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Beyond the Latino World War II Hero

Beyond the Latino World War II Hero
The Social and Political Legacy of a Generation
Foreword by José Limon

An anthology of remarkable voices drawn from the U.S. Latino & Latina WW II Oral History Project, bringing to life the transformations they spurred.

December 2009
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263 pages | 6 x 9 | 40 b&w photos, 3 tables |

Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez 's edited volume Mexican Americans & World War II brought pivotal stories from the shadows, contributing to the growing acknowledgment of Mexican American patriotism as a meaningful force within the Greatest Generation. In this latest anthology, Rivas-Rodríguez and historian Emilio Zamora team up with scholars from various disciplines to add new insights. Beyond the Latino World War II Hero focuses on home-front issues and government relations, delving into new arenas of research and incorporating stirring oral histories.

These recollections highlight realities such as post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects on veterans' families, as well as Mexican American women of this era, whose fighting spirit inspired their daughters to participate in Chicana/o activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Other topics include the importance of radio as a powerful medium during the war and postwar periods, the participation of Mexican nationals in World War II, and intergovernmental negotiations involving Mexico and Puerto Rico. Addressing the complexity of the Latino war experience, such as the tandem between the frontline and the disruption of the agricultural migrant stream on the home front, the authors and contributors unite diverse perspectives to harness the rich resources of an invaluable oral history.

  • Foreword (José Limón)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez and Emilio Zamora)
  • 1. The Paradox of War: Mexican American Patriotism, Racism, and Memory (Richard Griswold del Castillo)
  • 2. Embracing the Ether: The Use of Radio by the Latino World War II Generation (Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez)
  • 3. "Now Get Back to Work": Mexican Americans and the Agricultural "Migrant Stream" (Dionicio Valdés)
  • 4. The Latinas of World War II: From Familial Shelter to Expanding Horizons (Joanne Rao Sánchez)
  • 5. Mexican Nationals in the U.S. Military: Diplomacy and Battlefield Sacrifice (Emilio Zamora)
  • 6. The Color of War: Puerto Rican Soldiers and Discrimination during World War II (Silvia Alvarez Curbelo)
  • 7. God and War: The Impact of Combat upon Latino Soldiers' Religious Beliefs (Rea Ann Trotter)
  • 8. Silent Wounds: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Latino World War II Veterans (Ricardo Ainslie and Daphny Domínguez)
  • 9. Mother's Legacy: Cultivating Chicana Consciousness during the War Years (Brenda Sendejo)
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez is Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and in 1999 founded the U.S. Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project. The project has interviewed over 650 men and women of the WWII generation and has multiple components, including a photographic exhibit, a play, three books, and educational material.

Emilio Zamora is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The World of the Mexican Worker in Texas.


The war in Europe and the subsequent entry of the United States into the world conflagration set the country on a path to build what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called "the arsenal of democracy." The United States managed to assemble the required arsenal for the war, although it was not as successful in guaranteeing egalitarian values at home. War production nevertheless made possible the dramatic growth and expansion of the economy. It also allowed the United States to make a decisive contribution to the outcome of the war and to emerge from the hostilities as a major world power with imposing imperial designs. The martial spirit was no less significant at the home front. At least sixteen million men and women of varied social backgrounds gave expression to the heightened sense of national duty that overtook the country by agreeing to serve in the military.

While the expansion of U.S. industrial capacity exceeded early wartime aims, the lofty wartime rhetoric of justice and equality for workers, women, and national minorities consistently fell short of declared expectations. The unprecedented and growing opportunities in employment, the single most important democratizing effect of the war, suggested a more equal and just society, but the change resulted more from an expanded wartime economy than from a more democratic and just society, as asserted in official pronouncements. Moreover, Latinos/as may have benefited from employment opportunities to a lesser extent than other groups in U.S. society. Despite the unequal access to jobs, wartime opportunities pulled the country out of the hard times of the Depression and allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to improve their lives with higher-skilled and better-paying jobs. The public language of democracy and justice, coupled with continuing discrimination and inequality, also encouraged protests and claims of entitlement among marginalized groups, including the Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban men and women who are at the center of this anthology.

The focus on Latinos/as, or U.S. communities that trace their ancestry to the Spanish-speaking peoples in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America, requires some conceptual explanation. An obvious point of departure is the assertion that Latinos/as are too diverse to be considered a single group of persons with markedly shared experiences. Obvious differences in nationality, class, race, culture, places of origin, and length of residence in the United States suggest different historical trajectories and contemporary sociocultural formations. Compelling similarities, however, are also evident.

U.S. military, trade, and immigration policies, although varying in their intent and consequences in the history of relations with countries in the Americas, have produced generally similar results in the lives of Latinos/as. The history of U.S. expansionism during the last half of the nineteenth century, for instance, explains the absorption of one-half of Mexico's northern territory, the establishment of a dependent commonwealth in Puerto Rico, and the tumultuous relationship that the United States continues to share with Cuba. In all these instances, the United States mediated its expanded economic influence with trade and immigration policies that regulated the movement of capital, manufacturing, goods, and technology abroad and Latino/a labor for low-wage work in the United States.

Once in the United States, as well as in Puerto Rico, Latinos/as have been subjected to a process of racialization that set them socially and culturally apart from the rest of society as territorial minorities, working-class groups, racially distinct populations, and immigrant communities. The preponderant experience of immigration in the history of Latinos/as and their largely working-class status has also blurred intergroup differences and reinforced a view of sameness in the public imagination. Latinos/as have acted on this process by self-identifying as a distinct group and promoting pan-Latino/a views and interests.

Recent works by Juan Gonzalez, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Mariela Páez, and José Alamillo remind us that scholars generally consider Latinos/as a distinct U.S. community and an appropriate category of analysis, although they do not always explain the pan-Latino/a identity that they use or consistently acknowledge the obvious conceptual challenge. Gonzalez, for instance, uses a quick-witted journalistic style to offer a broad and integrated historical treatment of Latinos/as that recognizes diverse experiences but mostly assumes common binding threads. Suárez-Orozco and Páez, on the other hand, provide a more explicit interpretative framework in their anthology's introductory essay. They underscore the importance of U.S. foreign policy in the history of migration of Latinos/as and the process of racially incorporating them into society to argue for a common Latino/a experience. Juan Flores offers nuance to the discourse on Latino/a identity by underscoring the unique Puerto Rican identity, its place within the wider Latino/a community, and the ongoing influence of consumerist marketing forces in shaping this process. Alamillo notes the growing scholarly literature, its general assumption of sameness in the face of intergroup difference, and the consequent pan-Latino/a perspective that characterizes it

Although this anthology assumes that Latinos/as possess a common set of experiences that warrants our undivided attention, it also seeks to test the validity of this view during the years of the Second World War. The wartime language of justice and democracy, the sense of common national purpose, the widespread employment opportunities, and the democratizing foxhole conditions at the front suggest the social and cultural incorporation of Latinos/as, along with a diminished Latino/a identity. Society, however, continued to marginalize them and to underscore their distinctiveness during the war years. Carlos Castañeda, the eminent historian from the University of Texas at Austin in the 1940s, sardonically described this experience in the Mexican community as second-class citizenship, made all the more obvious by the recovery from the hard times of the Depression and heightened democratic sensibilities.

The secondary literature on Latinos/as has recognized the trends of discrimination, inequality, and improved employment opportunities as well as their important contributions to both home and war fronts. With some exceptions, however, the scholarship has failed to explain the common experiences, preferring instead to make the familiar general observations of Latino/a wartime history. Outside the field of Latino/a studies, researchers have been generally inattentive, preferring instead to assume that the Latino/a experience has not been sufficiently different from the general social and political trends and, consequently, cannot possibly render worthwhile empirical or theoretical returns to their efforts. As a result, U.S. military and home front studies typically give scant attention to Latinos/as while the scholarship devoted to them provides little empirical corroboration to their otherwise accurate but broad depictions.

In the study of Mexicans, the largest of the Latino/a groups, general histories by Mario García, David Montejano, George J. Sánchez, Guadalupe San Miguel, and Juan Gómez-Quiñones have noted that Mexicans made significant contributions as low-wage workers and activists who promoted the wartime values of democracy and justice. The general outline of the story also notes impressive contributions in the battlefields and posits that Latino/a soldiers returned with a new Americanized identity and a determined desire to fashion a rejuvenated civic culture and social movement for equal rights. Although scholars have expanded this narrative with new information and important nuance, they mostly use the general framework established soon after the end of the war by writers like Pauline Kibbe, Carey McWilliams, Alonso Perales, and Raul Morín.

Kibbe's Latin Americans in Texas provided an original regional study on the living and working conditions of Mexicans, with a focus on discriminatory practices. Her primary concern was for government agencies to encourage racial understanding in order to achieve wartime unity in the Americas. Discrimination and inequality, she noted, remained relatively unchecked during the war despite its obvious deleterious effect on U.S. relations with Latin American nations. In seeking to justify improved attitudes, particularly in the Anglo population, she also underscored the important contributions that Mexicans made at the war front and the home front. This observation no doubt encouraged the refurbished Americanized identity that historians attribute to the returning veterans and the renewed civil rights cause of the postwar period.

McWilliams' impressive survey of the history of "the Spanish-speaking" focused on Mexicans in the Southwest, particularly their development as an ethnic group and a bottom segment of the working class. He was especially critical of discrimination as an obstacle to equality and an impediment to the wartime goals of democracy and justice. Mexicans, he argued, were prevented from making full use of the wartime experience of recovery. McWilliams pointed out the slow movement of workers out of agriculture and into the urban-based skilled ranks, plus the expansion of the immigrant population and the growth of the migratory workforce. He was especially adept at using cases of discrimination, at times involving Mexican servicemen in uniform, to underscore its significance during the war years. He also acknowledged Mexico's efforts to make discrimination an issue in its diplomatic relations with the United States.

Perales, a cofounder of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and one of the most active civil rights leaders of the 1940s, used the voice of the aggrieved Mexicans and the claims for equal rights by his contemporaries in the civil rights movement to bring added attention to discrimination and the cause for equal rights. His book Are We Good Neighbors? gave ample justification to the critique of discrimination and inequality with numerous personal accounts of discrimination and reprinted speeches, articles, and testimonies by civil rights leaders of the interwar period. Contributing authors like Carlos Castañeda, Robert Lucey, and José de la Luz Saenz, speaking from experience in the cause for equal rights, acknowledged significant social improvements but gave emphasis to the enduring practice of discrimination and the persistence of inequality.

Discrimination and inequality, made especially obvious by the wartime promise of recovery, also moved Morín to put pen to paper. Although he published his account in 1963, Morín began his work during his "training days" when he reflected on the meaning of military service. Subsequent interviews and conversations with former servicemen whom he located in hospitals and veterans' organizations imbued his book with compassion. Morín was especially moved by the "glaring omissions of the Spanish-named soldiers" in the emerging literature and a realization that they "were being treated with second-class citizenship." Morín also echoed the veterans' lament that they had made sacrifices at the battlefield but were denied equality at home. He underscored this point by contrasting accounts of refusal of service in businesses and government offices with the impressive record of citations, including Medals of Honor, Silver Stars, and other commendations for heroic sacrifices in the major theaters of war.

The issue of changing cultural sensibilities among veterans as well as immigrants, youth, and other members of Mexican communities also drew increasing attention from sociologists and anthropologists. Beginning with Emory S. Bogardus' study, which preceded World War II, U.S. scholars have expressed an interest how Mexicans were adjusting to American life. Works by Ruth D. Tuck, Ozzie G. Simmons, Arthur J. Rubel, William Madsen, and John H. Burma, for example, used the war years as a point of departure in studying changing social conditions and acculturation in Latino/a communities. In some cases, they made explicit reference to World War II as a benchmark in the development of the civil rights movement and to the emergence of veterans in community leadership roles.

Other writers helped maintain a focus on discrimination and inequality, often as evidence of maladjustments in society. Authors like Walter Fogel, a labor economist, and Tomás López, a creative writer, are cases in point. Fogel used census data to confirm the view that occupational inequality continued throughout the war years and the postwar period. López drew on the experiences of Alfonso A. Rodríguez, a veteran and a successful construction company executive, to craft a biographical novel that recounted a rags-to-riches story. The story emphasized Rodríguez' military service and the unfriendly reception he received to underscore the larger contribution that Latinos/as made to the war effort and to justify their energized social movement.

The contemporary literature on Latinos/as may not have added significant detail to the scholarly narrative of the war years and the postwar period, but recent oral history and archival collection initiatives promise a new generation of scholarship that will expand our knowledge of Latinos/as in World War II. At least two successful oral history and archival collections provide an empirical basis for such a possibility. The Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, at the University of Houston, has been collecting and preserving historical and literary material written by and about Latinos/as for almost twenty years. The more focused Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project, almost in its tenth year of operation at the University of Texas at Austin, has amassed more than six hundred oral narratives and much archival material. The recovery project has found common themes in its collection of personal papers, books, and newspapers, including the establishment of alternative institutions to offset the indifference of the dominant society, a concern for maintaining and promoting the Spanish language, a nostalgic view of the Latino/a past, and a preoccupation with discrimination as an obstacle to social advancement and self-realization. The Latino & Latina Project, with its focus on Latinos/as and the Second World War, is more relevant to our purposes because of its emphases and the role that it has played in the production of this anthology.

The Latino & Latina Project has affirmed the value of casting a wide unifying net in the study of Latino/a groups. The project's staff and associated researchers have also encouraged scholars to integrate the oral narratives into their work by sponsoring scholarly meetings that have produced two publications, including this anthology. A conference in the spring of 2000 resulted in the first publication—an anthology edited by Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez—demonstrated that Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans faced discrimination even as they benefited from occupational opportunities, albeit to a lesser extent than other groups. Latinos/as also served in the U.S. military in proportionally large numbers, participated in the major theaters of the war primarily as foot soldiers, outdid other identifiable groups in recognized cases of valor and sacrifice, waged a social movement that helped elevate discrimination to a level of hemispheric importance, and contributed significantly to production demands at the home front.

Two more meetings held at Austin and Washington, D.C., in 2002 and 2004 were especially important in the production of this anthology. Invited scholars discussed their work on Latinos/as during the war years and examined the oral narratives. The consensus was that Latinos/as shared important experiences and that the project's oral narratives could be used to expand the enterprise.

This volume addresses some of the same themes that appeared in the first anthology and introduces new ones. It examines the general experience of Latinos/as, including their contributions as workers in agriculture and nonagricultural industries and discrimination as an obstacle to mobility and a cause of continuing inequality. The authors acknowledge the unprecedented opportunities that made it possible for Latinos/as, and especially Latinas, to improve their lives and, in that way, establish the basis for generational change as well. Military service was given its due consideration, including the ubiquitous problem of discrimination and the participation of Mexican nationals in the U.S. military, the camaraderie and faith expressions that resulted in the dire circumstances of combat, the righteous sense of fairness and equality that veterans and their family members translated into individual claims and popular causes for equal rights, and psychological disorders and maladjustments that often haunted the servicemen upon their return home.

The authors use different terms to identify Latinos/as. In all cases, they have taken into account the popular usage of self-referents during the war years, including names like Mexican, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican. Sometimes they use terms interchangeably, but they always take care to denote nativity, citizenship, and gender when the discussion warrants it. The editors also agreed to use gender-neutral terms like "Latino/a" and "Latinos/as" to signify inclusion and fairness in representation. Moreover, we decided to honor the wishes of most of the women interviewees by using their married surnames. We also included maiden names when it was necessary to acknowledge familial associations and provide bibliographic entries.

Richard Griswold del Castillo opens the anthology with a general interpretative essay, "The Paradox of War: Mexican American Patriotism, Racism, and Memory," that underscores the dilemma of embracing an Americanized identity on patriotic terms while facing racial discrimination. Latinos/as remember their youthful experiences in molding an American identity, one that incorporated patriotism and an abiding belief in the American dream, all the while fashioning a new identity that was uniquely Latino/a.

Maggie Rivas-Rodríguez looks at how Latino men often listened to Spanish-language radio—in some cases broadcast from thousands of miles away—in an effort to maintain their mother tongue and give free expression to feelings of nostalgia. Rivas-Rodríguez observes that the practice is particularly noteworthy because of the widespread contempt for the Spanish language in mainstream America. It was common practice for schoolchildren to be punished harshly for speaking Spanish on school grounds. The radio listening practice as well as other uses of the Spanish language were mostly individual expressions of cultural solidarity. The social context of hostility, dismissal, and acts of defiance, however, provide for an appreciation of the importance of language in maintaining a sense of cultural identity and collective purpose.

Dionicio Valdés looks at another way that Latinos/as were transformed by the war experience. Many were migrant farmworkers, and although they advanced their situation with better-paying jobs, wartime agriculture continued to exploit them and to deny them the full measure of recovery that wartime production promised its workers. Valdés demonstrates the value of using oral narratives to place the human side of the experience of exploitation and assertiveness at center stage in agricultural development. Recollections of families living under trees because no other shelter was available provide added perspective to the history of Latinos/as during the war years. The individual claims for equal consideration also tell us that agency was the everyday expression of will, self-realization, and survival.

For Latinas in civilian life, World War II provided a new vantage point to life and work—away from the protective gaze of family and the obliging influence of tradition. Joanne Rao Sánchez measures the extent to which the larger story of women during World War II applies to Latinas. She concludes that Latinas joined in the unprecedented movement out of homes and into industrial employment as well as military service. They too registered improvements in their lives and contributed to generational advancements in their communities. These gains were all the more significant because they traveled a long distance from their working-class and Mexican cultural origins. Latinas, however, faced both gender and racial discrimination in their quest for a better life

Emilio Zamora reminds us that 15,000 Mexican nationals served in the U.S. military and that the Mexican government included them when its officials advocated for equal Mexican rights in the United States. Not content with only recovering this history of continental unity and service, Zamora uses it to comment on broader issues such as scholarly neglect, discriminatory recruitment practices, the "citizenship draft," a "1.5 generation" that straddled the cultural line separating the Mexico- and the U.S.-born,, and the uneven influence of the war on Mexican socioeconomic mobility.

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo addresses the case of Puerto Ricans serving in the U.S. military, in units segregated by race and language. She examines the contradiction between declared principles of equality abroad and racial discrimination at home as a backdrop to two important themes in the history of Puerto Ricans during World War II. The first concerns the incorporation of Puerto Ricans into a racial-minded military. The second involves Puerto Rican officials who did not press for the end to discrimination and segregation in the military for fear of jeopardizing their improved wartime standing with the United States and the prospects of negotiating reforms for the island. The U.S. military was caught in its own contradiction when it sought to apply the longtime tradition of racial segregation to Puerto Rican soldiers. The U.S. Bureau of the Census declared that Puerto Ricans were White. The military, however, pointed to popular racial expressions against Puerto Ricans and used the presence of Afro-Puerto Rican soldiers to adopt its version of a "one-drop rule" to establish separate military units for them.

Rea Ann Trotter's essay emphasizes the importance of faith and spirituality among Latino soldiers. These two values often came to mean the difference between life and death for many of them. Men who had been casual churchgoers before the war now found solace and even redemption in prayer and in their Christian faith. Some confronted the profound remorse about killing another human being, while others wondered why they had been spared from death but their friends had not. They made sense of this and other issues by turning to the hope that their faith provided them.

Ricardo Ainslie and Daphny Domínguez tell of other men who were not able to resolve the demons that haunted them. The stress of war has always represented an intense source of disorienting and disquieting change on battlefields and on the return home. World War II was no different, nor was the effect less injurious on Latinos. As with other veterans, society had a difficult time recognizing the war-related problems associated with "shell shock" and "nerves." Society was also ill-prepared to devise the necessary treatment for these ailments. The problem may have been more serious in the Latino/a community. In some cases, Latino veterans were advised to get married, presumably because the warmth and intimacy of one's own home along with traditional care of dutiful wives would cure their problems.

Finally, Brenda Sendejo addresses how Latina mothers of World War II used their new experiences to translate the inherited roles of their own mothers into the new generation of daughters who became adults in the postwar period. Sendejo notes that although women largely returned to the role of homemakers after the war, they urged their daughters to be self-sufficient and assume leadership roles in their families and communities. Sendejo's generational, case study approach provides a reliably close method by which to better understand change over time and the influence of the war years in this process.

The authors have made obvious individual contributions that are important to the study of Latinos/as. When taken together, those contributions achieve greater importance. The authors consistently observe that Latinos/as were integral to the war effort and that they often made extraordinary contributions despite their position as a racialized community of low-wage workers. They also suggest subterranean wells of resentment that mirror and no doubt contributed to emergent critiques and aspirations associated with the cause for equal rights that extends into our times.

The use of oral narratives and the role that memory played in the preparation of the essays represent another less obvious underlying theme in the anthology. This was made possible by the scholarly meetings in which the contributing authors discussed their work in light of the value of oral narratives and the need to use them responsibly. Oral narratives assumed an important role during the early development of Latino/a history as a way to supplement a record of neglect in the literature. They are no less important now that so many interviews have been conducted, including the ones at the Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project.

The oral interviews demonstrate that our narrators—former migratory workers, soldiers, Latinas who entered the industrial workforce in the 1940s, and radio listeners of the times—have long-range and clear memories and that these recollections repeatedly point to suffering, defiance, fulfilling experiences, and collective identities. Moreover, the memories are filtered through a concern in the present for remembering an important past in the formation of our communities. It is as if the past reclaims and reshapes the present while the present reinterprets the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the idea of "shared authorship," whereby the narrator and the interpreter of the oral narrative share somewhat equally in the interpretation of the past. And so our contributing authors as well as the narrators who shared their stories must be credited with recalling their strong conviction to making this volume what it is.


“The editors and contributors make a very significant contribution to the field. This volume creates a window, then opens it. A whole new panorama is presented.”
Juan Gómez Quiñones, Professor of History, University of California, Los Angeles


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