Mapping Latina/o Mobility, Agency, and Ideology in the World War II
Era Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and B. V. Olguín
In the academy it is often said that all research is a reflection of the scholar’s own values, concerns, and obsessions. This certainly is true for this anthology, as most of the writers have a personal link to the topic: they are the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren of Latina/o World War II–era military veterans and defense department workers. Yet beyond this shared legacy, the origination and inspiration for the essays in this book are as varied as the individual writers, whose case studies come from the family stories passed on through generations, boxes of family photos, and archived newspapers, as well as ongoing research projects for graduate school and monographs.
One of those starting points was the 2002 weeklong workshop in Austin, Texas, where the U.S. Latina & Latino World War II Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin brought together scholars from across the country. The goal of the workshop was to provide a foundation for research into Latina/os and World War II, as well as to stimulate scholarly use of the primary source materials that have been gathered by the oral history project since its foundation in 1999. A palpable excitement pervaded the fifth floor conference room on the University of Texas at Austin campus where we met daily for a week. The presenters, all experts on World War II–related matters, recognized the tremendous potential of investigating the Latina/o experience during World War II. They also knew that the interviews being recorded by the U.S. Latina & Latino World War II Oral History Project would provide the primary source material for future research projects. Presenters were assigned topics such as California and World War II or Latinas in World War II. Some of the presenters—Richard Griswold del Castillo, Dionicio Valdés, Joanne Rao Sánchez, Emilio Zamora, Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, Rea Ann Trotter, and Ricardo Ainslie—had written chapters for a previous book, Beyond the Latino World War II Hero: The Social and Political Legacy of a Generation. Others—Naomi Quiñonez and Erasmo Gamboa—had contributed to the project’s first book, Mexican Americans and World War II, which got its start from the inaugural two-day conference in Austin in 2000. Two of this anthology’s writers, both senior scholars, Félix Gutiérrez and Gary Mormino, also took part in that workshop. The complicated process of meditation and dialogue among intersecting networks of interlocutors illustrates the long-term conceptualization and planning required to bring to fruition a project such as this one. We thank all of those 2002 workshop presenters for their help in shaping this book.
Latina/os, World War II, and Beyond: The Past, Present, and Future of the Voces Oral History Project
This book marks another accomplishment: the evolution of the oral history work that is based on U.S. Latinas and Latinos. When the project was inaugurated in 1999, it focused exclusively on the World War II period, and we immediately were asked when we would include the Vietnam War. From the start, we conducted several Korean War–era interviews; there was a remarkable overlap between World War II and the Korean War since many interview subjects were veterans of both wars. The Vietnam War would require a major refocus that required resources beyond our means at that time. But in 2009 a major grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services allowed us to expand the scope. As we finish this book, we are thinking ahead to similar research into Latina/os in the Korean and Vietnam War eras. With our expanded scope, the project has changed its name to the Voces Oral History Project (vocesoralhistoryproject.org). For consistency, in this book, all interviews from our collection, including those before the name change, are listed under the project’s new name.
Since its start in 1999 the project’s mission has been to create greater awareness of Latina/o participation during wartime, in the military as well as on the homefront. In addition to the nearly one thousand interviews it has recorded across the country (and which are housed at the University of Texas’s renowned Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection), it has digitized over six thousand photographs at high resolution, dating from the early 1900s to the present. But it is not enough to collect the archival material. In order to promote the archive’s use, the Voces Oral History Project has held symposia and conferences for both academic audiences and the general public, including one in Washington, DC, in 2004, and another in Tempe, Arizona, in 2006. It also has mounted photo exhibits; created educational materials; helped produce an original two-act play, Voices of Valor, written by Phoenix-based playwright James E. Garcia; and sponsored a video editing contest using World War II–era interviews with Latina/os as the basis. Its representatives have served on academic panels, have made speeches, and have engaged in numerous other related activities. This initiative has been the subject of stories that have appeared in local, national, and international newspapers, magazines, radio, and television newscasts, in addition to the web. It has become a resource that book publishers, journalists, and documentarians seek out for material to support their own work. In addition, when various entities are looking for World War II-, Korean-, or Vietnam-era participants for panel discussions, commemorations, or observances, we are often consulted. We are very happy to oblige.
In 2007 we were thrust into the spotlight. In late 2006 we learned that in nine months PBS documentarian Ken Burns was scheduled to present a fourteen-and-a-half-hour documentary on World War II that included no Latina/os. We responded by sending dozens of emails to supporters across the country, beseeching them to help address what to us was a deplorable example of the deliberate effacement of Latina/os in the epochal moments of this nation’s history. That effort became a national, grassroots campaign, Defend the Honor (see DefendtheHonor.org), that sent out weekly updates and staged pickets in various cities, as well as a teach-in in Austin. Burns eventually recorded additional interviews with two Latino World War II veterans and one Native American veteran and inserted them at the end of three of the seven parts of his series. But that addition is not included in the boxed set available for sale, nor was the additional footage shown in all markets. And in the accompanying coffee table book, there are no Latina/o voices. Burns’s and PBS’s omission resonated with Latina/os for a simple reason: we all had parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and spouses who served in World War II, with little public recognition. Many never returned from battle. It was a sore spot for us that we had repeatedly been left out, and this time with public funds-.our taxpayer dollars—so we demanded our due recognition.
But the Burns issue was larger than World War II or Burns, PBS, or television. It was emblematic of the continuing omission of Latina/os in the U.S.’s broader historical narrative. This is the reason that our oral history project came into being and continues to expand. This is not to say that we will be afraid to address some of the contradictions, problems, and tensions among the Latina/o population. Our aim is to present an honest and full understanding of our complex role in U.S. history.
Recovering the Multiethnic and Multiracial Latina/o Experiences during World War II
This anthology addresses several topics that either have not been addressed or have not been addressed in depth in extant scholarship on Latina/os and World War II. They all, in one way or another, examine how the war affected Latina and Latino geographic and social mobility and agency or the ability to make changes in their own lives. We also address the broader issue of ideology, that is, the range of personal and political beliefs that are found among U.S. Latinas and Latinos. Indeed, the book’s contributors illustrate a healthy diversity of opinions, methods, disciplines, and analyses that will add to the ongoing debates about Latina/os and World War II. The book pays particular attention to Latina/os of different ethnicities and different races. Demographer Karl Eschbach and coeditor and journalist Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez have teamed up to explore the complexities of trying to determine the extent of U.S. Latina/o participation in World War II. In addition to recovering the most accurate estimate of Latino participation in World War II to date, Eschbach provides an innovative and groundbreaking methodology for extrapolating the numbers of Latina/os who served in the U.S. military during the war. His overview of the demographic profile of Latina/os in the war also extends to the present and provides new strategies for uncovering the effacement of Latina/os by institutions of power, specifically, various government agencies. Eschbach relied on census figures, weighing them to provide a measure of Latina military participation. Rivas-Rodriguez offers the human side of the equation, as discharged servicemen were labeled “White” in some cases, “N/A” in others, and “Mexican” in still others. As one West Texas World War II veteran put it, “When the war started I became a white man.”4 For him, segregation targeting Mexican Americans took a backseat to the U.S. need for front-line soldiers. Rivas-Rodriguez recovers important testimonial evidence in the Voces archive that dramatically illustrates the inconsistent, contradictory, and often baffling use of racial classifications for Mexican American soldiers.
Historian Gary Mormino introduces the book with a discussion of Ybor City’s self-identified “Latin” communities, which included Spaniards, Cubans, and Italians. Mormino, who has conducted and published foundational research on Ybor City, examines the support system and interactions between the three ethnic and racial groups, and he also writes about various generations of Spanish Americans who are integral to this unique community even though they are often excluded from Latina/o research.
The history of Spanish and U.S. colonization figures prominently in other chapters, particularly that of Jordan Beltrán Gonzalez, who writes about the Filipino and Mexican American experiences in the Bataan Death March. Ironically, even in the Philippines, New Mexicans, who claim “Hispano” heritage, are mistaken for Mexicans—a confusion that continues to this day. The intersecting Spanish and U.S. colonial legacies in the Philippines and Caribbean cast a long shadow that informs additional research by other scholars. Journalism professor Félix Gutiérrez examines the World War II era, Los Angeles-based Mexican American newspaper and magazine, the Mexican Voice. He notes that readers were exhorted to claim their “Mexicanness” rather than try to pass as “Spanish” or Latin. The deliberate-.and given the context of segregation, defiant—use of the word Mexican signifies a larger transformation of the men and women journalists who contributed to this youth publication. It reflected their refusal to efface their ethnic and racial identity even as they insisted on their claim to civil rights. This small yet profound media intervention presages the more comprehensive interventions that ensued after the war.
The issue of Latina/o ethnic and racial difference, and identity in general, is woven throughout the Voces Oral History Project archive, and this anthology includes several intersecting chapters on the compelling story of Cuban American Evelio Grillo, a World War II veteran whose African roots led to his identification with, and embrace by, African American soldiers. He is renowned for requesting a transfer out of a white army unit in favor of a black one, which scholars Frank Guridy, Gary Mormino, and Luís Alvarez explore further in their respective chapters. Guridy analyzes the complex ethnic, racial, and ideological negotiations of Afro-Latino World War II soldiers, some of whom embraced the mobility that military service enabled and another who likened service in the segregated U.S. Army of World War II to slavery.
Significantly, historian Luís Alvarez observes how many Latina/o World War II veterans engaged in a multiplicity of identifications in the United States and abroad, including Americans of different races and ethnicities, Muslim Moroccans, as well as various European and Asian nationalities. These negotiations, which were occasioned by their military service, anticipated what later generations of scholars have identified as transnational subjectivity. Alvarez’s research underscores that the Voces Oral History Project archive provides evidence that these transnational models of Latinidad were already well under way before subsequent generations embraced and began theorizing transnationalism as an operative term in Chicana/o, Latina/o, and general American Studies. B. V. Olguín uses the Voces archive and other materials to complicate the ideological dimensions of Latino World War II transnationalism in his case studies of Latino-Japanese and Latino-white cross-cultural exchanges. The Voces Oral History Project archive, that is, reveals its potential to transform the field of Latina/o Studies.
Gerald Poyo extends the transnational dimensions of Latina/o mobility during the World War II era with an intimate family portrait of his father’s and uncle’s migration from Cuba to the United States and throughout Latin America before, during, and after the war. His account adds new insights into the social and economic spheres of Latina/o immigrants in this era outside of the usual focus on Mexican braceros or economic refugees from various Latin American and Caribbean countries. He thereby inaugurates a new avenue for mapping the class mobility of Latina/os in this era.
Painful Reflections: Dis-Covering Old Wounds and Introducing New Critiques of Latina/os in World War II
Having collected a large archive of interviews with Latina/o military veterans and civilians from World War II and most recently from the Korean and Vietnam War eras, the present challenge of the Voces Oral History Project is to continue collecting key interviews about unique experiences but also to continue theorizing this growing archive. This is both an exciting and a sobering venture. While new and productive discoveries have been made regarding Afro-Latina/o heritage, complex shifting transracial alliances, and even more convoluted transnational and supranational identities, other issues have emerged that require scholarly maturity, honesty, and bravery.
Much of the work related to the Voces Oral History Project has dutifully, and masterfully, recovered, honored, and contextualized World War II era Latina/o agency, and this anthology continues to participate in this important intervention. The jointly authored study by Angélica Aguilar Rodríguez, Julian Vasquez, and Allison Prochnow, for instance, features three new discoveries of Latina/o World War II soldier.scholars, with particular attention to the role of the GI Bill in promoting educational attainment for Latino veterans and their families.
Marianne Bueno brings new insights in her historiography of Carlos Castañeda’s complex negotiations of ideology and institutional politics in his role as head of the Fair Employment Practice Committee during World War II. Her study involves the use of new archival materials, in addition to contrapuntal arguments that help us complicate reductive assessments of the Latina/o World War II generation as assimilationist and accommodationist. Instead, Bueno maps Castañeda’s strategic negotiations of identity, institutional power, and ideology as part of a civil rights agenda that preceded the postwar generation, which is often credited as the instigator of Latina/o civil rights struggles.
Sexism is an issue that continues to be effaced despite its persistence, and this anthology deliberately seeks to expose the depths of this issue and especially Latina agency in challenging it during the World War II era. It is important to note that sexism during the period also involves Latino veterans, who were discriminated against for their ethnicity and race but were also party to gender discrimination. Patricia Portales demonstrates the complexity of working on this topic using an archive that involves family members. Her nimble weaving of the testimonio she collected from her aunt—a defense industry welder of bomb parts—with contemporary theatrical explorations of gender relations among Latina/os during the World War II era both honors the people whose voices make up the archive and illustrates the responsibilities of intellectuals to appraise and critique the archival materials. Significantly, she reads the archive’s utterances and silences, as well as theater’s immediacy and subtlety, to make new discoveries and analyses that sometimes extend beyond what is immediately apparent or intended by the interviewees or authors. In an illustration of the surprises that research sometimes present, Portales’s interview with her aunt actually began with questions about her uncle’s service in the war. But on hearing her aunt’s story about working as a welder in the Friedrich bomb factory in San Antonio, Texas, and Portales’s closer examination of her aunt’s scarred skin resulting from welding torch sparks, her research took an immediate turn toward recovering the story of Latinas in World War II, which has been even more effaced than male Latino service in the era.
Jordan Beltrán Gonzales introduces a similarly complex relationship to the archive and models a brave participant-observer methodology that is both respectful—after all, his Filipino grandfather was a survivor of the Bataan Death March-.and critical. Beltrán Gonzales brings a scholarly responsibility in his critical interrogations of the macabre commodification of Latino soldiering through his discussion of the Bataan Death March Commemoration events in New Mexico. Moreover, he explores the even more controversial issue of ideology in the complex roles that Latino and Filipino soldiers have played both as subjects and as agents of U.S. empire. It is difficult to consider the issue of Latina/o and Filipina/o colonization, but these are historical facts: the United States invaded and colonized the Philippines and the U.S. Southwest in brutal and illegal imperialist wars of expansion. The subsequent inclusion of Latina/os in the United States is—still incomplete as well as unacknowledged—is forever undergirded by these interrelated historical crimes.
War, in fact, often involves crimes, and even if combat and killing are contextualized in the laws of warfare, other disturbing issues emerge that the scholar and reader are compelled to consider. B. V. Olguín, coeditor of this anthology and also the grandson, nephew, and cousin of World War II veterans—including Victor Montez Ledesma from the Chalmers Courts Housing Projects in east Austin, who was killed in combat in the Normandy invasion—ventures into the painful area of Latino death and dying, as well as combat and killing, in war. This is the elephant in the room that community members and scholars sometimes cannot see, or choose not to see, but which combat veterans and family members of soldiers killed in combat can never forget. It is even more difficult to process when we consider that some veterans have represented their military service and combat activities in ways that raise serious ethical and legal issues. In his treatment of Guy Gabaldon’s memoir of combat in Saipan and in a theatrical treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in a Latino World War II veteran, Olguín allows the record and texts to speak for themselves, however painful and disturbing they may be. Many topics and taboos emerge in his subsequent attempts to theorize the significance of these texts, from the issue of war crimes and Latino racial bigotries and fetishes to different performances of gender and sexuality. The Voces Oral History Project would do a disservice to the legacy of Latina/os in World War II and other U.S. wars if it did not address the many different roles that Latina/os have played in these conflicts, from combatants to conscientious objectors, as well as everything between and beyond.
Pete Haney complicates conventional accounts of Latino World War II soldiering, and especially overcelebratory discourses on “bravery,” in his archival work on the Latina/o carpa and popular theater tradition in San Antonio. His research adds to the understanding of Latina/o agency during World War II by introducing the many ways Latina/os symbolically critiqued as well as participated in the wartime patriotic fervor. His recovery of the rich tapestry of Latina/o popular theater during and after this era is significant for the case study of this city’s Latina/o community responses to the war, as well as for his extended explication of the role of carpa performances in parodying discourses on Latino hypermasculinity. Equally important, he reminds the audience of the real cost of war through references to blood and other body fluids.
This anthology thus seeks to continue recovering and featuring new stories, adding complexity to known figures, and raising difficult questions about the overall nature of the Latina/o experience in the United States. It is important to recognize that this stage of the project has introduced the phenomenon of metacritical inquiry and dialogue, in which scholars use the same or similar archives and texts to debate and theorize the potential significance in a variety of ways. However contentious and controversial this may sometimes be, this metacriticism signals the maturity of the Voces Oral History Project and Latina/o military studies in general. This metacritical inquiry is interdisciplinary and involves scholars from education, history, literature, journalism, demography, anthropology, and numerous intersecting, as well as diverging, methodologies. This involves different modes of discourse and vocabulary and concepts that do not translate easily across disciplines or to the general public. The Voces Oral History Project, after all, prides itself on successfully bridging the “town and gown” divide with publications and activities that fully integrate laypeople and veterans from the community with university students and scholars in a broad-based dialogue of discovery. While we have endeavored to keep the writing in the chapters accessible to a general audience, we recognize that the authors’ use of discipline-specific theoretical tools is appropriate and has an important function. Sometimes a hammer is the right tool for the job; other times a scalpel is required.
The metacritical nature of these chapters, and the scholarly attempt to both recover legacies while challenging conveniently celebratory accounts, undoubtedly will be controversial. This is what scholars in Latina/o Studies, as well as intersecting fields and research projects, are charged with doing. We must recover and reassess, continually, honestly, and courageously. The veterans interviewed in the Voces Oral History Project deserve this; the ones who were killed in combat, or died before the project was inaugurated have earned it; and all their loved ones demand it.
A Note on Volume Design and the Enduring Legacy
We have organized this volume in two parts, one that explores ideological mobility and one that demonstrates cultural agency. The preface by Karl Eschbach and Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez has presented the broad context for our exploration of the scope of Latina/o participation in World War II. The book also is framed by a coda by Gerald Poyo, who adds yet another newly recovered story about Latina/os and the World War II era, which he presents in an innovative first-person testimonio format about his own family. While we have endeavored to bring uniformity to the overall project, we also respect the unique disciplinary conventions and individual scholar’s choice of nomenclature. At the same time, several copyediting decisions were made regarding capitalization, accents, and italics that provide stylistic uniformity. For instance, we generally followed standard editorial practices for capitalization, which means that nouns such as pachuca and pachuco are lowercased. Regarding accents, we respected individuals’ decisions to use or to omit accents in their own names; the reader will therefore find inconsistent use of accents. We use “Latina/o” as the norm except in cases in which interviews, citations, or unique context determined the use of alternate terms.
Each contributor demonstrates and extends the legacy of Latina/os during World War II and the Voces Oral History Project in general: with each layer of documents, narratives, and cultural production that we pull back, ever new and more complex discoveries emerge. Indeed, this anthology seeks to challenge conventional understanding about Latina/os and the war and invites further theorizing about Latina/os in other wartime eras, from the nineteenth century to the present. We know from the small but growing amount of scholarship on Latina/os and war that Latina/os have participated in every one of this nation’s wars, from the Indian Wars, American Revolution, U.S.-Mexico War, U.S. Civil War, and Spanish American War to World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as more recent ones, from the Bay of Pigs to counterinsurgency operations in Latin America to the Gulf War to the ongoing “war on terror.” Significantly, Latina/os have participated in these wars in a variety of roles, from U.S. allies to U.S. enemies, as well as everything between and beyond. The research on Latina/o mobility, agency, and ideology that undergirds the essays in this volume promises to open new avenues for research on the broader legacy of Latina/o soldiering and citizenship.