PastForward Preview: John Valadez, Award-Winning Documentary Director

By Forum Online posted 11-04-2016 11:55


John Valadez is a Peabody Award–winning filmmaker who has written and directed a dozen nationally broadcast documentary films for PBS over the past 18 years. Valadez’s films have tackled such diverse subjects as the unlawful imprisonment of a Black Panther Party leader; Latino gangs in Chicago; segregation in America’s schools; the history and impact of Latino civil rights on American society; and the genocide of Native Americans in the Southwest. They have garnered top prizes at film festivals from San Francisco to Mumbai; have been broadcast across the United States and Europe; and have been featured at major museums and cultural institutions—places like The Museum of Modern Art and the Lincoln Center in New York City or the National Gallery of Art and the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. We asked him a few questions in preparation for his upcoming preservationVOICES TrustLive presentation at PastForward 2016. Haven’t registered yet? Online registration ends November 11.


A lot of your work involves telling untold stories from American history. What have you learned about investigating this information and presenting it to audiences that may not be familiar with it?

When we think about the story of America, we almost never think about Latinos as participants in our national saga. We tend to believe that it was other people—not Latinos—who explored the continent, who forged and charted its great rivers, who mapped its mountains and deserts, who settled its lush valleys and endless plains. We imagine it was other people who fought our great wars; built our factories; marched, legislated, and died for civil rights; ended child labor; wrote our songs; and did the hard work of building community and democracy.

When I was going to school, I never learned about a single Latino in American history.  I think things are beginning to change, but back then I started to believe that Mexican Americans were a bunch of losers. The evidence seemed so clear. I—and most of the kids I went to school with—came away with the impression that Latinos were interlopers, carpetbaggers, hanging out on street corners watching history pass them by, waiting to sneak in the back door and take advantage of the benefits of democracy without ever having contributed to American progress and prosperity or the enduring greatness of the American soul. Latinos were scammers—suspect at best, criminals at worst. Latinos were, for the most part, American in name only.

Of course this impression is totally wrong. Latinos have contributed mightily and do so every day: on the battlefield and in our schools, in the arts and in the world of business. Every day, in a million quiet ways, we are building and creating loving families and making the nation a better place—more free, more prosperous, truer to its highest ideals and most noble aspirations.

The problem is that Latino history is largely unacknowledged and undocumented, something of a shadow presence in a public memory that tends to see the American narrative in black and white. While we are more than 50 million in number—that’s one out of every six Americans—our erasure from the historical record means that there is a kind of border, a great wall that separates us from the mainstream. I am trying—in my own way, through television and documentary film—to build a few bridges that can traverse that wall or maybe play a role in tearing it down. Memory is a moral responsibility that helps determine who we are today.

Given the changing demographics that are now transforming the nation—if demographers are correct, we will be a majority minority country in just 34 years and a Latino nation by the close of the century—the stakes couldn’t be higher. After all, we are only talking about the future of democracy.       

In documentary films such as “The Longoria Affair” and “Matters of Race,” you evoke a particular time and place while also connecting with contemporary issues. What is it about that method of storytelling that resonates when telling the broader American story?

In a lot of my films, I like to try and tell two stories that are inter-cut to create a kind of parallel action. One story often unfolds in the present while the second story is a historical narrative. When it works you get two stories that mirror, inform, and give depth to each other. By collapsing the thin veil of time, we can get a very different perspective on reality. I think it makes for a more engaging and unexpected tale. It creates room for metaphor.

The Longoria Affair, for example, tells the story of Felix Longoria, a young Mexican American soldier who was killed fighting the Japanese during World War II. When his body was brought back for burial in 1948 to his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas, the only funeral parlor in the county refused to allow his family to hold a wake in their chapel because he was “Mexican.”

Mexican Americans not only in Three Rivers, but across Texas and throughout the country, were outraged when they found out what happened to a young American who had died in battle. Lyndon Johnson—then the junior senator from Texas—was livid and arranged for Felix’s body to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The refusal became front-page news not only in the United States but also across Europe and Latin America. Mexican American veterans quickly formed an organization called The American G.I. Forum, dedicated to fighting for Latino civil rights.  It was the first time, following World War II, that an incident of discrimination had sparked a national civil rights movement. Ultimately, this movement would help tip the balance of power and land John F. Kennedy in the White House. It would eventually play a role in pushing President Lyndon Johnson to sign the most important and far reaching civil rights legislation of the 20th century.

This Mexican American–led civil rights struggle was at the vanguard—seven years before the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott—of what would become a sustained national grassroots push for equality, inaugurating the era of civil rights in America and forever changing the nation. All of this was the historical part of The Longoria Affair.

The contemporary storyline followed a local Mexican American activist and musician seeking to put up a historical marker commemorating the incident, which has come to be known as the Longoria Affair. He gets the required permission from the Texas State Historical Commission, which reviews the proposal and creates a bronze plaque for the site. But trouble quickly ensues when many Anglo residents of the town insist that the incident never happened—that Mexican Americans were never discriminated against and that the whole idea of civil rights and prejudice in their town is a politically correct sham, a cynical power grab by Mexican Americans who want to invent a perception of historical injustice to make Anglos feel guilty and present a warped, self-righteous vision of the past.

By weaving between the past and the present, we are able to see how the river of time, culture, and place shapes us in unexpected and profoundly different ways. My belief is that sometimes you need to see a problem or a conflict from a different dimension in order to truly comprehend its contours. The film eventually aired nationally on the PBS series “Independent Lens” and was nominated for an Emmy Award.

What is one question you want PastForward attendees to consider prior to hearing your TrustLive presentation?

How can we use historic preservation to ensure that we are reaching across the great divides that have long fractured us to construct a more complete and nuanced portrait of the American soul?

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