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Latino veteran stories highlighted in Voces Oral History Project

Austin American-Statesman - 5/27/2018

May 27--He'll never forget walking into Adolf Hitler's headquarters in the immediate aftermath of World War II. He'll never forget how, as part of the U.S. Army's571st Anti-Aircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion, he shot down enemy planes. And he'll never forget his life after the war, when he launched a tailor shop in downtown Austin and had clients such as a young Texas congressman named Lyndon B. Johnson.

Now, thanks to the Voces Oral History Project that has documented the lives of Latino and Latina veterans, including Austinite Ramón Galindo, 96, people will ever forget his legacy either.

Galindo's battalion was stationed in Hitler's headquarters after the war, where he said part of his mission included protecting Hitler's images. "I didn't realize I was sitting in a building that was going to a big part of history," Galindo said in his oral history interview.

After nearly 20 years, the project celebrates its 1,000th interview with a free reception June 7 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center with philanthropist Teresa Lozano Long as the featured speaker.

Since the project's 1999 launch, it has branched out to include the stories not only of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, but also of politically and civically active Latinos and Latinas across the country. Video interviews, memorabilia and digitized photographs are housed at the University of Texas' Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. The stories tell America's history through an often untold lens.

Over the years, the project's stories have inspired research, books, exhibits, conferences, an academic journal and a play. But as Voces evolves, project director and UT journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez looks forward to its next chapter.

Voces' new website will launch at the June celebration, and the project plans to start a $24,000 fundraising campaign this fall to index and post the video interviews online. By doing this, researchers will be able to search a video interview for topics such as education or politics and to access the exact point in the conversation where that was discussed. Currently, the complete video interviews can be accessed solely through the Benson Collection at 2300 Red River Street.

Political and civic engagement has always been one of the main themes in all of the project's interviews. "That's because the World War II generation couldn't sit back," Rivas-Rodriguez said.

Between 250,000 to 750,000 Latinos and Latinas served in the U.S. military during WWII, and upon returning home found themselves facing inequality and segregated cities. Many of them became instrumental in helping desegregate schools and creating civil rights organizations. Some, like Galindo, became small-business owners and entrepreneurs.

But the frequent omission of their contributions is what prompted the launch of what was originally called the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project.

In 2007, the project reached a pivotal point, Rivas-Rodriguez said, when she learned that PBS was airing a 14-hour documentary series on World War II by filmmaker Ken Burns that excluded Latino veterans. Burns initially dismissed requests to update the film, she said. "He didn't see anything wrong with leaving out Latinos," she said. "We weren't part of our country."

After a letter-writing campaign, protests, meetings and petitions, Burns added interviews with two Mexican-American veterans as well as one Native American veteran. "We knew that our people were on battlefields because we had the pictures in our living rooms," she said.

The grass-roots effort that helped push for Latino inclusion in the documentary, called Defend the Honor, celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.

Improving the awareness of the American Latino experience has always been the goal of Voces, Rivas-Rodriguez said: "If you look at almost any field, we're underrepresented. There are structural barriers and we need to start looking at those."

Exploring other topics such as Latinos in documentary film or politics are areas Voces plans to research.

"It's really important for us to stand up to make sure that we don't get left out," she said.

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(c)2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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