PBS to add Latino history in World War II film

On April 11, after pressure from Latino leaders with the Defend the Honor Campaign, the Public Broadcasting System said it had reversed its original decision and plans to include the Latino experience in Ken Burns’ new World War II documentary, “The War.”

PBS President Paula Kerger said, “PBS, Ken Burns and his co-director/producer Lynn Novick have decided to create additional content that focuses on stories of Latino and Native American veterans of the Second World War.”

The features will be integrated into the documentary, the DVD, the website and PBS’ educational outreach materials. Burns’ production company, Florentine Films, has agreed to hire a Latino producer, in consultation with PBS, to join the production teams and help create the new content.

The film premieres next September, during Hispanic Heritage Month, when national programming will be aired on WWII including the contributions of Latinos to the war.

The Defend the Honor Campaign was organized last February to pressure PBS and Burns to include Latino history in the film. Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a leader of the campaign and journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, met with Kerger in March at PBS headquarters in Virginia. At that time, Kerger said PBS would not make any changes to the film because it was completed and did not want to interfere with Burns’ artistic independence.

“This is a great victory for the Latino community and for our veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much for the defense of this nation,” stated Rivas-Rodriguez, who leads the Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project at the University of Texas.

“The unity in the Latino community on this issue was unprecedented,” said Gus Chavez, a retired university administrator and a veteran. “We were part of a movement that demonstrated how powerful our Latino community could be when we work together in common cause. We were also deeply moved to see that this struggle by the Latino community also resulted in the inclusion of Native Americans in this documentary,” Chavez said. “It makes the point that, as Latinos, we are also fighting for a broader agenda of inclusion.”

Campaign leaders sent Kerger a letter with other concerns about how the Latino experience will be treated in the film and what role the Latino community will be playing in the development of the film itself, the educational materials and PBS’ community outreach efforts. Marta Garcia, chair and founder of the New York Chapter of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said the group plans a follow-up meeting with Kerger. Garcia hopes to discuss developing an ongoing mechanism by which the Latino community can have input and can act as a resource for PBS. “We also need to make sure that this problem does not occur again, and media advocates like the National Latino Media Council will be following up to make sure PBS in general better incorporates Latinos in its programming, staff and in other ways,” Garcia said.

“As a longtime journalist, I can attest to the impact this decision by PBS and the Burns film can have on how Americans will view the Latino community and its contributions to this country,” observed Iván Román, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

“We think that this will make the documentary a more accurate and enduring work on an important part of this country’s, and the world’s, history,” said Roman.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the American GI Forum, the National Latino Media Council, the National Council of La Raza and many others came together in support of the campaign.