Preserving the Latino veteran experience

Kaylah Jackson
August 09, 2018 - 2:08 pm

Photo courtesy of VOCES Oral History Project

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When Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez was looking for books about the Mexican-American experience during World War II, she couldn’t find anything. But it’s not because there was no history, it’s because the books hadn’t been written.

That challenge inspired her to create the Voces Oral History Project. As a longtime newspaper reporter and professor at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, Rivas-Rodriguez understands the importance of first-person accounts.

“In order for us to set the record straight, we need to leave a record,” says Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez.

The Voces Oral History Project aims to “record, preserve, and disseminate interviews with Latinas and Latinos of the WWII, Korean and Vietnam War generation.” Their collections include interviews and multimedia elements each of these eras.

Photo courtesy of VOCES Oral History Project

It initially started as a means to document the Latino experience during World War II but since its inception, students and volunteers have been able to collect over 1,000 interviews. To date, the project has produced five books on the U.S. Latino World War II and post-war experience, staged photo exhibits, organized major conferences and even used their interviews in three plays.

“We’ve done interviews where people felt that they had suffered a lot of discrimination and were treated differently and weren’t getting the sorts of recognition, you know medals, that they feel they would’ve gotten if their last name wasn’t Lopez or something,” says Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez. 

Voces is a national project so the accounts aren't just hyperfocused on Texas. "We want to compare the Texas experience to the California experience, to the Midwest experience, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona...they have some real distinctions as well so it's really important or us to do that," she said. 

For some, the shared language of Spanish was a way to create community in their units.

Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez says "during World War II when you would have these rural Mexican-Americans from places like Texas, who almost couldn't speak English at all but they would go into the military, well then how do you know left-face from right-face?  Enter the Midwestern Latinos who were the ones who would translate, so it was a different kind of orientation."

But even with language barriers and various geographical experiences, when it came time to fight, speaking English didn’t matter much.

Photo courtesy of VOCES Oral History Project

“When they’re on the battlefield they will nine times out of ten say that all of the racial differences just disappear because you’re really depending on your buddy in the foxhole to save your life if necessary,” says Dr. Rivas-Rodriguez.

A 2017 minority veteran report approximates that almost half a million Hispanic or Latino Americans fought in World War II, including 350,000 Mexican Americans and 53,000 Puerto Ricans.

A simple Google search or scan in a school textbook doesn’t prominently share this information, but the Voces Oral History Project is working to be a change agent in that problem.

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