Film Explores Legacy Of Vietnam War On Mexican-American Vets
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. During the Vietnam war, Latinos made up 10% of the U.S. population but they suffered 20% of the casualties of that war. And as the veterans of Vietnam become senior citizens, we are learning that the process of dealing with physical and emotional wounds can last for a lifetime. A new documentary traces the experiences of Mexican-Americans who fought in Vietnam, with a focus on three vets who became artists, and examines how art and culture work to help process painful memories. I’d like to welcome my guests. Laura Varela is producer/director of "As Long as I Remember: American Veteranos." And, Laura, welcome to These Days.
LAURA VARELA (Documentary Producer/Director): Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: And Nick Aguilar is a Chula Vista resident and veteran of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Vietnam war. Nick, thank you for being here.
NICK AGUILAR (Vietnam Conflict Veteran): Good morning. I’m pleased to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite listeners to join the conversation, especially if you are a veterano of the Vietnam war. Give us a call and share your story at 1-888-895-5727. So, Laura, how significant was the contribution made by Mexican-Americans during the Vietnam war?
VARELA: Well, I – In my humble opinion, I think it was a great contribution. I think it was at a time when there wasn’t financial aid, when many Mexican-Americans didn’t have the money to go to college so many of them couldn’t get those college deferments. So many of our young men, unfortunately – well, fortunately or not, but they were sent or many volunteered, which is something that I thought many were drafted but in my experience I realized that many joined voluntarily because a lot of the men that I talked to, their dads were part of World War II and it was – they were feeling that it was their patriotic duty to also be a part of this, you know, of this war to help the United States in this campaign, so…
CAVANAUGH: You know, we see – we have seen a lot of representations of the Vietnam war in film and we don’t see a lot of Latinos featured in those movies. Is that one of the reasons that you made this documentary?
VARELA: Absolutely. I – When I was in college and I started learning about my culture, unfortunately, I had to go to college to learn a little bit about our history in the United States and Mexico, everywhere. I started asking my friends because I had quite a bit of family that was affected by this war and everybody had an uncle or a dad or somebody who went to Vietnam. And when I started looking for books and literature, documentaries, movies, I really didn’t find anything. I found very little. And I think it – I – The reason that I feel that I needed to make this film was because I think I needed to kind of heal from my family’s experience and also just help fill in the gaps of history, of Latino-Chicano participation in the Vietnam war.
CAVANAUGH: Do we know why the casualty rate for Mexican-Americans was so high in Vietnam?
VARELA: No, there’s not really any definite statistics but we do know that, for example, when Mexican-Americans did go to the military, a lot of the jobs that they got was infantry, was on the front lines. They didn’t get a lot of the jobs in the rear perhaps. A lot of times many of the men—and they say that in my film—that they would volunteer sometimes for the most dangerous jobs. Some of them, they don’t know why, they attribute it to stupidity or bravery, courage, they talk about a warrior spirit, they don’t know but it is a fact. And…
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Laura Varela. She’s producer/director of "As Long as I Remember: American Veteranos." And tell us a little bit about this film. I know in it you profile three veterans and they share their stories in the film and the three are also artists. Tell us a little bit about the men you profiled.
VARELA: Well, the three main characters and, of course, there’s – they branch off into other stories, too, as well. But the three main characters that we follow are Michael W. Rodriguez, who is an author, and he mostly writes about his experience in the Vietnam war. Eduardo Garza is a poet and a performance artist, an actor. And Juan Farias is a visual artist, a very well respected abstract visual artist. And so they were part of my community in San Antonio. I could not tell my family story because I did not live in El Paso anymore. And so that’s kind of where the story started, with people that I knew immediately right off – and that was Juan and Eduardo.
CAVANAUGH: And why did they join the service? Is it more or less those reasons that you just talked about?
VARELA: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the men, their dads were part of World War II.
CAVANAUGH: Nick, let me ask you, why did you decide to join the Army to go to Vietnam?
AGUILAR: Well, the immediate motivation was the return of – My brother was drafted and he was two years older than I, and he was drafted. And after his return from basic training, he came back very excited about the fact that he had volunteered to be a paratrooper even though he had been drafted. The only way you can become a paratrooper is to volunteer. You can’t be forced to be a paratrooper. And so I, at the time, I was enrolled at Southwestern College, my first semester, and I didn’t really have any career goals. I was just kind of fumbling along and so I was excited by his enthusiasm and, you know, after he left, a couple days after he left, I went down – downtown San Diego to the recruiter’s office.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.
AGUILAR: I was going to join for four years to be a paratrooper. The recruiter took mercy on me and I think he was one of the few ethical recruiters at the time and said, encouraged me to consider joining for three years and if I liked, then I could re-up.
AGUILAR: And to this day it was – I thank him because if I had joined for four I would no doubt have been sent to Vietnam for two tours and who knows what would’ve happened.
CAVANAUGH: You did get a tour – you did do a tour in Vietnam, though, and you were wounded in your shoulder. And you’ve just shared with us that you’re going to be going in for surgery on that shoulder just in a few days.
AGUILAR: Well, actually I’ve already had surgery. I’ve had problems with the right arm, limited use since the injury and at last – The first surgery that I had was a couple of years ago to remove part of the bone that had been…
AGUILAR: …deteriorated. This’ll be the second surgery to remove yet more – another kind of deposit that has formed. And so it’s been an ongoing issue…
CAVANAUGH: Sure. It all stems from your injury…
CAVANAUGH: …and your wound in Vietnam. Laura, you know, you trace – As Nick is telling us here and in your documentary, “As Long As I Remember,” you trace the effect that the Vietnam war has had on the veterans that you profile in your film. Tell us – Explain a little bit about that because it seems to me in the documentary, having seen it, that some of these men seem to realize the effect that the war has had them (sic) as they talk about it in your film.
VARELA: So, I’m not quite clear. What…?
CAVANAUGH: My question is, tell – explain to us what kinds of effects the war still has on these men that you’ve profiled?
VARELA: Well, for example, Michael Rodriguez is a wonderful, wonderful writer but he went many years without recognizing that he had PTSD and he, in 1980, I think he had a reunion with many of his – the men in his platoon, or troop, from the Marines and that’s when I think he started realizing that perhaps, you know, he realized some of them were getting treated for PTSD or whatnot, and then his wife suggested that maybe he go, you know, to see a doctor and so he did. And they diagnosed him and so he’s been in treatment for many, many years now, maybe 20 years. And I think Eduardo, he recognized that, you know, he’s – he talks about how it comes back to him and he feels it and so he prays and he meditates and it passes and he can go on. And if he can write a poem about it, write it down, he does.
CAVANAUGH: We are inviting our listeners to join the conversation. If you have memories of service in Vietnam as a Mexican-American, give us a call because that’s what this documentary is about. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Laura, describe how the family members who were, you know, left behind, waiting for their soldiers to come home, and, of course, some of them not even born yet, how have families of the Vietnam veterans been affected by the war?
VARELA: Well, I can tell you we do feature the story of – a little bit of the story of Tony and Mike Roman. Tony is part of Michael Rodriguez’s PTSD group therapy group. I guess they’re the combat veterans. And Mike Roman is a muralist. In my film, we have them talking about them as – their relationship and Mike shares with us, he was saying it was a ripple effect. It structured our whole family life. He says, ever since I was a little kid, I knew about Vietnam. And he talks about how his aunts used to tell him, oh, your dad is crazy, he went to Vietnam. And, you know, I imagine this little child, how does that make you feel? And immediately his dad says, yeah, they want you to do the dirty stuff but when you come back, you are dirty, you know.
CAVANAUGH: I remember that quote from your documentary. I wonder, do you – did you hear from the vets that you profiled…
CAVANAUGH: …that there was discrimination against them because they were Mexican-American?
VARELA: Well, yes. Yeah, for some of them because, you know, granted this was still of the time, the 1960s, I guess, I mean, I’m still – I’m, you know, younger. I’m from the generation of the children of – of Vietnam veterans. But they do talk about it. A couple of them actually talk about it, going in and being very patriotic and wanting to be part of this American dream and participate. And being – going in and being tore down (sic) by your own people that you thought – like this is my side and that’s their side, that’s the enemy, and this is us. But being tore down for who you are. They really couldn’t understand that.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Laura Varela. She’s producer/director of "As Long as I Remember: American Veteranos," a new documentary. And Nick Aguilar is a Chula Vista resident. He’s veteran of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Vietnam war. And, Nick, I understand that you received orders to be a forward observer, a very dangerous job, and you think it’s because perhaps the sergeant didn’t like Mexicans. Tell us about that.
AGUILAR: Well, first the 4.2 Mortar Platoon is kind of an elite. Paratroopers are the elite of the infantry. And within the infantry, the four-deuce Mortar is the heaviest of the infantry artillery support before you get into the military occupational specialty. You’re still infantry, so you’re kind of in the rear. And within that, there’s the gun crews, four gun crews, for each platoon and then there’s the fire direction center. Members of the fire direction center are really the elite of the platoon because it requires – that’s who’s responsible for translating the coordinates taken from a map that the forward observer calls in and translating that into information that the gunners can then use in setting the correct charge via direction elevation of the guns to get the mortar shells out to their targets. In the fire direction center squad, there were two Mexican-Americans, myself and Fred Gonzalez who, coincidentally, came from Texas, Dallas. And there was a call for replacements of line infantry. We were mostly – we were out in the combat zone but usually about 4,000 meters behind the actual line so you had the range of a four-deuce mortar is about 5,000 meters. So when there – there was a first call, the first person from our platoon that was sent out was Fred and left a hole in the fire direction center was filled by, oh, a guy – there were no blacks in the fire direction center even though we had several in the platoon.
CAVANAUGH: So you think that perhaps the reason that the people were called out first for these assignments was because your sergeant just simply didn’t really care for Mexican-American soldiers?
AGUILAR: Yeah, this particular sergeant, he was – he got there after Fred and I had been with the platoon. And he – So when Fred was wounded, I was sent out even though there were other members of the squad that, you see, had been there longer.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
AGUILAR: And were actually more experienced in that specialty.
AGUILAR: But I was sent out to replace Fred…
CAVANAUGH: And Fred, of course, was your friend from Texas.
AGUILAR: Right. Fred had…
CAVANAUGH: A Mexican-American.
AGUILAR: Fred was assigned to the First Charlie Company, the 1st 503rd, first battalion of the 503rd regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. And he was a forward observer for the four-deuce. He was wounded in the major battle that we were engaged in in October of ’67, November, and so I was sent out to replace him as the FO…
CAVANAUGH: Even though you were not one of the most experienced in your platoon.
AGUILAR: There were others, several others, who were more senior who’d been there longer in the FTC who actually could have gone out. It was a mixed blessing actually because even though it was more dangerous because you’re out in line – not only in a line company but because you’re close to the radio and, at that time, the radio consisted of a contraption of about 10 inches by about 12 inches and about 3 inches thick…
CAVANAUGH: Let me – I’m sorry, Nick…
AGUILAR: …and with an antenna.
CAVANAUGH: Let me interrupt you on that score because I know that you have an observation. I know that many Latino, Mexican-American men who fought this war had an observation that comes up again and again in your documentary, Laura. And that is, when they finally get over to Vietnam, they saw how the Vietnamese people lived and how they worked the land and they saw something of their own backgrounds, of their own family, in that. Tell us a little bit more about that, Laura, and then I’ll ask you, Nick, whether that was your experience as well. Laura?
VARELA: Well, from what I’ve been told, yes, many – Many Mexican-Americans in Texas were farmworkers, and I think the experience is the same perhaps in – here in California, I’m pretty sure. And families work together and, you know, work the land together. And a very close knit tight family structure and they did, they saw that and they saw these people that were the same color and I think it was – I think it was very difficult for some of them because also, you know, the Mexican-American tradition, knowing your history with the Mexican Revolution, give me land or liber – my land and my liberty. And they – some of them recognized that that’s what the Vietnamese were fighting for, too.
CAVANAUGH: Did you make that connection at all, Nick, when you were there? Did you see the way the Vietnamese were living close to the land and make a connection between perhaps your – the people in your family?
AGUILAR: Well, the unit that I was with, we were rarely outside of the free fire zone.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.
AGUILAR: And – But it was not unusual for us to, when we were on patrol, to go through a village. And it’s an agrarian culture when you get outside of the cities and I think that’s the connection that I made because my family tradition is farmer, peasant farmer. My – I came from a village in Mexico, Jalisco, it’s about 75 kilometers southwest of Guadalajara and it’s subsistence farming and…
CAVANAUGH: As you saw it in Vietnam.
AGUILAR: Right, and so the villages, when we went through villages, it was not unlike the village that I was born where there was no electricity. In fact, it was not accessible by – it was only accessible until about 25 years ago by walking or by horseback or non-vehicular means.
CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Tina is calling from Rancho Penasquitos. Good morning, Tina, and welcome to These Days.
TINA (Caller, Rancho Penasquitos): Oh, good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Good morning.
TINA: Thank you. I just have a comment to make that when I visited Sacramento, the state capital, approximately 15 years ago, on the state grounds there is a war memorial to the veterans of the Vietnam war, the war dead, and I noticed at the time that there was a disproportionately large number of Spanish surnames as commemorating the war dead…
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank…
TINA: …from the Vietnam war.
CAVANAUGH: Tina, thank you for sharing that observation with us. We’re talking about the new documentary, "As Long as I Remember: American Veteranos." And, Laura, I wanted to talk just a little bit about how – why you chose people, veterans who had become artists. How does their art help them to deal with the past and get over some of the wounds that they’re still dealing with?
VARELA: Well, most of them use art. Also, Michael Rodriguez, for example, he does – he’s very active with the veterans’ community and the VA and those kinds of things. But in terms of his art, he writes about it and it allows him to go to that place, to, I guess, the way maybe he puts it, purge the demons or honor the – honor those men that he feels were heroes. But he says, really, you know, of course you’re still scared but they still did their job fearlessly. You know, he talks about Doc Gallagher, their medic, like a corpsman on the, you know, and he talks about how every day he would go and run to a wounded Marine until the day he was killed. And so through his writing, it allows him to honor them, go to that place yet come back out safely.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you told us that one of the reasons that you wanted to make this documentary was because you don’t see a lot of Mexican-Americans portrayed in movies about Vietnam or even in a lot of documentaries about Vietnam, so that’s one reason. But there’s another reason, too, because we don’t see those images. What does that have to do, do you think, with what’s going on in Arizona and what’s going on in this idea of working towards a sort of, some people would say, an overreaction to illegal immigration? What is – does this documentary say to that?
VARELA: Well, for me, it reminds people that Mexican-Americans have been part of the United – the history of the United States since the very first Revolutionary War. You know, General Galvez. Galveston is named after him. We have participated in every war in the United States. And we don’t want people to think we’re recent – that everybody’s a recent immigrant. You know, some people, the way I say it, like from my father’s family, for example, we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. You know, we’re from, you know, El Paso and southern New Mexico. And I just want to remind people that we are part of the American fabric. We have always been here. Mexican-Americans also are – have indigenous blood. We are indigenous people. And indigenous people have always migrated in the Americas, always. So I just like to remind people that we are part of American history and please don’t forget that ever.
CAVANAUGH: Laura Varela, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I appreciate it.
VARELA: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Nick Aguilar, thank you so much, and good luck with that surgery.
AGUILAR: Yeah, thank you. If we have time, I just wanted to add something that – because it isn’t just those Mexican-Americans who have generations – go back generations to what is now the U.S. but it’s also immigrants like myself. I say to people that I chose to become a U.S. citizen. It wasn’t accidental. And that there is a great respect and commitment and a sense of responsibility to the principles that this country stands for because we’ve come from experiences in our home countries where you don’t have the kind of privileges and freedoms, particularly the freedoms. Even though we’re targets of discrimination, it’s – you have many more protections as an individual to express yourself, and so it’s a – for me, at least, part of what went into my deciding to join the army was that sense of contributing and maintaining the principles that make America the unique country that it is. It protects the individuals first and the rich and the privileged are not always dominant.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for that, Nick. And I’d also like everyone to know that a preview screening of the PBS documentary, "As Long as I Remember: American Veteranos," will take place today at the Malcolm X Library at 1:00 p.m., tomorrow at the Logan Heights Library at 6:00 p.m., and it airs on KPBS-TV on September 6th at 11:00 p.m. For more information, you can go to our website and that is at KPBS.org. Coming up, is summer finally arriving in San Diego? That’s as These Days, continues here on KPBS.