War and Remembrance: Part II
"There is a haunting in Texas ... there is too much that feels deprecated, neglected, or ignored by the more financially boastful, self-contained Anglo Texas culture, as though the flesh and blood cultural legacy of this Mexican ghost could be dismissed or replaced as though so much of it were like housing projects, transitional or residual, an era that was, not is or transformed into a market niche, pitched as an advertising campaign, a decorating style or motif."
Dagoberto Gilb, Hecho en Tejas
My apologies to Gilb. Those who have read his introduction to his anthology of Texas Mexican literature will realize that I cut past the most tender part to get to the point: The Mexicans are restless. We're tired of being regarded as the zesty garnish on the plate of American culture. While Gilb is focusing on Texas Mexicans, the same restlessness revealed itself on a national level around the Ken Burns documentary mentioned last week. Because the anger is thick, the issue still in flux, I feel it necessary to take incremental steps toward breaking down this long-running passion play that strikes at the heart of what it means to be Mexican-American.
Here's a recap if you didn't read last week's "TV Eye": Filmmaker Ken Burns made a documentary on World War II called The War. The contribution of Latinos in World War II is nonexistent in the film. Several groups and individuals have met with PBS President Paula Kerger, asking that the film not be released until this omission is corrected. The toughest call comes from the GI Forum, which calls for a congressional investigation of the PBS funding process.
In an early interview on the subject, Burns said, "We were looking for the universal, human experience of battle. ... We left out lots of people in many different kinds of groups because we weren't looking at it in that way."
PBS is more contrite, but that's not saying much. "While we acknowledge and respect the concerns that have been raised, we do not agree that going back into production to revise a completed series that represents one filmmaker's vision is the appropriate solution," is the official PBS line, according to KLRU President and CEO Bill Stotesbery. "Personally, I wish the decision was to add material," he adds. "But PBS does not direct a documentary filmmaker to alter his or her vision, regardless of the subject. It has been true in controversies in the past, and I'm sure it will be again in the future."
In something of an about-face, it was announced in a March 31 message from www.defendthehonor.org that PBS will re-evaluate their position and come up with a plan by April 10.
Perhaps the most perplexing response to date comes from Lionel Sosa, a Latino member of the PBS board of directors.
"Asking Burns to change his documentary is like asking Leonardo da Vinci to add another apostle to The Last Supper because somebody was left out," Sosa said in a Laredo Morning Times article by Tricia Cortez published March 20. "This is artistic. This is a film. It's not journalism."
Apparently, Sosa needs a dictionary to look up the definition of "documentary."
By comparing Burns to da Vinci, Sosa inadvertently strikes the crux of the matter. Burns' work is branded as the definitive statement on a subject. This brand comes largely because of his affiliation with PBS, the mandate of which is to serve the American public but much more so because of PBS's reach beyond television (already pervasive) as an approved "text" for use in classrooms across the nation.
Being ignorant willfully or otherwise of the flesh-and-blood impact of Latinos in World War II, not to mention the role of World War II in defining U.S. Latino history, is, in a word, deplorable. I don't expect PBS to impose its will on a filmmaker's vision but it is painfully disappointing to discover that PBS's vision is little more than a few "diversity" dishes served at a card table near the banquet table. No, if PBS is truly interested in expanding its base, it means more than making room at the table. It means allowing other cooks in the kitchen when the meal is being prepared.
Sosa makes another interesting statement in the aforementioned Laredo Morning Times article. Although "disappointed" by the omission of Latinos in The War, he says it's up to Latinos, not Burns, to tell their stories.
"We have the talent in terms of writers, producers, directors, and historians to tell the story," he said. "And we have the resources to raise the money to make the films."
In that case, why bother supporting PBS at all? More on that and other topics next week.