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
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
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
headed for the South Pacific—was redirected to Europe to
fortify U.S. troops and advance the allied front.
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
Latinas and their struggles in World War II through audio, video and historical
documents, such as letters, photos, discharge papers and newspaper clippings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
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.”
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
covering the U.S.-Mexican border. While interviewing Pete
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
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.
“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
was interviewing the veterans firsthand.
“Being there to ask questions that bring back wonderful—and
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.
believes the project gave her a new perspective about her place
in American society, saying she never realized the effort
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.
Word about the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral
History Project is getting out. Both The Los Angeles Times and
about the project, which has prompted volunteers from around
the country to send videotaped interviews, photographs and anything
else they have
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
Her goal back in 1999 was to have 300 life history
interviews by the end of the project. It now boasts about 450 interviews
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,
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
“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
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
As for Arizmendi, three weeks after he watched the Jeep in
front of him submerge into the water with a chaplain and driver,
and well. The
two had been able to swim back to the safety of the ship.
then, he has married (he and his wife recently celebrated their
51st anniversary) and have had five children. He said
seeing so much
and starvation, especially—he takes nothing for granted.
He said the experience changed his life after the war forever.
being blinded for five months from the impact of shrapnel tearing
through his helmet and lodging in his brain, Castillo
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.
more information, visit the U.S.
Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project Web site.
Cross and Erin
Photo of Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez: Marsha
Historical photos: Latino Oral History