21 de Marzo, 2007
Cooking The History Book [Ken Burns' Anti-Latino Agenda]
WHEN I SPEAK OF THE LONG WAR on Mexico, I imagine there is a faction of people who sigh and chalk it up to the fiery and verbose drama of a Xicano activist or some such thing. But what I speak of, specifically, is a long and concerted effort (though those on the other side of the Lens might say it's all happenstance and chance or even wholly justified) to exclude, exploit, harm, and ultimately, destroy the Mexican presence, history, health, and legacy within this conceptual and physical sphere that we call "America."
This war has many fronts, strategies and participants (sometimes Mexican Americans themselves), and cumulatively, they are devastating to the minds and hearts and lives of Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans. From the multiple invasions of Mexico by the Spanish and the French; to the manufactured casus belli that "justified" America's invasion and subsequent cheaply-bought theft of half of Mexico's land (which included the gold-rich Califas); to the stranglehold of NAFTA and the introduction of GMO "Frankenfood" corn into the birthplace of Maize; to the denial of true recognition of Native American status (instead named in media and public discourse as "Greasers" along with other such denigrating labels); to the endless memes in our current culture and cinema and literature that paint us as lazy, criminal, stupid people; to the shameful exploitation of Mexican labor and subsequent denial of such benefit; to the fear Murkans have of those conquered Indian-mutts jumping the fence and reminding Gringolandia that Murkans didn't "work hard" to make Murka by themselves or "discover" this mysterious continent after all, which leads to heartless and aggressive measures and laws designed to clear the land of Mexicanos or stick them in cages, to the whitewashing of history to erase, misrepresent, or negate the Mexican American contribution to our society. Together—and this is, believe it or not, hardly a comprehensive list—it adds up to an unspoken and undeclared (but very effective) war on the indigenous of this continent and all their descendants and kin.
Now, Ken Burns, famous "documentary" filmmaker is doing his part as a good American soldier of media, to insure that the future thinks even less of us.
KEN BURNS is a documentary filmmaker who has a lot of cred, and chances are good that you've seen his work. If you use Macintosh's iMovie (or if you've seen any documentary these days that uses still shots as part of its presentation), you are familiar with what is named the "Ken Burns Effect," an editing technique made ubiquitous by his documentaries.
When it comes to American documentary filmmaking, Ken Burns is an institution, frequently hailed as “the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation,” or some other such thing. And I am not denying his chops. (Nor his very disarming and Opie-like aura of amiability!) The man can wield a mean editing decision, script, and shotlist. Ultimately, his presentations are engaging and very well-received, mainstreamed, and most important to this essay—considered fact.
The PBS site tells us that "for over 25 years, Ken Burns has been producing films that are unafraid of controversy and tragedy." And I would have to agree. Because his latest seven-part, fourteen hour film The War, an epic undertaking that took six years to make and that covers the second world war by interviewing forty veterans from four towns—one of them Sacramento, California—and does not include even one Mexican (or Puerto Rican, or Native American, or Latino at all) is a tragedy, when it comes to respecting an accurate history, or the contributions of the descendants of the Indigenous of these Americas.
Since Tom Brokaw announced that the World War II generation was to be known as the "greatest generation," Mexican Americans have struggled to ensure that their contributions be included. The efforts of professor Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez at the University of Texas, Austin, have led to an incredibly rich archive of materials known as the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project.
Now we learn that next September PBS will premier "The War," Ken Burns' seven-part documentary on World War II. According to all reports, Mr. Burns' film completely erases the Mexican-American experience in that worldwide conflict from our national consciousness.
In The War, there are Blacks included (awarded 7 Medals of Honor finally after much protest, in 1997); and there are Japanese Americans (awarded 1 medal of honor in WWII, but later bumped to 20 in 2000) included. And that is good, and that is as it should be. But Mexican Americans won 11 medals of honor, and Puerto Ricans won 2 Medals of Honor in WWII, distinguishing themselves in combat with their service, as well as with the record of these medals. When you have people risking their lives in the line of fire for your country's cause, and who are even recognized by the government in such a way, and after so much minimalization and abuse; to purposefully omit their presence on what is sure to be a much-respected historical film—this is utter disrespect.
To set the original release date for Diez y Seis de Septiembre—September 16—Mexico's Independence Day, felt like a calculated slap to some, once it was discovered that their hopes this was a sign of recognition to Mexican Americans was unfounded. And this "slap" was felt by many in the Latino Community. The date was changed to September 23 later (with no explanation), but this farce of a documentary remains, still, three quarters of the way into Hispanic Heritage month, and makes a mockery of the entire idea with such a release date.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a loose-knit coalition of other organizations last month sent letters of protest to Paula Kreger, president and CEO of PBS. NAHJ leaders wrote, 'It is estimated that as many as half a million Latinos - U.S. born as well as immigrants - fought in World War II. Eleven Mexican-Americans and two Puerto Ricans earned Medals of Honor. So it escapes us how Ken Burns could have made a seven-part series that doesn't mention the contributions of Latinos.'
Now, as those of us who make issues of privilege and anti-racism, or anti-oppression, or anti-White-Supremacy our daily business to study and think on, we know that one doesn't necessarily have to be aware of their own racism or internalized White Supremacist worldview or privilege to wield it, and that needs to be understood implicitly. In fact, the discussion of "intention" derails more progress on understanding these dynamics than almost any other tangent that I've come across. In fact, one might argue me (or the Latino Community, more accurately) that Burns never intended to make a statement by skimming over any Latino part in the WWII effort. One might say that he completely overlooked Mexican Americans but that he didn't see it as an exclusion at all. Some (Burns himself) would tell us that you can spend SIX YEARS in pre-production, production and post-production on such an in-depth study of vets and never once consider how certain groups who bled and died in the war you are covering would feel about being left out. But ideas of intention aside, in retrospect, Burns himself acknowledges the depth of the insult.
I think the way we constructed it sort of renders a little bit of the protest mood. I mean I can understand, particularly in the Hispanic community, after 500 years of having so much of their history marginalized (on) this continent, how important it is to be told."
—Ken Burns, PBS.org/ombudsman
Sounds reasonable and kind and intelligent...so we feel good about his "intention." But what about the reality? What about the product and the effects of the product—which may not be augmented by any intention of the maker? After all, despite the words, Burns clearly didn't feel it was "important" enough to make any edits. And his understanding quickly becomes rationalization if you travel his statement beyond that one sentence—
In this latest project, we have attempted to show the universal human experience of war by focusing on the testimonies of just a handful of people — mostly from four American towns. As a result, millions of stories are not explored in our film. [...]
We were looking for universal human experience of battle, of what was it like to be in that war and not try to cover every group. We left out lots of people in many, many different kinds of groups because we weren’t looking at it in that way.'
—and with the addition of the words of Joe DePlasco, Burns’ publicist and spokesperson for “The War", the smooth rationalization becomes outright insult:
Ken Burns has been one of the greatest story tellers of Americans. What one group experienced in World War II is not our issue."
Yesterday I wrote about my own family's history with the United States Military. I am a second-generation American of Mexican descent, my nanita (my grandmother) was not born here. My father was. I was. Now, despite my own feelings about the US war machine, if it were not for my father's Uncles Geno, Beto, and Vicente joining the U.S. Army in 1920, and in that way winning thier mamá's and their own citizenship and moving la familia to El Paso, Tejas—well, I wouldn't be here! So I do value their decision in that light. But that is a small and personal thought. And I personally no longer care so much for the validations and awards given by this government, to tell you the truth. (I hear Presidential Medals of Freedom are up on eBay?) But this is not about my personal feelings about my birthplace, the hypocrisy of my government, or anything else. This is about historical accounts, and a long pattern of disrespect (to be extremely generous with my word choices).
And so the outrage of so many Latinos. Because you must view this omission and disrespect not in a vacuum, but along with all the other actions in this long, unannounced effort to minimalize and exploit Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans.
Neither does this look so incidental, as Burns claims it is, next to the celebrated filmmaker's earlier obvious exclusions of Latino contributions.
This is not the first time Ken Burns does a disservice to the Latino community,' Maggie Rivas Rodriguez said last week, referring to two of his epic PBS documentaries, Jazz and Baseball.
'For example, we did a quick content analysis of the Jazz documentary he did and in it, the same thing. A 14-hour production and only three minutes on Latinos, despite the huge contribution of Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans.'
Rivas Rodriguez noted that Burns is 'a man who gets paid millions of dollars for his work and that PBS supports him using 'partly our taxpayer money.'
The Latino community is not just a little angered by this. As Dan Arellano, from the Latinos in WWII Yahoo listserve group puts it, in a letter to Senator Lloyd Doggett of Texas' 21st Congressional District:
How much more blood do our Hispanic Veterans need to spill before we are accepted into a society in a land in which we are the descendents of the original inhabitants?
If we allow this current trend of historical exclusion to continue we may eventually have no history at all! As the Historian David J. Weber says we will continue to be 'Foreigners in Our Native Land.'
But this cannot go on, this "Trend of Historical Exclusion." Because despite the too-often perpetrated memes in our culture, Latinos are not just gardeners and illiterate day-job seekers who would rather engage in knife fights or run from la migra than stand up and engage the system for their rights. Not anymore. No, as much as Pat Buchanan and others hate to admit it, times have changed. And they will not go back to what they were.
There is a Latino, it seems, who is behind Ken Burns 100%, though. That Latino is Lionel Sosa. Sosa is not just the founder of Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar & Associates (now Bromley Communications, the largest Hispanic advertising agency in the U.S.) but also a member of PBS’ board of directors. Sosa seems to think of of Mister Burns as Da Vinci, apparently, who was genetically incapable of making mistakes.
Asking Burns to change his documentary is like asking Leonardo da Vinci to add another apostle to ‘The Last Supper’ because somebody else was left out. This is artistic. This is a film. It’s not journalism.
Someone needs to discuss with Señor Sosa exactly how the public reads American Documentary films in the Ken Burns milieu, because I think he imagines that Burns is some type of mystical Renaissance animator from Disneyland who offers up peripheral and fictional narrative on minor American events.
He is a Latino, but perhaps Sosa should speak to some Latino vets about their feelings.
'This is infuriating,' said Gil Treviño, a decorated Marine who fought on the island of Iwo Jima and later became the first military veterinary officer and first Mexican-American to receive a Ph.D. in veterinary pathology.
'Anybody who omits Hispanics from World War II doesn’t know what he’s talking about and hasn’t researched the subject enough,'.
“It’s a big insult,” said Navy veteran Luis Diaz DeLeon. “I’m glad these people are challenging PBS and Mr. Ken Burns. Unfortunately, nuestra gente (our people) don’t get involved to defend themselves. They just roll with the punches.”—Lionel Sosa, Laredo Morning Times
Maggie Rivas Rodriguez is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and held a meeting with PBS’ "top corporate officials" earlier this month.
'To leave out the Latino experience from this big national narrative is simply not acceptable, and tells me that Latinos do not have a meaningful voice at PBS.
World War II was a watershed for Latinos across the board; it was when they started to feel like this was their country,' said Rivas Rodriguez, who eight years ago founded the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project.
—Maggie Rivas Rodriguez, LMT online
Rodriguez' meeting was the culmination of a concerted effort to have PBS hold off on the release of the film until Latinos were included. But PBS and Burns rejected that idea outright, referring the Latino community, instead, to the consolation that there would be many related discussions hosted by PBS that could include Latinos.
In response, the American GI Forum has called for a boycott of PBS and its local affiliates.
“They have underestimated the Latino community,” Rivas Rodriguez said of PBS and Burns. “We’re not just busboys. We’re journalists and professors. And we can do something and not be treated like crap anymore. They are going to find out how angry we can get.”
—Maggie Rivas Rodriguez, LMT online
AND SO WHAT CAN BE DONE about this? Where do we go with the anger, with the sense of unfairness? What do we do to correct what we feel is a historical injustice and inaccuracy? Because there are things to do about this, and I will list those soon. But first I would briefly refer you back to the content I explore many, many times in this blog; content that is integral to the genesis, spine, and purpose of this blog.
I have written, often, of my own perceptions in this country of Mexicans. I know very well how White America (at least the parts I was exposed to and in the years I was) sees and thinks about Mexicans. Granted, many individuals (and I'm sure if you're still reading you are definitely one) understand that I and my people are just like you. Human beings who are no different, save perhaps for our histories, historical memory, some minor physical feature differences, and the foods or languages of our ancestors. But the heart? The mind? The hands? We are no different. You cannot tell me I am lazier than you because of my ethnicity, nor can you assert you are smarter, or superior in some way because you lack the (prized) Mexican bloodline.
But that's not what I learned growing up, and it certainly is not what I felt. Nor is that how many people see and feel about Mexicanos and all related issues. And you and I know that very well.
How do we combat this? How do we include such a HUGE portion of our country's makeup into the actual goodwill and positive functioning of our society? How, exactly, do we counter these White Supremacist tendencies to minimalize, hurt, hate, and denigrate the non-White® races?
Well, I'll tell you: you help them feel included. Proud of what they have done here. Proud of their national image. You begin with the children, always with the children. You give them strong, easily-found, proud, revered role models who are of Mexican descent (in this particular ejemplo). You do NOT just give them aggressive drug dealers and sleazy drug kingpins and natural knife fighters and shadowy thieves and barrio killers and border smugglers and Hot Dirty Maids® and pregnant addicted teens and every other hated and despised image you can think of. You remind them that they are just like other celebrated (White) Americans: able, memorable, admirable. Important. Not just in word, but demonstrably important. Visibly so.
We begin by ditching the pathetic excuses for omitting the contributions of Mexican Americans—and all Latinos—from our historical accounts. And instead, include the truth.
If you would really like to make an impact in this effort to make sure that the Hispanic contribution to World War II is recognized and remembered, we hope you will consider expressing your opinion. Below are letter templates which you can download, insert your information, and mail to PBS, the documentary's sponsors, your elected representatives, and your local PBS station.
The Defend the Honor informational flyer may be downloaded and disseminated as widely as possible at public events, meetings, etc. Feel free to borrow the language and make up your own flyer, for your organization.
To Share Your Concerns
If you would like to send a letter to PBS, Ken Burns, the documentary's sponsors, or your local PBS affiliate, here is contact information.
Click here for PBS Corporate contact information and their sponsors.
Click here for PBS Station contact information and their sponsors.
Please see the Defend the Honor site for much more information, letters already written, cartoons, News/Press releases, e-mail list sub form, and related projects and literature.