Hey, Ken Burns, why shun Latinos?

by Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News

Ken Burns, the biggest name in documentary films for the past 30 years, headed for the Cannes Film Festival this week to present his latest mega-project "The War," a 14-hour film about World War II.

But this Burns production has already sparked a nasty miniwar right here at home.

Latino veterans groups and community leaders are furious that the film in its current form fails to even mention the 300,000 Hispanic Americans who fought in World War II.

The veterans groups and community leaders also note that after six years of preparing the film, Burns does not have a single interview with a Hispanic veteran among his roughly 40 profiles.

Worse, this is not the first time Burns has inexplicably erased or minimized Latino contributions to American society.

The same thing happened with "Baseball" and "Jazz," says Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin who runs an oral history project on World War II Hispanic veterans.

"Burns has done it again," Latin jazz musician and New School music professor Bobby Sanabria told me this week. Sanabria has criticized for years the distorted history of "Jazz," the 19-hour blockbuster film Burns produced in 2001.

"Burns doesn't even acknowledge we [Latinos] existed in Jazz," Sanabria said. "He's a serial eraser of Latinos."

"When you have 19 hours, you'd expect the definitive work," Sanabria said. "Latinos were there from the freakin' beginning of jazz in New Orleans, and he gave us less than three minutes."

From Louis Moreau Gottschalk in the 1850s to Perlops Nunez and Jimmy (Spriggs) Palau, who played with Buddy Bolden in the early ragtime bands, Mexicans and Cubans were major figures in New Orleans music in those early years. None were mentioned by Burns.

Then there is the legendary James Reese Europe, leader of Harlem Hell Fighters Army Band that electrified Europeans and Americans during and after World War I. Burns pays much attention to Europe's band, but never mentions that half the members were Puerto Rican and Cuban. They included Rafael Hernandez, the greatest composer and singer in Puerto Rican history.

Those Latinos created a pipeline of musicians that fed all the great jazz and Broadway bands of the 1920s and 1930s in New York City. But you find none of that in "Jazz," not Mongo Santamaria or Tito Puente or Chico O'Farrill or Machito or all the great Afro-Cuban musicians who so influenced American jazz.

But perhaps the greatest Burns revision of history occurred with his 1994 film "Baseball." In 18 hours of gripping drama, guess how much time Burns devoted to Latino ballplayers?

Six minutes: four to Roberto Clemente, and two to all the other Latinos.

As Milton Jamail, an expert on Latino baseball players, noted in a blistering criticism of the film back in 1994, Burns claimed Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were the two dominant pitchers of the 1960s. Juan Marichal, the Dominican Hall of Famer who was their main nemesis, did not rate a mention. Marichal had more 20-win seasons and a lower earned run average than Gibson and 86 more career victories than Koufax.

Burns simply erased him.

Same for Luis Aparicio, the great Venezuelan shortstop, and Fernando Valenzuela, the Mexican wonder.

But this time around, even the mighty Ken Burns could not ignore the outcry from Latino politicians, national organizations and veterans groups who bombarded PBS with letters and phone calls.

"Ken has made an effort to respond to the criticism of this film," said Joe DePlasco, spokesman for "The War." "He's met with several groups."

DePlasco rejected any suggestions yesterday that previous films by Burns overlooked Hispanics.

Then yesterday, before leaving for the Cannes festival, Burns and PBS announced they would include new interviews of some Hispanic veterans in the September PBS broadcast.

The stories will be added "without altering and changing the film that already exists," said Dayton Duncan, a member of the Burns production company.

Asked exactly how they could change a film without changing it, Duncan said they're still working on that.

Given Burns' record thus far, Latino leaders shouldn't put their guns down yet.

article originally published at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/col/gonzalez/index.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey