Filmmaker John J. Valadez talks about his award winning films, “Prejudice and Pride” and “War and Peace.” Both films were part of the PBS documentary series Latino Americans.
José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. Filmmaker John J. Valadez has been writing, producing and directing award-winning nationally broadcast documentaries for PBS and CNN for the past 18 years. This weekend Valadez was in Arizona screening two of his Latino documentary films, "Prejudice and Pride" and "War and Peace," for ASU's Comparative Border Studies Initiative. Both of these films were part of the PBS documentary series "Latino Americans." We'll talk to John Valadez in a moment. First here's a short trailer of one of the films, "War and Peace."
War and Peace Clip:
In the early 1940s, while serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, Charles Wheeler heard unlikely news about a new officer.
Charles Wheeler: I heard about one of our new pilots that come aboard ship, and he was a Mexican boy. And I thought, I ain't believing that.
Wheeler, too, had Mexican ancestry but had never seen a Mexican-American pilot until he met Ensign Manuel Gonzalez they soon grew close.
Charles Wheeler: We bonded over our Mexican background and it was like having a new friend.
José Cárdenas: Joining me now is award winning filmmaker John J. Valadez. John, welcome to "Horizonte."
John J. Valadez: Hey, thank you for having me.
José Cárdenas: When we say you've been at this for a while and produced a number of award-winning films, your first was also an award winner. Tell us a little bit about that one.
John J. Valadez: Well, when I was in film school it was my student project. I started making a film about a guy in upstate New York who had been in prison for 19 years, eight of those in solitary confinement, and he was claiming he had been framed by the FBI, that the FBI during the 1960s and 70s had a secret program called the Counter Intelligence Program that was aimed at destroying political dissent in the United States. I started making a film about this guy while he was in prison. In the middle of making it, me and the other students making this film, he gets released because the prosecutorial misconduct in his case. He walks out a free man after 19 years. Essentially, the judge was saying yeah, there was monkey business in his case and he was wrongly convicted. This was the epic story of his life, how he ended up in prison, what happened to him, about the secret government program. The film went on to receive a prime time national broadcast on the PBS series, "POV," and was nominated for an Emmy.
José Cárdenas: And he was a Black Panther.
John J. Valadez: Yeah.
José Cárdenas: Now, one way or another most of your work has had to do with political, controversial topics, including the two films we're going talk about that aired this week or were screened this week at ASU. Let's talk about the first one.
John J. Valadez: Yeah so. Which one?
José Cárdenas: "War and Peace."
John J. Valadez: "War and Peace." "War and Peace" really tells the story of Latinos in World War II, how half a million Latinos fought during that war, how they were the most decorated ethnic group of any in the entire country during World War II. How they fault in every major battle, whether it was Iwo Jima or the Bataan Death March, storming the beaches of Normandy, facing down Rommel in North Africa, liberating concentration camps. Yet when they returned back home the United States was still a segregated country. They had to go to Mexican schools; they were segregated from restaurants, public facilities. For many Mexican-Americans they could not get access because of the bigotry at the time of the GI Bill. That great program that brought millions of Americans to the working class to the middle class; got them into college, got them into homes in the suburbs and Mexican-Americans for the most part were left behind.
José Cárdenas: And the film covers both their contributions during the war and their treatment afterwards.
John J. Valadez: Yeah. And I think what it is really is that after fighting and bleeding and in some cases dying for this country, they expected to be treated like other Americans. So there was a war abroad against fascism, but then there became a second war at home against scrim nation and bigotry here our own country.
José Cárdenas: We discussed the Ken Burns series of a few years ago about World War II. You said this was not intended to a response to that but certainly highlights the oversight of the contributions Latinos made.
John J. Valadez: I think oversight is a kind word. Ken Burns did a multipart series, 12 hours or something, right? That purported to tell the story of the Greatest Generation, the nation at war and what we went through as a country. Yet when he came out with the series there were no Latinos included in that, even though half a million of us fought. And it was not an oversight so much. That's one way of putting it. But on some level in some way we were excluded, we were cut out, we were not counted. We were not brought into the fold as part of the American narrative, and it's not just Ken Burns. American broadcast television began back in 1939, that's before World War II. We had broadcast television for over 74 years and it isn't until PBS did this series, "Latino Americans," that the story of Latinos and their participation in this greater American drama has been told on national television. And you know, I don't know how you grew up, but when I grew up there was -- I don't think I ever heard of a Latino in the history books when I was in elementary or middle school or high school. It was as though our contributions didn't matter, as though we were somehow foreign, as though we were not part of the American experience.
José Cárdenas: Before we talk about the other film did you for this series, "Prejudice and Pride," let's talk about the series itself. Do you think it tells the story that's needed to be told?
John J. Valadez: Oh, absolutely. I think we did a great job. The series is six hours. It begins basically before the U.S.-Mexico war when a huge swath of the United States, Arizona included, was actually part of Mexico.
José Cárdenas: 1846-1848.
John J. Valadez: Right, the Mexican-American war of 1848. It starts prior to that. So when I was growing up, we were taught history as an east-west enterprise. There were a string of colonies on the East Coast and they gradually moved westward and that was the westward expansion, manifest destiny and that was the story of America. But there are other ways of envisioning the past. And to look at how Latinos lived in this land, right, Arizona, Texas, California, and then how we were incorporated into the United States, is -- is a really riveting saga of who we are. And it adds more nuance and complexity to the American experience. It's one heck of a good story.
José Cárdenas: Before we get into detail on your other film, give us a brief overview of the other four films that are part of the series.
John J. Valadez: The first is really before the U.S.-Mexico war, and then talks about the U.S.-Mexico war and its aftermath. The next film kind of goes -- we go to the eastern seaboard more or less and talk about Cubans and Puerto Ricans, and the legacy of colonialism and the relationship with the Caribbean. Then the next film, which would be our three, is -- Well, is this film about World War II. Then our four, we hop back over hour four to the East Coast and again talk about Puerto Ricans and Cubans, but pick them up in the 1950s and the 1960s. Then we hop back over and talk about the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s.
José Cárdenas: Which is your film.
John J. Valadez: Yes. And the final film is really about I guess what I would call them great migration during the 1980s and 1990s, this country saw the largest influx of immigrants in the nation's history, about 22 million people came into the country mostly from Latin America. It items that story and its relationship to the Cold War, becoming American, and how the demographic shift begins and the reshaping of the American soul as we move into the 21st century.
José Cárdenas: What kind of reception has the series receive from the public at large?
John J. Valadez: Well, I've done about 40 screenings across the country. Mostly in the southwest. And I'll tell you, they have been phenomenal, they have been really phenomenal. You know, the series is not something -- I mean, you know, you look at the history of Latinos in this country and at times it is painful. At times it is agonizing. At times it is ugly. But at times it's beautiful and it's something to be really proud of. And I think what it reveals is that Latinos are like everybody else that, we hold in common the bonds of what it means to be American, a belief in democracy.
José Cárdenas: And I assume everything you just said applies, if not as strongly, maybe even more strongly to your second film, "Prejudice and Pride," the story of the Chicano movement.
John J. Valadez: Absolutely, the story of the Chicano movement, at least in my telling, is really a story of the people who exist on the ragged periphery of American society. In 1960, right, the median level of education for Mexican-Americans in this country was just eight years, okay? And when we talk about -- we open with the farm workers' struggle in California. Remember, in the early 1960s the average life expectancy for a migrant field worker in California was 49 years, okay? And the vast majority of those people could neither read nor write. You're talking about people who are really marginalized in a very, very brutal way. It's the story of these folks who were on the ragged edge of society, and how they fight their way, within the system, right? -- fight their way so that they can get closer to the center of power, so they can redefine what it means to be American, and so that they can gain their civil rights in full participation in American society. It's an extraordinary and beautiful -- beautiful story.
José Cárdenas: It's also the story of the rising consciousness among college students, Chicanos and college students and the birth of the Chicano movement.
John J. Valadez: I had a revelation when I was making the film. The film was dedicated to Saul Castro who led the student walkouts in Los Angeles. When I was making the film -- I have a large library of books, I'm an avid reader. I was reading a book one day, thinking about Mexican-American history and trying to figure out how do I make this film, right? It just occurred to me, what year was this book published? I flipped to the beginning and it was 1972. I put the book down and grabbed another one and it was 1980 and I grabbed another one 1996, grabbed another one 2004. Every book with a few exceptions but very few, every book on my entire shelf about Mexican-American history was written after 1968. Before 1968 there were almost no books that chronicled the experience of Mexican-Americans in this country.
José Cárdenas: So you think that was the result of the Chicano movement bringing attention to this history?
John J. Valadez: Well, not just attention, because what happened was those students walked out of schools in California, in Arizona, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, right? They walked out and demanded, number one, they get the same quality education white students were getting. They also demanded more Mexican-American teachers. But their third demand -- this is the key one -- they wanted the experience of Mexican-Americans to be incorporated into the curriculum. What they found out was there were no books. So those students graduated from high school, they went to colleges, right, and they founded over 160 Mexican-American, Chicano, ethnic programs across the country. They went into the archives, they did the research, they talked to the old people and they wrote the history. And they began to construct the story and weave the experience of Mexican-Americans into that grand story of America. And that was a gift not to Mexican-Americans; it was a gift for this country. Because Mexican-American history is American history. We are one and the same, we're bound together in a way that is inextricable and can never be unbound. They gave us a more nuanced and complex and complete understanding of who we are as a people.
José Cárdenas: And do the films that you've been screening. And will be screening this week at ASU and other places. John Valadez, thank you so much for joining us to talk bit, much appreciated.
John J. Valadez:Filmmaker