By ERIN ALLEN
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) wants people to know that Hispanics have fought and died for this country.
In his Sept. 18 keynote address to kick off the Library’s 2007 celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Becerra reflected on both the misrepresentation and exclusion of Latinos in American history. Citing examples from literature and film, the congressman expressed his hope that the nation will overcome its prejudices and accurately portray the contributions of Latinos.
“When I was growing up, there was a movie out called ‘Hell to Eternity.’ I thought ‘what a great guy,’” Becerra said of the movie’s real-life Hispanic protagonist, Guy Gabaldon. “He was a World War II hero who managed to capture the Japanese enemy without firing a single bullet.” Becerra explained that Gabaldon, who was a Mexican American, was victorious because he was fluent in Japanese, thanks to his upbringing by a Japanese-American foster family.
“I had difficulty with the fact that the movie portrayed him as an Italian American,” said Becerra.
As examples of exclusion, Becerra cited the absence of Hispanics in Tom Brokaw’s book about World War II veterans titled “The Greatest Generation” and in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The War.”
“Ken Burns’ ‘The War’ showcases extraordinary feats by ordinary Americans, including a couple of Asian and African-American families,” said Becerra. “The problem is there were initially no Latinos in his documentary.”
According to Becerra, more than 500,000 Latinos served in World War II and were the most decorated soldiers—one in four was a Medal of Honor recipient.
“Just like ‘Hell to Eternity’ and ‘The Greatest Generation,’ we felt the slight again,” he said.
However, Becerra did extend his appreciation to Burns for re-editing the documentary to include stories about the Latino experience during the war.
Becerra shared uplifting stories of Hispanic Americans who had worked hard to achieve success for themselves and their families. Manuel, for example, was born in the United States but grew up in Tijuana. He knew very little English when he and his wife returned to the United States to work. Ultimately, they built a life for themselves, including providing for four children—all of whom went to college—and retiring with more money than they ever had while growing up.
“This is the story of my parents,” Becerra said. “What they did is what has happened all across the U.S.”
The congressman also told the story of José Gutierrez, an orphan who grew up on the streets of Guatemala City and came to the United States illegally when he was 14. He later was granted legal resident status and went to high school and college in California before joining the Marines in March 2002. After only a year in service, Gutierrez lost his life in Iraq, making him one of the first soldiers to die in the war.
“He didn’t know much about his new country, but by the time he left, he had given the U.S. his all,” said Becerra.
“We often forget our history. Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month is a way to remember these heroes—these people of so many different colors and backgrounds who have made this nation.”
For more information about Hispanic Heritage Month, visit the Library’s Web site at www.loc.gov/topics/hispanicheritage/.
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.