Activists who believe Latinos deserve more recognition for their contributions during World War II have created an agonizing political problem for PBS and filmmaking star Ken Burns.
Several Latino leaders and military veterans, angry that Burns’ high-profile documentary series “The War” includes no conversations with Latinos who fought, are demanding changes. PBS and Burns want to satisfy an important constituency, without the precedent of a filmmaker forced to change his vision due to a protest.
PBS chief executive Paula Kerger, after meetings with leaders including Congress’ Hispanic caucus, has promised suggested solutions as early as this week.
Burns’ 14-hour documentary is scheduled to premiere in September. PBS hopes it becomes as definitive a record of the World War II experience as Burns’ “The Civil War” was for that conflict, and as popular. Kerger has already described it as Burns’ greatest work.
Even though the film hasn’t been seen publicly, its lack of Latino representation was sniffed out by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a former newspaper reporter who runs an oral history project about Latino World War II veterans at the University of Texas.
Rivas-Rodriguez and her staff police projects about World War II all over the country _ books, films, conferences and the like _ to make sure Latinos are represented. Last November, when Burns previewed his film at a museum, her project manager asked whether Latino veterans were interviewed in the documentary. She was told no, and immediately set about trying to raise awareness.
Burns’ film focuses on the wartime experiences of people from four communities across the country _ Waterbury, Conn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Luverne, Minn. He weaves their individual stories about combat together to tell how the war changed lives, and changed the world.
Since he’s spent his career trying to tell overlooked stories in American history, Burns said he can appreciate the Latino community’s concerns.
“We did not set out to exclude Latinos, or any other group for that matter,” he told The Associated Press. “In fact, thousands of stories have not been included. We set out to explore the human experience of war and combat based on a handful of stories told by individuals in only four American towns.”
Still, it hasn’t escaped the Latino groups’ notice that blacks are talked to in the film about segregated forces, and Japanese-Americans about their internment.
Burns’ stature makes the issue so crucial. “A lot of people regard Ken Burns as the country’s documentarian,” Rivas-Rodriguez said.
She would like to see the project expanded to include the Latino experience, perhaps even by a couple of hours. A separate film has little appeal, because few beyond those directly involved would care, she said.