Were Latinos Right in Putting Burns in the Hot Seat?


Were Latinos Right in Putting Burns in the Hot Seat?At a time when Latinos are being demonized by some as the cause of the nation's economic and cultural struggles because of the continuing immigration debate, it's simply human nature to want to point out the ways Latinos have bettered the United States.
byEsther J. Cepeda, Sun-Times Columnist

It's almost understandable that a vocal few would seek to curb an artist's right of freedom of expression by mounting a personal and political campaign against a World War II documentary which intentionally limited itself to only four of 16.1 million veterans' heart-wrenching war stories, but unintentionally stoked the ire of one of many minority groups who came together to help America through the dark years of the second world war.

For months leading up to tonight's PBS premiere of "The War," documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has been the lightning rod in a controversy over whose story constitutes history. Burns is so beloved and successful that his films have blurred the line between art and academia to the casual viewer, leaving him in the unenviable position of being America's unofficial historian, held to account for including every story, rather than just a select few.

"I'm not an enemy, I'm an ally," Burns told me earlier this month during a tour of screenings in the four towns that serve as anchors for his 15-hour epic. "This is such a good example of why history is so important. Every 30 years an immigrant group is attacked and demonized and right now it's Hispanics, but it's important to take the long-view. The Hispanic population at that time was very small — 1.4 percent — and we were choosing in a completely arbitrary abstract way."

By adding Hispanic content to his film, Burns tried to accommodate a group of vocal Hispanic activist organizations — some of whom are still planning to boycott their PBS affiliates tonight and have gone so far as to claim Burns has committed "cinematic genocide." …


"Let's have a little proportionality," Burns said, sounding a little exasperated. "Hispanic veterans are dying, they did have a good story; we took the high road but didn't change the body of the film."

But for some like Defend the Honor, an organization formed to create greater public awareness of Latino veterans' contributions, the 30 additional minutes of Hispanic-specific content that were sifted in will never be enough.

For Bill Lansford, one of three veterans — two Hispanic and one Native American — whose stories were added, it'll have to do.

"The glass is either half full or half empty," said Lansford, 85, the son of a Mexican mother and Caucasian father who joined the Marines in early 1941. "Half of the [Hispanic] people will be upset, and will turn off the TV and half will say 'Gee, what a great picture. He really displayed what the war was all about.' "

"But you have to understand this stems not from some petulance; we want recognition," Lansford said. "I don't believe Burns meant to keep Latinos out, but there's this mentality that Latinos don't really exist and we want our due — not as heroes, as Americans."

The very fact that Burns' team developed educational outreach materials to be used by academic institutions and anyone who wants to preserve their loved-one's World War 11 story seemed to prove to some that he should be held to a higher standard than theatrical directors.

But does every group have a right to "their due" in creative works? Should we go after Stephen Spielberg for not including diverse experiences in movies like "Schindler's List"?

"You can't satisfy everyone," said "The War" co-director Lynn Novick. "There is a group that is very actively against the film but I don't know that they really represent the mainstream …. people have their opinions — but we don't want to be judged before people have had a chance to see the whole thing."

"You can boycott the film," said Burns, "but you'd be doing a disservice to the vets. After all, in the end we're all Americans and that's what this film celebrates."


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