Their turn to talk
By Tania Chatila, Staff Writer
IRWINDALE - When Rudolph Estrada recounts his World War II days, he looks back on the "Mexican kid" who managed to disable a German tank, or "Tiger," with a bazooka.
Estrada, 81, who was born in Chicago and served as a corporal in the 83rd Army Infantry, remembers telling his commander the infantryman " deserves a medal." The commander said, "Why? That's what soldiers get paid to do."
The story is reminiscent of the attitude toward Latinos then and now, according to Ray Ramirez, third vice commander of AMVETS Post 113 in Irwindale.
"People forget what Mexican Americans have done for this country ... The point is to be accepted," he said. "We still have to convince people."
Ramirez is on a mission to get recognition for Mexican-American veterans, like his relatives who fought for their country during
World War II.
The post held a special taping Wednesday to preserve nearly a dozen San Gabriel Valley Mexican-American World War II veterans' accounts of their experiences.
Ramirez's quest comes on the heels of a debate surrounding a Public Broadcasting Service documentary by Ken Burns, which critics say overlooked the contributions Latinos made during World War II.
"I went to see clips of it in Beverly Hills a few weeks ago. ... The only Hispanics shown in Burns' video are in Sacramento at a packing house," the Vietnam War veteran said.
But Ramirez's grievances did not start there.
He has been writing letters and pushing for more recognition for Mexican-American veterans for more than a decade.
In 1999, Ramirez wrote director Steven Spielberg arguing the blockbuster hit "Saving Private Ryan" was lacking mention of Mexican-American soldiers.
And more recently, Ramirez sent a letter about the Burns documentary to PBS President and Chief Executive Officer Paula Kerger.
After little was done to appease him, Ramirez contacted independent filmmaker Joseph Angier, who was already working on a California-focused World War II project for PBS to accompany Burns' series.
Together, they coordinated Wednesday's taping for a one-hour documentary, titled "California At War." It is scheduled to air in August.
"I was already on the horn to find Latino war veterans. ... The idea of Latinos having some heart in the state during World War II is a no-brainer," Angier said.
"It wouldn't have occurred to us not to include Latinos."
Angier said he was taken aback by the lack of Latinos in Burns' piece.
Burns, who was in Paris for a film festival, could not be reached for comment.
But a spokesman for his seven-part series, titled "The War," said the film was never meant to be a comprehensive history of World War II.
"It looks at the stories of individuals in four towns sort of geographically spread throughout the United States," said Joe DePlasco.
Officials announced Thursday that Burns' documentary will include additional content incorporating the Latino contribution to the war effort.
Additionally, the film never meant to include or exclude any particular ethnic groups, DePlasco said.
The four cities covered in the film are Waterbury, Conn., Mobile, Ala., Luverne, Minn., and Sacramento.
But Gilbert Cadena, a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal Poly Pomona, said he knows of plenty Mexican-American veterans in Sacramento.
"In this time, in the year 2007, for Ken Burns and national journalists to completely ignore Latinos is just symptomatic of this narrow understanding in the United States," he said.
It is possible that the Mexican-American experience during the war is often overlooked because when people think of multiculturalism in World War II, they think of the official segregation blacks faced in the military and Japanese-Americans faced in internment camps, said Martin Morgan, director of research at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
"I think Mexican Americans get a little pushed to the side," he said.
But the public should expect that filmmakers like Burns would be more ethnically sensitive when creating pieces such as "The War," Morgan said.
"It surprised me that he didn't, just on his own by being sensitive and thoughtful, that he didn't say, `Let's look at the history of Hispanic-Americans,"' Morgan said.
For some veterans, the exclusion is not significant.
Angelo Guerrero's family is originally from Mexico, but the former World War II Navy motorman from Alhambra considers himself an American.
Born in Los Angeles, he said he does not bother with ethnic designations.
"When I joined the Navy, you were either white, black, yellow or red. I'm white. I was born here. I'm an American. I fought as an American and I'd do it again."
But for other veterans, the omission is much more personal.
"I do feel kind of left out," said Estrada, who now lives in West Covina. "It hurts me. It's like we didn't exist in World War II."
Tony Aguilera, 83, does not talk about the 15 months he was held in a German prison camp when he was 17.
"He can't even watch war stories, or war movies," his daughter Linda Strobehn said. "It makes him cry."
Still, the Irwindale man felt strongly enough about recounting his other experiences that he went to the taping last week.
"If we don't do this now, then who is going to do it?" Ramirez said.