I’ve been a history junkie ever since I was a kid. I would ride my bike to the county library and go straight to the stacks that told heroic tales of Americans revolting against King George III, struggling on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and defending the world against tyranny. I loved the American History course taught by the legendary Mr. Duus and Mr. Hefelfinger at James Lick High School, and I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in History from San Jose State University.
As a kid, I was most interested in World War II probably because my dad served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp in the Pacific Ocean. Like most in his generation, he didn’t talk about the war unless he had a few whiskey and waters under his belt, and even then he wouldn’t say much. With the tidbits of information he shared, I would scour the books from the library trying to piece together my dad’s experience on the Wasp.
To this day, I could spend hours watching the History Channel and Military Channel gathering more data about our collective past. Many episodes include stories about the courageous Black Buffalo Soldiers fighting for freedom during the Civil War and the valiant Japanese-American 442nd Regiment defending our flag in WWII. American-born Latinos have also fought with courage and valor to defend our country, yet they’re nowhere to be found in mainstream accounts. Why is this?
Several years ago, the award-winning PBS documentarian Ken Burns completed a 14 ½ hour series about WWII. I had watched with admiration his comprehensive masterpieces on topics like the Civil War, baseball, the Statue of Liberty and more. I looked forward to the series with anxious anticipation, especially how Burns’ genius might portray the half million Latinos who fought in WWII and the 13 Latino Medal of Honor recipients. It turns out that Burns didn’t include one story about them.
Prior to the airing of the series, national Latino leaders requested that Burns find a way to tell the important stories of these forgotten Americans. Burns initially refused to bend to “political correctness” citing artistic freedom, but he ultimately compromised by adding a few interviews with Latino veterans. I didn’t watch. When Burns came to SJSU for a lecture with public radio last week, I didn’t go.
In some ways, I understand why Ken Burns couldn’t comprehend what the fuss was all about. The land that is now California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico formed the northern border of Mexico until they became the spoils of war when the Unites States won the War with Mexico of 1846-1848. Mexicans living in those territories didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them. Since then, American-born citizens of Latino descent have been treated like foreigners in their own land.
Less than a century later, nearly 1.2 million American-born Latinos were evicted from the U.S. to Mexico during the Mexican Repatriation Program of 1929 to 1939 to open up agricultural and factory jobs for Okies fleeing the Depression Era Dust Bowl. More recently, Arizona’s notorious Senate Bill 1070 allows law enforcement to detain anyone when there’s “a reasonable suspicion of being an illegal immigrant.” So in our country, the rule is you must’ve been born somewhere else if you have a Latino surname.
Although those of us born in the United States represent the majority of Latinos in our country, most Americans don’t even know who we are. I didn’t have to look far to find the answer. My dad was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1926. His parents were born near the same place during the 1880s when New Mexico was an American territory. I’m not sure how far back the family tree goes, but I’m willing to guess that the Garcías were living near Las Cruces when the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock in 1620.
When he was 11 years old, my dad, his siblings, and my widowed grandmother moved to Phoenix, Arizona where my dad went to grammar school and high school. In 1942, at the age of 16, he enlisted in the Navy by forging my grandmother’s signature so he could fight for his country. One of my most prized possessions is a log he kept during the last days of the war and the victorious trip home on the U.S.S. Wasp.
Back at home, he was refused entrance into a Phoenix dancehall despite wearing his navy uniform because he was “Mexican.” He took a few classes on the G.I. Bill, married my mom, moved to San Jose looking for the American Dream, and got a job at the Post Office. Together my mom and dad had six kids (I’m number 5), bought a house in east San Jose, and struggled to give us a better life. We have become businessmen, school administrators, bank executives, university librarians, and public servants.
That’s my dad’s story. He’s an All-American hero to me. I know there are millions of others just like him. That’s why Latinos can’t wait for Kens Burns or anyone else to understand who we are so our stories can be told. Until we tell our own stories, our fellow Americans will continue to be confused. One just needs to look at the recent Twitter-sphere condemnation of the American Music Awards for showcasing American-born Latinos citing that Mark Antony, Jennifer Lopez, et al, weren’t American.
A few fellow Latino SJSU alums and I traded barbs about Ken Burns on Facebook when we learned he was scheduled to appear at our alma mater. One college friend, Xavier Soriano, reminded us that we should tell our own stories. He’s right. We’re proud Americans who honor and cherish our ancestry. Our generation is educated and has access to resources. So let’s get on with it. Let’s tell our story.