It has been estimated that anywhere from 250,000 to as many as 750,000 Latinos and Latinas served in the armed forces during World War II. Difficulty in pinning down that number is due to the fact that under the race categorization on enlistment and discharge papers, Latinos were variously described as "White," "Mexican" and "NA."
Whether it was 250,000 or 750,000, the fact is that despite making strong contributions to the nation and to their communities, the general histories of the period have not included the experiences of this generation of Latinos, regardless of national background. Moreover, many of those veterans found themselves facing inequality and segregated cities upon returning home.
To put an end to this omission, the Voces Oral History Project was begun. The project, created in 1999 by UT journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez (who currently serves as its executive director) focuses in documenting interviews and creating better awareness of the contributions of U.S. Latinos and Latinas of the WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War generations.
Initially, the project focused solely on the WWII generation, but in 2010, the project expanded into the Korean War and the Vietnam War generations of Latinos and Latinas thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and other financial help. And the project- whose stories have inspired research, books, exhibits, conferences, and academic papers - keeps growing:
On June 7, the Voces Oral History Project celebrates it’s 1,000th interview with a reception at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.
"We are only able to do our work because of there are good men and women across the country who are committed to documenting the Latino experience in our country," said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, project director, back in 2010. "How many more treasures are there in garages and attics that help to tell the story of how U.S. Americans lived through war periods?,", she added.
All the stories can be viewed and browsed at the project website, classified by places of war and subject categories.
Bañuelos was born in Zacatecas, México, in 1946. At age 8, he moved with his family to Arizona, where his father found a job at a copper mine.
Bañuelos attended school in Tempe, Ariz., where he finished one year at Tempe High School and left in 1963 to work as a butcher. “I had to quit to help support the family,” said Bañuelos in the interview. Soon he was drafted into the Army.
Bañuelos served in Vietnam between 1968 and January 1969, when he got severely injured in a mortar attack near Saigon. His injuries included a collapsed lung.
He spent time in hospitals in Vietnam, Japan and Colorado, from Jan. 10, 1969 to April 17, 1969, and then went home. To his surprise he found out that his American citizenship was questioned:
“Here I went to Vietnam. I almost got killed over there. I came back home, and I’m asked for my papers because I’m Mexican,” said Bañuelos. “I served, came out, and I wasn’t a citizen anymore.”
Bañuelos explained that he was denied treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs several times because he was told that the hospitals had no record of his Army service. He also felt very frustrated because he had to deal with a lot of discrimination to get a job from the federal government.
Finally, he got a job at the Post Office. He still lives in Arizona. And despite the fact that he was at one point turned away by the country he considered home, Bañuelos remains proud of his service in Vietnam:
“I had a chance to go back to Mexico. It wasn’t in my blood to run, like a lot of Americans did,” he said. “The only thing that I have ever hoped was for people to look at you for what you are, not the way you look, not to be so fast to judge without knowing where they’ve been or what they’ve done,” he said.