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Commentary: Latinos give PBS a history lesson

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- There is an ongoing battle between filmmaker Ken Burns and a coalition of Hispanic veterans, organizations and lawmakers over plans by Burns and the Public Broadcasting System to release a documentary on World War II that ignores the 500,000 Hispanics who served in the U.S. military during the war.

Now there could be a truce. After initially insisting that he wouldn't make any changes, Burns said last week that he would re-edit the film to add stories about Hispanic soldiers -- not as an addendum as was suggested earlier in a lame compromise, but as part of the film itself.

The word came after Burns met with the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility, which had asked Anheuser-Busch and General Motors Corp. to end their sponsorship of "The War" -- a 14-hour documentary slated to air in September. HACR Chairman Manuel Mirabal warned the companies to cut ties or they would "not be held harmless." Was that a threat? You bet. Hispanics control more than $800 billion in annual spending power and that merits respect.

Burns said that he would include interviews with Hispanic veterans in "another layer of storytelling." But he didn't say how he would do so, only that nothing in the film would be changed. How would that work, exactly?

One person who is still skeptical is the individual who started this affair: Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, journalism professor and head of the U.S. Latino & Latina Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

When Rivas-Rodriguez learned that PBS was planning a documentary on World War II absent Hispanics, she and her associates wrote letters, launched an online campaign, and demanded meetings with the PBS brass ( link ).

Like the Hispanic veterans of World War II, they were ignored. That was a mistake. It also made clear that the activists were dealing with folks whose knowledge of Hispanics didn't go beyond salsa lessons and whatever is on the No. 3 combination plate.

If either PBS or Burns knew more about the ethnic group, they might have known that they were playing with dynamite. Hispanics are famously proud of their veterans, whose military service has produced a higher ratio of Medal of Honor recipients relative to population than any other ethnic group.

A special source of pride are the World War II veterans, who came home to segregated schools, restricted restaurants, and bans on speaking Spanish. So they waged a new battle -- for civil rights. It is a great story. Too bad PBS and Burns missed it the first time around.

Now, Burns seems ready to correct the oversight. Let's hope that he does -- before the corporations weigh in, and the war starts up again. As for PBS, it's a goal of the network to provide educational programming. And on this issue, there is much educating to be done.

Consider the white male reader who, after reading a column on the subject, wrote to inform me that "no 'Latinos' fought in the war. They were Americans."

That's a lovely thought, and I can't wait to share it with those in my grandparents' generation who suffered through decades of second-class citizenship. They weren't "Mexicans." They were Americans all along. How about that? They'll be so relieved.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.external link

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.


Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Filmmakers did not know much about Latino pride in U.S. military contributions.



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