Roberto Mendez LCPL-E — Marine Corps-Regular . . . Casualty was on Oct 27, 1968
This is part of the inscription on the Vietnam Memorial Wall for my childhood friend. Although I have never forgotten his death, I was reminded of his passing by the 45th anniversary of the largest protest against the war by Chicanos on August 29, 1970. The event was known as the Chicano Moratorium. It occurred in East Los Angeles, California, bringing together nearly 30,000 Chicanos in protest of the war. I was not at the Moratorium; however, combined with Roberto’s death, the protest further catalyzed my decision to become a conscientious objector.
The death of Roberto and those of many other Chicanos, the protest, and my decision to become a conscientious objector are small pieces of a chapter in the Vietnam War story that has been omitted in most discussions of the war. So when some hear for the first time the elements of this chapter, they ask basic questions, such as: How many Chicanos and other Latinos participated in the military during the war? Why did Chicanos protest the war? How were Chicanos and other Latinos affected by the war? How many died in the war?
Fortunately, a growing body of scholarship and a recent documentary are beginning to fill this missing part of the Vietnam War story. Three books stand out and merit reading. These are Aztlán and Vietnam: Chicana and Chicano Experiences of the Vietnam War by George Mariscal, Raza Sí, Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Vietnam Era by Lorena Oropeza, and Vietnam Veteranos: Chicanos Recall the War by Lea Ybarra and Edward James Olmos. These scholarly works shed light on the experiences, roles and participation of Chicanos in the war and its impact on Chicanos.
Historian Tomas Summers Sandoval at Pomona College is also researching the complexity of Chicano involvement in the war. For several years he has been collecting and documenting stories of Latino Vietnam veterans in southern California and analyzing census data in order to document the impact of the war on Latino communities. To date the research has revealed that the war placed a heavy individual and collective burden on Latinos that manifests itself in various ways and continues to be felt today.
Visually, the complexity of the saga is seen in the documentary On Two Fronts: Latinos and the Vietnam War. Aired nationally on the Public Broadcasting System as part of the commemoration of national Hispanic Heritage Month, this film by Mylene Morales brought the war back into American homes. Morales uses photographs, home movies, news footage and personal stories to bring the narrative of war and its impact on Latinos — in particular working-class Latinos — to life four decades after its conclusion. The film examines the participation of prisoner of war Everett Alvarez and his sister, Delia, who became one of the leading opponents of the war. It also documents the sacrifices and contributions of children of miners in Arizona who fought and died in the war and the responses of their families to the experiences. Like the scholars, Morales was aware of how the saga of Latinos and the Vietnam War had been untold in film and acted to fill this critical gap in the story.
In 1965 Chicanos were often described as “the invisible minority.” Fifty years later, combined with other Latinos, they have emerged as “the nation’s largest minority.” My friend Roberto, a young man who was proud of Mexican heritage, undoubtedly would be pleased knowing that the Latino chapter of the Vietnam story is finally and increasingly being told in his homeland country almost 47 years after his death. Long overdue but no longer missing in action.
George Mariscal, Aztlán and Vietnam, Chicana and Chicano Experiences of the Vietnam War, University of California Press, 1999
Lorena Oropeza, Raza Sí, Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam Era, University of California Press, 2004
Lea Ybarra and Edward James Olmos, Vietnam Veteranos: Chicanos Recall the War, University of Texas Press, 2005
For additional information about the project by historian Tomas Summers Sandoval: “Column: Vietnam through the Eyes of Latino soldiers,” Los Angeles Times May 27, 2015; www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-morrison-summers-20150527-column.html
Documentary: On Two Fronts: Latinos and the Vietnam War can be viewed in its entirety at: www.pbs.org/veterans/stories-of-service/stream-tv/a-to-z/twofronts-latinos-vietnam/
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/).