Latino WWII Veterans Needed Another Kind of Courage at Home





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 Caesar Chavez, 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.


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