community that I grew up with in San Francisco were World War II veterans: at least one was a former prisoner of war.

I'm Latina, middle-aged, and quite used to being invisible. Whether it's television, the movies or real life, I see many white people, some black, but rarely, a Latino/a. Nevertheless, Ken Burns' snub of Latino soldiers and sailors who fought in World War II cannot be borne in silence.

My father passed away eight years ago but I have been trying to imagine what his response would have been to the latest post-Brown v. Board of Education, post-Bakke, post-La Raza, post-Civil Rights Movement, and post-Farm Workers Ken Burns epic. I think he would shrug- off Burns as being ignorant. In my opinion, Burns' lack of knowledge about the pervasive, persistent effects of discrimination against Latinos is deliberate.

According to Ken Burns, he intended to depict the effect of the war on four towns, to get a sense of what American's suffered as a people, but that he was not trying to be comprehensive. So he picked four basically white venues. Why not include a Southwest town where the majority was Latino? Or for that matter, why not a mostly African-American town in Mississippi or Alabama? Or one that had both populations? Would it have been too much work to deal with the complexities of white American heroes who also happened to be bigots? Why not pick four vets from New York City where there are American veterans of all colors? How universal is a story that ignores some 30% of the population? Perhaps his next project should be on the desegregation of the Armed Forces; one that explicitly teases out the themes of heroism, racism, bigotry, and power in the military.

The invisibility of Latinos in a project such as The War contributes to society's unawareness of the real roles played by Latinos in America. We are not all "illegals," farm workers, busboys or factory workers who go to work daily in fear that "La Migra" will swoop down and deport us. Some have served bravely on foreign battlefields and died for our country.

I would not watch The War. If Burns cannot see the many Latino soldiers, sailors, and Marines who fought and died in World War II, he need not look for us in his audiences either.

Rosa Maria Pegueros (pegueros@uri.edu) is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.