Voices of Courage

In the house of 92-year old Hermila Medrano, there is a wall covered with military portraits. Each photo displays a family member who has served in the U.S. military, from World War II to Iraq. Sadly, the contributions of Latino soldiers have yet to be fully recognized as in Hermila’s home.

Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is on a mission to change that. She, along with a team of volunteers and researchers, has spent the last ten years trying to educate students, scholars, historians, and people from all walks of American life about Latino military contributions through a project she founded, called the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project. Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez has been credited with bringing much-needed awareness to the contributions that Latinos made during WWII. Most notably, she was praised for holding documentary filmmaker Ken Burns accountable for not featuring any Latinos in his documentary The War, which he produced for PBS in 2007. Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez teamed up with Latino organizations and as a result Burns was pressured to revise his film to include Latinos in the final version.

The project’s primary objective is to collect stories or oral histories. High quality videotape interviews with the WWII generation make up a bulk of the material that has been gathered by the project to date. These interviews include Latinos and Latinas from across the U.S., Puerto Rico, and even Mexico. Photos and other memorabilia have also been obtained, making it the largest such collection in the country. Ultimately, these items will become part of a permanent digital archive that is housed at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection in Austin, available to researchers interested in learning more.

Now, after a decade of collecting the stories of over 650 Latino men and women from the WWII era, the project is expanding into new territory. In September 2009, the project received funding to increase the scope of the oral history archive to include those Latinos who served in Korea and Vietnam. “The experiences of Korea and Vietnam will undoubtedly command our attention and commitment in the same way as those of WWII,” says Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez.

With the expansion came several major changes for the project; most importantly, it has a new name: VOCES Oral History Project. The project will now also strive to capture the stories of artists, activists, conscientious objectors, elected officials and religious leaders from the Korean and Vietnam era.

Jim Estrada, president of Estrada Communications, has been a long time supporter of the project, recently serving as co-chair to the project’s annual fundraising dinner. When asked why he felt it was important to capture the stories of Latinos and Latinas from these wars, Estrada responded, “First and foremost, our nation’s citizenry must be made aware of the patriotism that has historically existed within the Latino community, from the Revolutionary War to the present.” He added, “It is obvious that the oldest survivors of U.S. military conflicts are from the WWII era. Much of our nation’s societal values have changed greatly since the 1940s. The Korean and Vietnam conflict veterans, and their families, can provide us a more vivid recall and insights into how military service affected their adaptation to mainstream society.”

The expansion to include Korea and Vietnam in the archive has created a new excitement among veterans and the project’s staff, but it means that the project will need to sustain the funding stream. “We are glad to have received funding to interview veterans of the Korea and Vietnam eras,” said project manager Raquel Garza. “However, whether or not we are able to continue our research will be determined by the amount of public support the project garners.” She notes that volunteers are always welcomed, appreciated and needed. “And, financial gifts go a long way to ensure that interviews are captured all across the United States so history can be preserved,” Garza added.

Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez is confident they will obtain the financial support needed to sustain the project. “We are fortunate that our project has a mission that people feel passionate about,” she says. “Through partnerships with other institutions and organizations, and with continued community support we will do all we can to capture the stories of nuestra gente. We don’t just owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the generations of Latinos to come. For decades Latino contributions have been left out of the history books. We believe the work we do will help to change that.” Donations can be made on-line at the projects’ website at http://lib.utexas.edu/ww2latinos/support.html or by calling (512) 471-1924.

By Laura Barberena