Monday, May 26, 2008

Los Heroes Olvidados por los Medios de Comunicacion. The forgotten Heroes by the News Media.

The transforming experiences of African-Americans and Japanese-Americans during World War II have been well documented on public television. They speak to issues of civil rights, self-determination, and racial integration of the U.S. Armed Forces. And after the war, access to education and fair housing were among the benefits sought and in some measure attained because of their wartime achievements.

For Latinos, and Mexican-Americans in particular, there are few programs that present stories of the heroism and sacrifices made on behalf of the ideals of freedom and valor.

Mexicans Americans Veterans from all branches of our armed forces were interviewed in Texas, Arizona and California. Among them is Silvestre Herrera, a Latino soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for injuries suffered in battle; B-25 bomber pilot Gilbert Orrantia; and D-Day veteran John D. Luna. Women who participated in the war effort also describe their experiences, including Henrietta Lopez Rivas, a Texas woman who used her excellent bilingual skills to work at the local Civil Defense office and later as a mechanic at Kelly Air Base in San Antonio; and Rosa Ramirez Guerrero, who devoted her time as an entertainer for troops stationed in El Paso.

Hardly a day goes by without William Figueroa mentioning his World War II memories. The retired lawyer, who became a naturalized United States citizen after joining the army in 1942, loves to regale his seven children and three grandchildren with World War II stories of "flying a typewriter." Figueroa was a staff sergeant who served as chief clerk at the Air Office of the Africa Middle East Transport Unit in Cairo, Egypt.

Figueroa recalls fondly, "There was no Air Force in those days. We were known as the Army Air Corps. Our main function was to facilitate the transport of cargo and dignitaries. But, we also took every opportunity to explore the rich historical sites of the region."

And, explore he did. "We grew up hearing about my dad's army buddies, and all the things they did overseas. We have pictures of him at the Pyramids, and lots of mementos that he brought back from the Middle East, such as Egyptian scarabs, carved brass candlesticks and filigreed jewelry," notes Figueroa's daughter Mary, a Minneapolis physician

This fall, the Figueroa family will gather in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier to celebrate William's 80th birthday. No doubt, there will be many World War II remembrances at the event, and not just from William. Two of his three sisters, Josephine and Teresa, are married to World War II veterans. Josephine's husband, Albert Peinado, was an infantryman in Italy. Teresa's husband, Stan Santoyo, served in the Pacific and was taken prisoner of war by the Japanese in the Philippines. Between them, the three World War II veterans have 23 children and 37 grandchildren. The entire clan is close, and gets together frequently for parties. "We're so lucky to have so much history right here in our own family. Who else can boast of three World War II veterans, and all of them serving in different parts of the world?" says Figueroa's niece, Liza De La Rosa Walker, who is compiling a family history.

Although the Department of Veterans Affairs does not know the exact number of Hispanics who fought in World War II it estimates that up to 500,000 served. The number includes 53,000 Puerto Ricans in the 65th Infantry Regiment from Puerto Rico.

Hispanics earned 12 Medals of Honor during World War II, distinguishing themselves in the Philippines, North Africa, the Aleutian Islands, the Mediterranean and Europe. In fact, Hispanics have earned more Medals of Honor—39 in all-than any other ethnic group. After World War II, General Douglas Mac Arthur described the 158th Regimental Combat Team, comprised mostly of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans from Arizona, and known as the "Bushmasters," as "the greatest fighting combat team ever deployed for battle."

Yet, the media have largely ignored Hispanic contributions to the World War II effort. The golden anniversary of key World War II events brought a wave of commemorative books and big-budget Hollywood movies, such as Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor. But, how many made mention of Hispanics?

But, Hispanic vets, you can tell the stories yourself. World War II veterans who think their families aren't interested in hearing about their wartime experiences should keep one thing in mind. Decades from now, your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will come across some wartime memorabilia you have long forgotten about. They will regret they didn't hear your recollections first-hand. And, one more thing you should know—America is interested in hearing your story. There are several ongoing projects dedicated to preserving World War II recollections, and they'd like to hear from you!

Two years ago, the U.S. Congress created the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C. Citing the "urgent need" to collect stories and experiences from veterans, the Veterans History Project is gathering audio and video tapes of oral histories, as well as other material from veterans. The material will be archived in various museums and educational institutions across the country. Some will even be conserved in a "Digital Library," where it will be accessible to future generations. AARP is a founding corporate sponsor of the Veterans History Project, which is actively seeking Hispanic World War II veterans to share their stories.

At the University of Texas at Austin, Assistant Professor of Journalism Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez is spearheading an ambitious project aimed specifically at Hispanic WWII veterans. Volunteers with the Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project have videotaped interviews with more than 500 veterans. And, she's not just gathering material from soldiers. She wants to hear from factory workers and women who kept the home fires burning during the War years. "We want a complete sociological portrait of Hispanic life during that era," says Rivas-Rodriguez. The completed histories will be archived in two libraries at the University of Texas. "We want people hundreds of years from now to recognize the great contributions of Hispanics during the war," says Rivas-Rodriguez.

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