At least twice a week---sometimes more---the same four melancholic and distinctive musical notes drift across the myriad headstones and markers at Pueblo’s Imperial Gardens Cemetery, said funeral director Rick Barnett. It is the sound of Taps, the nation’s four-note dirge for fallen soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen. It has been a staple at military funerals since the Civil War.
For those Latinos who served in World War II, the sad melody of Taps grows quieter by the day. Most of the estimated 750,000 who served are now gone. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that WWII veterans are dying at a rate of a thousand each day.
For most of these men and women, their stories have gone with them. Their bravery---in Europe, the Pacific, in Africa and on every front of the war, including in America---has been lost to history like so much dust on a sill. But the University of Texas Voces Oral History Project has rescued scores of stories of Latino bravery and sacrifice, including the story of the De Los Santos family. It’s a story that might never have been told had it not been for Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez.
“I was doing a session in Los Angeles with WWII veterans,” she remembered, “and one of the vets asked, ‘why do we not see ourselves in these movies?’” It was a good question; also one without a good answer.
The year was 1999, said the UT journalism professor and veteran reporter. Rivas-Rodriguez had earned her journalistic stripes working for the Dallas Morning News along with a number of other publications and television stations.
The question posed that day was as vexing as it was salient. No doubt, it was also not the first time it had been asked. But it probably had not been asked by those whose limited knowledge of the war---and of Latinos---was almost singularly shaped by the monochromatic image fostered by Hollywood. The seed for Voces was planted.
Today, the Voces Project is the repository of scores of Latino stories reflecting not only the blood and gore of the 20th Century’s most violent conflict but also its valor. While many of the stories are rife with first person accounts of an almost unimaginable suffering, the De Los Santos’ story---more than anything---reflects unvarnished American patriotism and sacrifice.
The De Los Santos were a Texas family of sixteen siblings being raised by a widowed mother. Prior to the war, Jessie joined the Army. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, one by one, brothers Ernie, Cano, Pete, Charlie, Ray, Nick and Al De Los Santos each stepped up. The brothers represented every branch of the military.
“We’d get letters from my brothers and they’d be dated a month ago,” said Lita De Los Santos, in one of the Voces oral histories. Keeping track of their movement was a challenge. She did her best with a map utilizing pins to identify the brothers last known locations. As she was tracking her brothers, her mother was religiously answering each one of their letters. “My mother was just writing letters every day. That was her job, writing letters to whomever, wherever they were.”
Correspondence from her sons flowed regularly until the summer of 1944 when, suddenly, letters from Charlie stopped, De Los Santos recalled. The Army told them that “Charlie was missing in action,” she said. On the home front, ‘missing in action,’ was almost always a precursor to ‘killed in action.’ It was in this case, as well.
“Three days later, we got the notice that Charlie was buried in Normandy Beach where he died,” said the soft-spoken De Los Santos. More than 9,300 Americans, casualties of the D-Day landing at Normandy Beach, are buried alongside De Los Santos.
Prior to her brother’s death, the family had proudly kept a banner in the window with eight stars---one for each brother---on display for passersby to see. “We replaced one star with a gold star,” she said. The gold star symbolized a family member, usually a son, killed in the war.
The Voces Project, said Rivas-Rodriguez, addresses an important contribution made by Latinos in service to the nation. Either consciously or unconsciously, said the University of Texas journalism professor, Latinos have been given serious short shrift in film and literature for the sacrifice they made to the nation in time of war.
While their stories are legion for bravery, gallantry and sacrifice, Latino heroism in war is largely unknown. But every American conflict from the American Revolution to Afghanistan has had its share of Latino heroes. Latinos have been awarded 60 Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
Private Joe Martinez is one. Martinez was the first Latino Medal of Honor recipient of WWII and is memorialized with a statue across from the Colorado State Capital. He was born in Taos, New Mexico, and raised in Ault, Colorado.
But sacrifice is not the exclusive domain of Latino men. As early as the Spanish-American War, Latinas have done their part. “Women worked in ship building and for defense contractors,” said Rivas-Rodriguez. It also goes without saying that Latinas have worn their country’s uniform in every branch of the military and for most of the nation’s conflicts.
Today, more than 1.2 million men and women serve in the most diverse military in the nation’s history. The Army is the largest branch, followed by the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Latinos make up approximately 12 percent of the total force.
For more information on the UT Voces Project, Rivas-Rodriguez invites you to visit its website at www.voces.lib.utexas.edu. To see the oral history narrative of the De Los Santos brothers, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2EDHqKJZe4.
Latino contributions to America’s effort in war, said Rivas-Rodriguez, may once have been an afterthought. But no longer. “The one thing I can tell you,” she said, “is that we’re doing something about it now. We’re creating the kind of material that will make it into movies.”