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War Stories: World War II generation Latinos share memories through national journalism project

When Ubaldo Arizmendi decided to go into military service at age 17, he didn’t tell anyone in his family. He made his father unwittingly sign his consent forms and enlisted in the U.S. Army. On Nov. 7, 1941, he headed for Camp Roberts, Calif., for basic training. One month later, the United States entered World War II.

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez with several issues of 'Narratives'
Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez directs the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project. “Narratives,” the written component of the project, has been published since 1999.

Arizmendi was among the troops that landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944. While on one of the thousands of lined-up trucks waiting to be dropped off on hostile ground, Arizmendi watched helplessly as the vehicle in front of his, carrying a chaplain and his driver, disappeared into the water as it left the ramp. But he was ordered to move forward and, after crossing over the submerged Jeep, he wondered about the fate of its passengers.

Due to the massive amounts of U.S. casualties in the historic Normandy Invasion, 18-year-old Manuel Castillo’s troop—originally headed for the South Pacific—was redirected to Europe to fortify U.S. troops and advance the allied front.

Of Castillo’s many close calls with death, the closest came in Germany’s Black Forest as he lay in wait for the enemy.

“I felt something wet on my neck, but it was a clear night with no clouds or rain,” said Castillo. “So I reached back with my hand and could feel it was wet. Even in the darkness of the night, I could see it was blood. Then in an instant, everything went black.”

These stories and dozens more have been told to University of Texas at Austin journalism students over the past four years for “Narratives,” a written component of the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project directed by Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, assistant professor in the School of Journalism. Once completed, the project will tell the previously untold stories of Latinos, Latinas and their struggles in World War II through audio, video and historical documents, such as letters, photos, discharge papers and newspaper clippings provided by the interview subjects.

“The students are learning a lot about history and the role of journalists in chronicling people’s lives,” said Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez. “In addition to providing writing opportunities for students, the “Narratives” component of the project has enabled us to achieve greater accuracy in telling these stories because each interview subject is mailed a copy of his or her story and is given a chance to answer additional questions or clarify information.”

The Beginning

Josephine Ledesma teaches a soldier how to repair the fuselage of an airplane
Josephine Ledesma teaches a soldier how to repair the fuselage of an airplane at Randolph Air Field, San Antonio, in January 1942.

World War II was a turning point for U.S. Latinos. It’s been estimated that anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 Latinos served in the armed forces during World War II. Despite making strong contributions to the nation and to their communities, the stories of this generation of Latinos are not generally included in historical treatments of the period.

Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez, whose father fought in World War II, first envisioned the project in 1992 while working at the El Paso Bureau of the Dallas Morning News covering the U.S.-Mexican border. While interviewing Pete Tijerina, founder of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), she noticed the date on his law school diploma was right after World War II and asked if he had used the G.I. Bill.

Tijerina described how the G.I. Bill had afforded many Latino World War II veterans the opportunity to attend law school and later fight for civil rights for Mexican Americans, including the desegregation of public schools and other public institutions. According to Tijerina, the war and the G.I. Bill enabled him and other Latino lawyers to establish MALDEF, which is the leading nonprofit Latino litigation, advocacy and educational outreach institution in the United States. There, in Tijerina’s office, Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez decided that the stories of people like Tijerina must be told.

There are several oral history projects for other groups of the World War II era, but none of the larger and well-endowed archives, such as The Eisenhower Center at New Orleans University or the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, deals specifically with Latinos.

Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez started the oral history project in spring 1999 after joining the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism faculty. With the help of a $36,500 grant from the A.H. Belo Corp. Foundation, the project hosted a conference the following year titled, “U.S. Latinos and Latinas & World War II: Changes Seen, Changes Sought,” which drew academic and public interest and helped jumpstart the project.

The Students

Rudy Acosta

“Narratives,” which has been published each semester since fall 1999, has given journalism students the opportunity to sharpen their writing and interviewing skills, and experience a richly diverse history. It’s been especially satisfying for Latino and Latina journalism students.

Recent journalism graduate Juan de la Cruz, who began interviewing World War II veterans across Texas in spring 2001, said the most fun and rewarding experience was interviewing the veterans firsthand.

“Being there to ask questions that bring back wonderful—and horrible—memories was unforgettable,” de la Cruz said. “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to tell the stories of these people who literally made history.”

Raquel Garza, who recently graduated and now works as a reporter in Lubbock, spent two semesters transcribing and organizing interviews for the project. Her first story was about MALDEF founder Tijerina, the same man who had inspired the idea for the project nearly a decade earlier.

Garza believes the project gave her a new perspective about her place in American society, saying she never realized the effort made to change the Latinos’ social status and what a catalyst World War II was for effecting change. She specifically cited her story about Tijerina as the one that opened her eyes to a history that she never knew existed.

“It shook me,” she says. “And I realized that though I attended UT because I am smart and capable, I also had the opportunity to come to UT because others paved the way for me.”

The project has published seven “Narratives” issues, which are also online. The eighth and final issue will be available this spring.

Ester Perez

The Future

Word about the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project is getting out. Both The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post have run feature stories about the project, which has prompted volunteers from around the country to send videotaped interviews, photographs and anything else they have to contribute. The project relies heavily on the work of volunteer interviewers around the country. With this—and the goal of building quality archives—in mind, the project has a volunteer training manual on its Web site that includes release forms and guidelines for conducting interviews and submitting photos and videos.

Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez strongly encourages local communities to consider the preservation of Latino heritage through oral documentation. She says that once these vital links with the past are gone, Latino history fades and cannot be recovered.

Her goal back in 1999 was to have 300 life history interviews by the end of the project. It now boasts about 450 interviews in its collection, less than 5 percent of which have actually been transcribed — a tedious process that requires meticulous care.

Since its inception, the project has raised about $300,000, but another $550,000 is needed to transcribe all the oral histories, duplicate and preserve the videotaped interviews, and properly archive and catalog the material. In addition, some of the histories are spoken in Spanish, which entails translation costs.

“As funding permits, we hope to transcribe all of the interviews and develop other tools to tell this story, including a documentary, books and an exhibit,” Rivas-Rodriguez said.

Moises Flores

The oral history archives reside at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and at the Center for American History—both on The University of Texas at Austin campus. The archives are scheduled to open in mid-2005 and will serve as primary source material for scholars and other writers, as well as the general public interested in learning more about this generation of Latinos and Latinas.

With the project entering its final stages, the students look back with pride. De la Cruz feels that being a part of this project has been one of the best experiences of his budding journalistic career.

“This project was more than rewarding to me,” de la Cruz said. “I’m very passionate about it and amazed how far it has come from an idea to reality. I strongly believe in its purpose and am glad to see its growth.”

As for Arizmendi, three weeks after he watched the Jeep in front of him submerge into the water with a chaplain and driver, he saw them alive and well. The two had been able to swim back to the safety of the ship.

Since then, he has married (he and his wife recently celebrated their 51st anniversary) and have had five children. He said that after seeing so much suffering—death and starvation, especially—he takes nothing for granted. He said the experience changed his life after the war forever.

After being blinded for five months from the impact of shrapnel tearing through his helmet and lodging in his brain, Castillo regained his sight and was able to return to the United States. The 81-year-old veteran still has three pieces of shrapnel in his head and not a day goes by when he doesn’t think about his wartime experiences and the impact they’ve had on his life.

Thanks to the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project, Arizmendi’s and Castillo’s stories—and those of Latinos and Latinas in the World War II era—will not be forgotten.

For more information, visit the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project Web site.

Jessi Cross and Erin Geisler

Photo of Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez: Marsha Miller

Historical photos: Latino Oral History Project

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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