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Latinos’ Vietnam Service Explored in New Documentary

'On Two Fronts' shows their impact and the price they paid were huge

Filmmaker Mylène Moreno was only 8-years-old in 1973 when scores of American POWs returned to the U.S.A. from years of captivity in North Vietnam at the end of that long and difficult war.

She remembers watching TV that Valentine’s Day as more than 150 POWs were joyfully welcomed home. Moreno was struck by the power of the human drama and moved by the images of families being reunited, of brave men being welcomed back with fanfare as war heroes.

That moment, and those images, would ultimately prove to be catalysts for Moreno to create the thought-provoking documentary On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam, premiering on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 22, during Hispanic Heritage Month (check local listings).

The film is part of ongoing PBS special programming marking the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. On Two Fronts also represents an important segment of PBS Stories of Service — compelling narratives of those who have served that are leading to a deeper understanding of our nation’s military history.

Idea for Film Rooted in Family Experience

“I had family members who’d served in Vietnam,” says Moreno, who produced the first episode of the landmark PBS series, ¡CHICANO! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. “One of my uncles had a really hard time adjusting to life back home. In fact, he never really came home from Vietnam.”

(The filmmaker) is able to take a critical look at a war that placed its heaviest burden on working-class youth.

“So that got me to thinking about the impact of that war on an entire community, on my own Latino community,” Moreno says. “About its costs and consequences . . . and it prompted me to ask some difficult questions about the price of war and citizenship . . . That was a story I felt that I needed to tell.”

And tell it Moreno does. Superbly. Her telling conveys the rich heritage of military service – a deeply rooted part of Latino cultural identity in America – and keenly observes the contributions made by Latino veterans and their families during the Vietnam era. Plus, with the benefit of hindsight and expert historians, she’s able to take a critical look at a war that placed its heaviest burden on working-class youth.

Key Storylines Of Service And Loss

This is reflected vividly, and painfully, in the tale of the “Morenci Nine,” schoolmates from a small Arizona mining town who joined the Marines as a unit in 1966. Motivated partly by patriotism but also by a lack of economic opportunity, the group of high school friends included three Latinos and one Indian.

Tragically, only three of the Morenci Nine survived the danger that lurked in the jungles of Vietnam.

The film’s other key storyline centers on Latino Navy pilot Everett Alvarez, Jr., whose plane was shot down during the Gulf of Tonkin events of August 1964. Alvarez was a POW and an American patriot (he was one of the POWs who Moreno watched return home in February 1973), yet his mother and sister had serious doubts about the war.

“Here at home the Latino anti-Vietnam war movement was gaining momentum alongside protest rallies for Chicano civil rights,” Moreno told me. “This was such a radical departure from past wars, when Latino civil rights activists used high rates of military participation to prove their worth as good citizens. This time, activists pointed to similarly high rates of participation and mortality and argued that Latinos were being exploited.”

That led to Latinos like Everett Alvarez’s mother and sister to join antiwar events to address both the war and conditions at home.

Firsthand Accounts Of History

Filmed in the U. S. Southwest and in Vietnam, On Two Fronts includes firsthand accounts from dozens of Latino veterans and their families and commentary from historians, social activists and other experts. To evoke the dramatic events unfolding at home and overseas, the documentary combines lush photography with home movies, archival footage, graphic newsreels and personal photographs.

For many, the price of military service was too high. Latino veterans still suffer post-traumatic stress disorder in higher percentages than black and white American veterans. Many of the Latinos who went to war returned ill prepared for college and to the same limited career options they had before leaving home. If one reason Latinos fought for their country was to trade service for career benefits, then Vietnam’s legacy did not always fulfill that promise.

But decide that for yourself by tuning in to this film.

And prepare to be deeply moved.

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