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A ‘PLATOON’ WITHOUT LATINOS : Mexican-Americans Are Being Denied Their Place in History

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“Platoon is the first real movie about Vietnam,” or so the advertisements for Oliver Stone’s critically acclaimed film pronounce. Yet for Mexican-Americans and other Latinos who served in that war and died for their country, it certainly isn’t an accurate portrayal or even general record of why we went over there or how we served alongside of our fellow black and poor-white buddies.

The media rarely has depicted our contribution to American honor for better or worse and Stone’s film is no exception. As far as I’m concerned, screenwriter Stone never has written Latino characters in an accurate manner. I still cringe at his depiction of Cubans in “Scarface” and Salvadorans in “Salvador,” not to mention his insolent ability to twist and condense history in “Salvador” in order that his leading character could be an eyewitness.

How much sensitivity do you expect from the screenwriter of “The Hand” and “Conan the Barbarian”? Wasn’t it Stone’s screenplay of “Year of the Dragon” that maligned Asian-Americans to the point that MGM-UA was forced to put a disclaimer in the film to soothe that community? And wasn’t the Cuban-American community in Miami just as outraged by his greasy drug kingpin Cuban played by Al Pacino in “Scarface”?

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Oh, I’m well aware of the fact that there are several minor Latino characters in “Platoon,” including a grunt named Rodriguez who is shown lighting candles before a makeshift altar of Jesus while the other men smoke dope and party in the face of impending doom. Is Stone saying Latinos are innocents? Or is it that he’s unable to write real flesh-and-blood Latino characters so he clouds their presence with a hocus-pocus smoke screen?

In all fairness to Stone, I can’t be. For in making a film as important as “Platoon,” he has denied Latinos our place in American history. For thousands of people, “Platoon” will be their only look at what Vietnam was “really like.” And for some, the lack of Latinos in the film might be read that we didn’t serve in the military.

What a shame. For according to Rodolfo Acuna, professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, in his book “Occupied America,” more Mexican-American soldiers received Medals of Honor in World War I than any other ethnic group; during World War II, one of the most decorated units was the all-Chicano outfit Company E, and during the Korean War not one turncoat was a Mexican-American.

World War II’s most decorated hero was Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy, who later became the star of his own film bio, “To Hell and Back.” But what about all the Mexican-American Medal of Honor recipients whose lives never made it to the silver screen--Jose Lopez, Lucian Adams, Cleto Rodriguez, Roy Benavidez, etc.

It was a Mexican-American, Lt. (j.g.) Everett Alvarez Jr. from Lafayette, Calif., who was the first U.S. pilot captured in Vietnam. And while Mexican-Americans made up only about 10% of the population of the Southwest at that time, we made up a staggering 19.4% of casualties from the Southwest in that war, this from figures cited by UC Santa Cruz political scientist Ralph Guzman.

Of course, blacks also suffered disproportionately high casualty rates. In 1965, 23.5% of all Army enlisted men killed in action were blacks, who composed 10% of U.S. armed forces in Southeast Asia.

And while “Platoon” rightly points out that America’s poor and minorities were the vital jugular in fighting the Vietnam war, no Latinos or blacks are featured in any of the leading roles.

Wallace Terry, who covered Vietnam for Time magazine and wrote “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans,” recently called “Platoon” “an abysmal racist disaster. Blacks are portrayed as malingerers, afraid of combat, drug abusers and eager to get out of the fighting. It goes against what I know of the black experience in Vietnam.”

The Vietnam monument in Washington depicts three soldiers: one white, one black and one Latin. Obviously, Stone is aware of this. But he’d probably say, “I was showing my reality--not other people’s.” If that’s the case (and if it is, then it smacks of a cop-out), then “Platoon” is a half-truth and doesn’t let Latinos and other minorities identify or share in the necessary catharsis that the film could offer all Americans.

For us, the nightmare goes on. And as Haskell Wexler’s “Latino” tried to point out, the next Vietnam might have U.S. Latinos fighting against people in Central America who not only speak our language but even look like us and eat the same food we do. Can you imagine what those soldiers will be like if they return? Why can we be heroes in real life but can’t be depicted as heroes on the screen?

I, for one, am not optimistic. As for “Platoon,” I just keep repeating: “It’s only a Hollywood movie.”


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