TV Eye

War and Remembrance: Part III

LBJ signing the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967
LBJ signing the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967

"To me, loving one's people means that you are deeply invested in their survival, that you inherit the intellectual vocabulary they used to make their way in history, that you appreciate the struggles that have been waged to make your present position possible. But it also means you have to talk about how complex things are, talk about the vices. Complex versus simple – that's the biggest division that exists."

– Michael Eric Dyson, in Heeb magazine, February 2007

The new word from PBS regarding The War and how to quell the outrage at the omission of Latinos from the Ken Burns documentary occurs after this issue has gone to press. This is one of those rare quiet moments in the midst of a storm when you can look at it from another angle.

It is not an exaggeration to say that PBS brought the world to me. Where else would a 15-year-old Mexican kid growing up in Nebraska have gotten to see Zoot Suit one summer afternoon? Recalling this formative experience in the present moment startles me. At the time, I was a drama nerd and a closet writer, but it didn't occur to me that a life in either of those worlds was possible. When I saw Zoot Suit and all those brown faces in a theatrical event, my concept of the world exploded like an Easter cascarone. And it's not like it was a feel-good story. Set during the Zoot Suit Riots of World War II, Zoot Suit tells the story of a pachuco leader falsely accused of murder prior to entering the army. The riots, or the Pachuco Wars, were between U.S. servicemen and zoot-suited Mexican-American youth "coming out" in a culturally flamboyant, self-assertive way. A successful beat-down included stripping a zoot suiter and shredding his "drapes." It was a form of psychological as well as physical oppression, the message being, "You can serve in our military; you can pave, clean, pick, haul, build – dream the American dream if you want – but don't think for a moment you can be who you are. You don't belong."

Twenty years later, I related the experience of watching Zoot Suit to Edward James Olmos, who starred as the iconic El Pachuco, at a San Antonio arts conference. I got misty in the telling, but he urged me on. The story of a kid in the sticks watching Zoot Suit on PBS wasn't new to him, but he never tired of hearing it.

Thousands of taxpayer dollars have been invested in Burns' work over the years. And since Latinos pay taxes ... you know how this sentence ends. Yet, I hate to suggest joining the "let's scrutinize PBS' checkbook" bandwagon. Do we really want PBS to bow to the demands of the most powerful, be it the left or the right? No, I still dream of a public television that is open, diverse, and challenging in a way not found in commercial television. "It is in the public interest," President Lyndon B. Johnson said in his remarks upon signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, "to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities."

Perhaps what Johnson didn't conceive of in 1967 was that those chosen few tapped to shepherd public TV would eventually need to share their custodial role. This idea seems to incite fear. But who says that one candle lighting another extinguishes the former? Which is why the statement issued by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers regarding The War encourages me. (Full disclosure: I am a NALIP member and was a onetime NALIP-Austin board member.) Instead of punitive language, NALIP offers a menu of ways to infuse Latino writers, directors, producers, and talent into PBS signature programs and offers suggestions for integrating (not privileging) American Latino history, culture, music, art, and other contributions to American life in future programming.

"Given that Mr. Burns has a contract with PBS through 2022, we ask that PBS commit to hire at least one Latino/a associate producer, co-producer, and segment producer on each Ken Burns project from the project's conception ... [to] provide Mr. Burns a resource to help him consider ways to include Latinos in his series and/or reach out and find them when his stories warrant."

Sweat, blood, bravery, and diligence are valuable on the battlefield. The same will be true when it comes to expanding – not dismantling – the future of public television.

Perhaps what Johnson didn't conceive of in 1967 was that those chosen few tapped to shepherd public TV would eventually need to share their custodial role.

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President Johnson, Ken Burns, The War, Zoot Suit

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