Latino WWII Veterans Offer Thoughts on Ken Burns Documentary

KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez joined two Latino World War II veterans as they watched the first installment of Ken Burns' 15-hour documentary, "The War," on Sunday night. The filmmaker added interviews with Latino veterans after he was criticized for ignoring the stories of Latinos.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: 83-year-old Richard Dominguez graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights 65 years ago.

About a year out of school, he says, he was one of only two Mexican Americans aboard a train to an Army boot camp in Oklahoma.

Richard Dominguez: I was with one friend of mine, that came from the same school; and he was a little darker than myself, and so we buddied up, 'cause we knew each other. But most of the fellows who were there came from all parts of the United States, and mostly Anglos; we mixed in pretty good.

[Sound of doorbell ringing]

Alex Sierra: Anybody home?
Dominguez: Come on in. This is Alex.

Guzman-Lopez: Dominguez has invited Alex Sierra, another veteran from Boyle Heights, over to his Whittier home to watch "The War." Sierra remembers he had a lot of company on the train he rode to boot camp.

Sierra: It seemed like they cleaned out the Eastside, you know, because there were so many of us that knew each other, even from grammar school that I grew up with, you know. Here we were in a big ol' train, heading for Fort Douglas, Utah. We were just drafted, you know.

Guzman-Lopez: In response to early criticism that Ken Burns overlooked that face of the Second World War, the documentarian argued that Mexican Americans were a small part of the U.S. population during the 1940s. Latino activists countered that a documentary with the Ken Burns signature serves as a kind of national textbook. Omitting the Latino experience, they charged, leaves out an important chapter.

Before he's turned on the TV, veteran Richard Dominguez dismisses Burns' reasoning. Alex Sierra boasts of meeting two Latino World War II veterans awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He hopes the film will include at least a mention of their valor. Sierra and Dominguez are eager to see whether this Ken Burns documentary includes stories and faces similar to their own.

Dominguez: I'm not much of a TV viewer, and I don't know the stations; it's KCET, right?

Guzman-Lopez: They sit down on a couch, pop open a couple of light beers, and munch on some cheese and crackers. Within minutes, the film rekindles memories of a time when world events rocked their neighborhoods.

Dominguez: I registered right on Whittier and Euclid.
Sierra: Yeah. Did you go to that too?
Dominguez: At the YMCA.

Guzman-Lopez: Sierra served in the 517th combat infantry regiment. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Shrapnel left two ten-inch scars on his right arm, and rendered his right hand pretty useless. He spent 18 months in a hospital and was awarded a Purple Heart. Dominguez didn't see combat during his four years in the war. But his two older brothers did. One lived to tell about the invasion of Iwo Jima. The other was killed in Saipan.

The documentary makes Sierra and Dominguez laugh at 1940s fashions. They gasp at footage of a wartime execution. And they wonder out loud whether youngsters today can even understand the hardships their generation faced.

After an hour and forty minutes, Alex Sierra notes that not a single Spanish surname or Latino face has appeared on the screen.

Sierra: They didn't show any heroes.
Dominguez: Oh, well, I think it's just an overall picture of the whole thing, you know.

Guzman-Lopez: Ken Burns edited half an hour of interviews with Latino veterans into this and two other episodes. Dominguez and Sierra express mixed feelings as the credits roll.

Dominguez: Well, do you think they give a fair rendition of the situation, the way it was?
Sierra: Not to the Latinos.
Dominguez: That's not right now, that part, I mean overall about ...
Sierra: Oh. I don't what to think.

Guzman-Lopez: Dominguez thinks it's a fair portrayal. Sierra says there's a lot missing. But both praise it as a first-rate documentary. It's important to them that someone with Ken Burns' platform gets the story right. During the last month, two of their World War II buddies have died. Sierra and Dominguez believe their country asked them to go to war as Americans, not as Mexican Americans. But the slight they perceive in the documentary has pushed these and other veterans and activists to speak up as Latinos first.