Thursday, January 15, 2009

Latinos Protest Ken Burns' Inauguration Event

Got this in my email today:
Defend the Honor
January 14, 2009

To: Esther Foer Judith S. Goldstein
Executive Director Executive Director
Sixth & I Historic Synagogue Humanity in Action
600 I Street, N.W 1088 Park Avenue
Washington D.C. 20001 New York, NY 10128
1-202-266-3231 1-212-828-6874
Fax: 202/408-5124 FAX212.410.4969

And to Defenders of the Honor

On first hearing about plans to ask the poster boy of Latino and Latina public documentary film exclusion to share his "VISIONS OF RACE IN AMERICA," as part of the festivities surrounding President Elect-Barack Obama's historic inauguration on January 20, 2009, some thought it was simply a joke in poor taste. After all, there was a well-publicized national outcry in 2007 when Ken Burns left Latinos out of his 14.5-hour documentary about World War II.

But on further investigation (See: , it appears to be a fact: Humanity in Action and the Washington D.C. Sixth and I Historic Synagogue have asked Ken Burns to speak about a topic on which he is an anti-authority. Ken Burns has demonstrated repeatedly a peculiar blindspot to Latinos, so his "Vision of Race" is not only incomplete, it is wildly inaccurate and a slap in the face to Latinos.

Hard to believe it escaped anyone who keeps up with the news that in 2007, Burns united Latinos and non-Latino supporters to decry the absence of Latinos in his WWII documentary. We knew that an estimated 500,000 Latino and Latina patriots fought, while other Latinos and Latinas supported the war effort on the homefront - and those contributions are too often left out of books, movies, etc. about WWII. But the issue was larger, than World War II -- it focused attention on the historic omission of Latino contributions to our nation. So when the Ken Burn documentary was set, Latinos reacted loudly and proudly: The voices of our community against Ken Burns and PBS were strong and included over thirty national Latino organizations, and thousands of individuals and elected officials from the country. In the end, Burns did add on two short Hispanic and one Native American film bits-- at the end of three episodes, after the screen went to black and the theme began. Many felt his addition was passive-aggressive; it was not the "seamless addition" he had promised in an April 2007 meeting in Washington with Latinos, including elected officials and representatives of major Latino organizations, as well as Defend the Honor. We came to know that Burns is a serial eraser of Latinos -- he did the same in previous documentaries on baseball and on Jazz.

That he would be chosen to discuss race in America is painful. Latinos made a difference in Obama winning the 2008 election and we are celebrating his inauguration enthusiastically. But news that Burns has been chosen as a major speaker on the topic of race in America is a bleak reminder that Latinos are not considered, by some, an important part of our own country.

The question we have for the event sponsors, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and Humanity in Action is simple: why was Ken Burns, of all people, chosen to speak on this topic at this event when there are many others who are knowledgeable and considered experts on the issues of "race" in America and the world?

Humanity in Action's mission statement reads, in part: "Humanity in Action believes that an important test of a genuine democracy is how it treats its racial, ethnic, and religious minorities..." Does that not include Latinos in our country? Inviting Ken Burns to speak about race raises doubts about Humanity in Action's respect for the Latino community.

We are deeply disappointed by the Washington D.C. Sixth and I Synagogue's involvement in co-sponsoring the "VISIONS OF RACE IN AMERICA" presentation. We express our concerns over what appears to be a lack of sensitivity on the part of the well-respected Historic Synagogue, representing a community that has been active in establishing a Latino-Jewish Dialogue. This inter-ethnic community effort has been advanced over the last seven years by the American Jewish and the Latino communities. In fact, the results of a "landmark survey" in Latino-Jewish Relations released in 2001 by The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding under the leadership of Rabbi Marc Schneier states the findings "provide a roadmap for Latinos and Jews to address of mutual cooperation and concern." The Ken Burns/Latino issue is important and must be addressed by all Latino-Jewish Dialogue groups in the country.
The San Diego Latino-Jewish Coalition is building relationships among and between our communities and was one of the first to expressed concern and dismay over Ken Burns exclusion of Latinos and Latinas in his PBS The War documentary.

Those of us involved in the Defend The Honor campaign and many others involved in building community relations between ethnic groups call on the Humanity in Action and Sixth and I Synagogue to reconsidered their invitation of Ken Burns to speak on "VISIONS OF RACE IN AMERICA." If Burns is provided a forum to speak about a matter that we consider sacred, then there should representation by Latinos who may address the continuing omission of Latinos in our nation's historical narrative. We will be glad to provide a list of knowledgable speakers.

We request that the Executive Directors of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and the Humanity in Action organizations to reach out and invite representatives of Defend The Honor to meet and discuss our mutual concerns and interests. We also request all supporters of Defend The Honor to express their sentiments on this issue and their vision of race in America to the Executive Directors of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and Humanity in Action and to Defend the Honor. Please send us a copy of any correspondence. Constructive change requires constructive dialogue.

For additional information and perspective on Defend The Honor and the contributions of Latinos to the WWII effort, go to

Gus Chavez
Co-founder Defend The Honor & member of the San Diego Latino-Jewish Coalition