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Latino Military Participation Dates Back Centuries

By Arelis Hernandez
Capital News Service
Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007

Jorge Mariscal says he is tired of being overlooked. The University of California Chicano literature professor and Vietnam veteran is just one of more than a million Hispanic veterans who have said they want their stories told.

“If you erase a significant population that participated in history,” Mariscal said, “then the history is distorted.”

Hispanics have been serving in the American military since the Revolutionary War, according to the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History. But their exclusion from many American military narratives has generated anger and distress from a number of Hispanic organizations across the nation.

The American GI Forum, a Hispanic veterans' organization, pressured filmmaker Ken Burns to include the stories of Latino veterans after he initally omitted them in his 14-hour World War II documentary, “The War.

“I don’t even think he knew about us,” said Mariscal, whose father fought in World War II. “That was a classic case of us not being seen on the radar.”

Mariscal, a member of Project YANO, a counter-recruitment organization, said Latinos are constantly ommitted in films, documentaries, books and schools.

Mariscal said too often the perception that Latinos are “recent immigrants” overshadows centuries of a documented Latino presence in this country. In states like Nevada and Colorado, Latino families have lived on the same land for generations and are just as American as apple pie, Mariscal said.

“There has been a tremendous sacrifice by Latinos since WWII,” Mariscal said. “The current moment is troubling, because there are many Latinos in the military making that sacrifice, and yet the general portrayal is that we all arrived and crossed the border last night.”

In an address at the Library of Congress during Hispanic Heritage Month, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Hispanic soldiers, both men and women, are seen as foreigners and not as bona fide participants in the American war effort.

“[We need] to remember the achievements of this community,” Becerra said, “especially when that community is sometimes ignored.”

Becerra said the problem is that the public fails to recognize the achievement of the 500,000 Hispanics who served in World War II, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs -- and before.

According to the Library of Congress, Latinos account for 42 of the close to 3,000 Medal of Honor recipients in military history, including three who won them during the Civil War.

Though the contributions of Hispanics to the war effort has been historically underplayed, organizations like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Library of Congress are honoring Hispanic veterans by documenting their testimonies, memories and experiences as part of history.

Peter Bartis, senior project manager for the LOC’s Veterans History Project, said the inclusion of Hispanic soldiers and other minorities in their collection of oral histories is a  priority.

“We wanted to make sure our collection would represent all who participated in the armed forces to make sure it was representative of the colors and faces of soldiers in America,” Bartis said.

The project, chartered by Congress in 2000, aimed to document the war experiences of millions of veterans through audio and video interviews, and primary documents like letters, diaries and family photographs.

“We are the official collection,” Bartis said. “We take the mandate seriously and make special efforts to reach out to minorities.”

In the Army alone, the number of enlisted Hispanic soldiers has more than doubled since the 1970s, when only 3.4 percent of soldiers were of Hispanic heritage, according to Army statistics.

Today, Hispanics represent more than 11 percent of enlisted soldiers and 4.9 percent of officers in the military, according to the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense.

Copyright © 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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