After the War, A Struggle For Equality
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Latinos came home from World War II to a different struggle. A Medal of Honor for bravery didn't guarantee service in certain restaurants. A soldier's body in a coffin and an American flag for his widow didn't merit admission to some funeral homes.
Fast-forward to 2007. One of the nation's premier documentarians is ready to unveil his opus on World War II. It's mainly the stories of non-Hispanic whites, but Ken Burns made sure to include the experience of African Americans and Japanese Americans. Missing in action: half a million or so Latinos who served, out of the 16 million total.
"You mean he couldn't think of a Latino or Native American to include in the movie?" says Roque "Rocky" Riojas of Kansas City, Kan., who fought his way through Italy, hill by bloody hill. "I may not be smart, but I'm not that dumb. . . . We should lick his boot because he added a piece at the end of a chapter?"
But the rhetoric flying over "The War" on PBS has obscured a richer story about the Latino experience in World War II, and the battlefield courage of those men is but the beginning chapter. In a sense, you can't fully understand phenomena like C¿sar Ch¿vez, Chicano power, Latino civil rights activism, those big immigrant-rights marches of last year, Daddy Yankee and the recent Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Spanish on Univision without a feel for World War II -- and the bittersweet homecoming.
"I always think of World War II as being the moment in history when the Latino American became acceptable as a full-fledged American," Bill Lansford of Los Angeles, one of the two Latino Marines finally included as a compromise in "The War," says in the telephone interview.
"It's very hard to look at the guy in the foxhole and say, 'Oh, he's a Mexican,' " continues Lansford, 85, who raided behind enemy lines at Guadalcanal and landed at Iwo Jima. "That was the watershed, that was the turning point for Latinos. When we came out of the war, we knew that we were Americans."
Latinos weren't segregated in the service, as African Americans were. One of the few virtually all-Latino outfits, the 65th Infantry Regiment, owed its makeup to its origins in Puerto Rico. Several units drawing recruits from the Southwest also had a large Hispanic presence.
But Latinos did face discrimination.
"Our sergeant was killed and I was next in line," recalls Riojas, 85, a former infantryman who fought in North Africa before invading Italy. "I had the most experience in combat. The second lieutenant in charge of our platoon was from North Carolina. He chose a young guy from Georgia to be sergeant. I went in a PFC and came out a PFC."
"I think it was 'little Texas' in the Marine Corps, and as you know, Texans and Mexicans weren't exactly bosom buddies in those days," Lansford says in the episode airing tomorrow night. His mother was from Mexico, and she raised him as a single parent in a Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles until he was a teenager. His father was a gringo who himself was raised speaking Spanish. Lansford lied about his age so he could join the Marines at 17.
When the nation went to war, Latinos wanted to "show that they are as patriotic as anybody, as some blue-eyed, blond guy," the former Marine continues in the documentary. War was a great equalizer. "These Texan guys began seeing that we weren't what they thought we were, and we began seeing they weren't what we thought they were."
What was not equal was the welcome home. Oh, sure, there was dancing in the streets, kisses for everyone, V-E Day, V-J Day, blizzards of ticker tape, President Truman pinning medals on lads who looked as stunned at that moment of the camera flash as during a bombardment.