by Kenneth Burt
The harsh reality that politics and war are intertwined is evident in the decision of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to pressure filmmaker Ken Burns to include Latinos in his PBS documentary on World War II.
Latinos were part of conflict from the beginning as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor claimed the life of Rudolf Martínez of San Diego. Valor on the battlefields of Asia and Europe was widely recognized and Latinos won more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group.
Equally important, the returning veterans demonstrated leadership in communities from coast to coast as they fought to overcome discrimination and to play a more active role in civic life.
It is no coincidence that the first Latinos to serve in high profile appointed and elected posts in states like California after World War II were veterans.
Congressman Edward R. Roybal was a veteran. So, too, were the first two Latinos elected to the California State Legislature, John Moreno and Phil Soto.
In addition to his public service, veterans such as Roybal founded the Community Services Organization and the Mexican American Political Association in California.
Military service provided invaluable leadership training. The GI Bill made it possible to attend college, buy a home, or start a business.
The veteran label also tapped into a universal value that made it easier to reach beyond the Latino community for support when problems did arise.
Such was the case in Three Rivers, Texas, after the mortuary owner refused to bury Pvt. Félix Longoria, who died fighting for the liberation of the Philippines.
Dr. Héctor García, himself a former military medic, used patriotism to trump discrimination in successfully appealing to U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson for help in interring Longoria’s body at the national cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
The Longoria incident led to the formation of the American GI Forum as a group for Mexican Americans veterans. Under Dr. García’s leadership, the GI Forum organized itself in two-dozen states and became an important national political influence.
In the 1950s, it encouraged Latinos to pay the Texas “poll tax” so that they could vote. In California, the Forum encouraged Governor Goodwin Knight to appoint fellow veteran Carlos Terán as the first Latino on the Los Angeles Municipal Court.
President Kennedy’s appointees included a number of veterans, such as Héctor Godínez, the League of United Latin American Citizens president. Kennedy named Godina to be the Postmaster in Santa Ana, Calif. Godina learned his leadership skills as a tank commander under George Patton.
President Johnson also sought out veterans. In 1964, he named Daniel Luevano as the Undersecretary of the Army, making him the highest-ranking Latino in the federal government.
This dynamic of veterans playing significant roles in government was equally true before World War II. Following his election in 1938, Governor Culbert Olson in California appointed Anthony P. Entenza to the Veterans Home Board. Entenza served as the past national commander of the United Spanish American War Veterans. Olson also appointed Ernesto Orfila to the Veterans Welfare Board. A veteran of the First World War, Orfila was active in the American Legion.
Entenza and Orfila were among the very few Spanish speaking attorneys in the nation.
Given this history, it is hard to understand how Ken Burns overlooked the huge role of Latinos in World War II. For its part, PBS was aware of the issue because in 2002 I served as the historian for a mini-documentary on Latino veterans than ran in conjunction with American Family, the PBS show staring Edward Olmos and Raquel Welch.
Latinos have served with honor both on the battlefields and within the civic area. The latter is extensively examined in my new book, The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics.
(Kenneth Burt is author of The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics. For more information, go to www.KennethBurt.com). © 2007.