August 29, 2003

P.O.V. Double Bill of ‘Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam’ and ‘The Sixth Section’ Looks to the Past and the Future, Revealing the Complexity of Shared Mexican-U.S. Experience

The relationship between Americans, North and South, has always been a family affair – intimate, contentious, intertwined. This relationship is particularly tangled between North Americans and Mexicans, who have contested and shared a common border and landscape, as well as hemispheric interdependence, for nearly 200 years. Two new films having their broadcast premieres in a special double bill on public television’s P.O.V. series this season, reveal just how deep the family ties go.

Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam recounts the experience of a generation of Chicano boys, whose first journey outside their rural California hometowns was to the war-ripped rice paddies of Viet Nam. The Sixth Section discovers a surprising story of the global workplace: low-paid Mexican migrants in upstate New York pooling their “dollar power” to bring dramatic changes to their impoverished hometown.

Charley Trujillo and Sonya Rhee’s Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam and Alex Rivera’s The Sixth Section air Tuesday, September 2, 10 p.m., on PBS. Both of these films are part of P.O.V.’s new initiative the Diverse Voices Project, which is made possible through major funding by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The DVP films were granted production and completion funds and selected from over 180 submissions to bring emerging and diverse voices to American television.

Charley Trujillo holding a grenade launcher in Viet Nam in 1970. Courtesy of Charley Trujillo

Charley Trujillo, who wrote the 1991 American Book Award winner on which the film Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam is based, is our guide to the war and post-war experiences of five Chicano soldados from Corcoran, California. Corcoran sits in the lush San Joaquin Valley amid rich cotton fields and had long been a destination for Mexican migrants seeking work. For Larry Holguin, Mike Gastelo, Frank Delgado, Jose Barrera and Charley himself this wasn’t ancient history. They all grew up working in the fields alongside their parents and siblings, and shared a life and values not much different from that of their migrant forebears.

Among those values was a determination to prove that they were indeed now Americans, although some of their families had been living in the Southwest since the land was part of Mexico and other families came to the United States almost 100 years ago. For the five boys from Corcoran this meant fighting for their country, as Charley’s father and uncles had done in World War II and the Korean War. The five boys from Corcoran did not avoiding the draft and instead enlisteding and volunteering for infantry duty. They could hardly guess just how profoundly the insulated life they knew in Corcoran would be changed by their experience in Southeast Asia.

Soldados shows that in a war that both exposed and exacerbated America’s racial conflicts, Chicanos in the ranks found themselves uniquely caught in the middle – between whites and blacks, whose clashes dominated the era, and between U.S. society’s contradictory views of them as loyal citizens and as alien migrants. At the same time, they experienced all the common, extraordinary horrors of a war that tore two nations apart. All the Corcoran men were wounded and most were decorated for valor. One, Jose Barrera, died in battle – a story related movingly by his mother.

Those who returned, came back with a profound awareness of America’s unresolved racial divisions, as well as with unresolved feelings about their own participation in a war many regarded as itself an expression of American racism. Soldados is a moving testimony to an important but little-remarked chapter of America’s Viet Nam experience.

Alex Rivera’s The Sixth Section tells a contemporary story that reveals a new perspective on Mexican migrant labor life by profiling the activities of one of hundreds of “hometown associations” that now tie impoverished Mexican towns to American towns where many workers have gone to earn a living. The Rivera’s film follows one such association, Grupo Unión, as they find ways to revitalize their hometown of Boqueron, Mexico by pooling wages earned in New-burgh, New York. both the disparities – and proximities – of wealth and poverty in the Americas. But The Sixth Section also recounts a remarkable instance of the self-sacrifice and organizing abilities of common laborers turning both disparity and proximity to their advantage.

Mexican workers in upstate New York, all from Boqueron in Puebla, have formed a union to aid their impoverished hometown.

(Left to right) Manuel Garcia, Juan Herrera and Efigenio Leon stand near an ambulance which they purchased in Newburgh, New York and brought to their town in Southern Mexico. Credit: Rodolfo Valtierra

They call themselves the “sixth section” because Boqueron itself is divided into five sections. These men work long, hard hours in construction, at restaurants, driving taxis and other primarily low-paying jobs most Americans would consider both menial and low-paid. Yet the men from Boqueron meet once a week in a crude shed squeezed into a backyard and carefully count out the $10, $20 or $30 each hands over to the Grupo Unión treasurer. It usually adds up to about $200 or $300, which is carefully deposited in a Newburgh bank to fund projects for Boqueron. They supplement the fund by holding raffles and selling sodas in the parks.

What may be most surprising for North Americans is just how much Boqueron’s “sixth section” has managed to accomplish. They brought electricity to the town in time for the 21st century – something evidently neither the Mexican government nor international aid programs could accomplished. They built a cafeteria for the kindergarten and bought an ambulance in Newburgh, driving it 3,000 miles (4,000 miles?) to Boqueron. And in an astounding boost for the town’s morale, the men from Boqueron built a 2,000-seat baseball stadium to house the town’s most ardent recreation.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Mexicans in the United States send $10.5 billion to Mexico every year. And more hopeful aspects, as related by The Sixth Section, Boqueron’s Grupo Unión is not an isolated instance. It is one of hundreds, possibly thousands of “hometown associations” involving not only Mexicans, but workers from the Philippines, China, Italy, and from all over the world. The self-directed social action of these groups is one of globalization’s unanticipated effects.

To capture the complex dynamics of the story, Rivera deploys a unique filmmaking style, using digital imaging technology to seamlessly blend together the worlds of upstate New York and southern Mexico. The Sixth Section represents an ambitious attempt to use video to tell a transnational story.

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