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Documentaries as Sacred Fire: John Valadez Shares Stories at UMKC

Emmy-nominated director John Valadez screend his documentary “Prejudice and Pride” in the Miller Nichols Library Thursday night.

“For me, growing up as a Latino-American, I went through my entire educational career, never hearing about a Latino in American history,” Valadez said. “Never! So growing up, we came away believing that Latinos were not part of the American story. That other people had done the hard work of building democracy in this country but Latinos weren’t a part of it. That other people had created the great American narrative, but we weren’t a part of that; that other people were participants in this country. We grew up believing that. And I think what that does, psychologically, is that it says, Latinos are really not Americans because we didn’t participate.”

Valadez’s storytelling is not just regulated to what he can produce on screen. His presence kept not only Thursday night’s audience’s attention, but also the students of Wednesday’s film theory class.

Valadez’s primary focus is to emphasize the character, which he did in the documentaries shown. The documentaries were a balance between the personal and the big picture.

“Latin Music USA,” which the class watched on the anniversary of the Day the Music Died, featured interviews from friends and family of Ritchie Valens—whose number one hit “La Bamba” is still popular today—but also showed how the movement of his era’s music was influenced by WWII and the Civil Rights Movement.


“Mexican-Americans were seeing what African-Americans were doing and were influenced by that and picked up some of their vibes,” Valadez said.

WWII was the major turning point for Latinos in America, according to Valadez. They fought in the war alongside all other ethnicities, and they wanted get the same respect when they came home.

Valadez’s documentary “War and Peace” told of soldiers returning from war, some even honored by the president, only to be refused service at white-only restaurants or to be arrested for sitting in the middle of a theatre. Being treated the same as other soldiers in the war made them realize that they could demand better in the civilian world. This then made other Latino-Americans fight for equal rights as well.

Despite the popularity of World War II in classrooms, heroes from nonwhite ethnicities aren’t taught in most schools, Valadez said.

One of the stories in the film almost wasn’t told because his producer didn’t believe it actually happened. Valadez had to sneak around to film it because his producer wouldn’t agree to such a far-fetched tale that Valadez had heard from an “older Mexican-American dude.” Valadez had felt that it was important and “filed it in his brain.”
The story turned out to be about Guy Gabaldon, a Mexican-American Marine who killed about 30 soldiers and convinced over 1,500 Japanese enemy civilians and troops to surrender—single-handedly.

These are the kinds of stories that become lost if not told by people like Valadez. Gabaldon, the short Latino-American hero of WWII, was honored by Hollywood who told his story—except that they cast the 6-foot tall, white actor Jeffrey Hunter to portray him. Showing historical figures of different ethnicities is vital to creating unity among us all, so people won’t assume that the Latinos came in at the end and tried to take the credit, Valadez argued.

When Valadez was younger, he decided to teach darkroom photography in India. It was the small town’s first encounter with an American.

His students told him that their town wanted to meet him and he agreed to go to their home. The whole village turned out and brought their beds out around a bonfire and invited Valadez and his students to sit.

“They started speaking in Hindi and I didn’t know what they said,” Valadez said. “My students start translating for me and they told me stories about the gods and goddesses. I didn’t know what’s going on. Every story is a parable about a life well-lived and a life squandered. And this is how they wanted to communicate with me. I was fascinated. It was extraordinary.”

The storytelling bonfire lasted until 3 a.m. Walking back to the school, the young Valadez compared the experience to stories and the United States.

“What happened to our ability to gather around the sacred fire? What happened to our sense of community? We seem to have lost that. But then I thought, we gather around a burning wall,” he said, gesturing to the movie screen. “And the burning wall is cinema. We gather around a burning box and that box is television. And it through these fires that we tell the stories of our people. It is thought these fires that we tell of lives well lived and lives squandered. And I thought, wow! That’s what I should do. I will be one of those keepers of the fire.”

However, finding fuel for the fire has been difficult as it has been hard for him to find funding for his films. PBS has hired him to create all three documentaries shown to UMKCs students and staff, but only a fraction of their entire collection of films and programs feature the stories of non-white people and cultures.

Thanks to the librarians on campus, the American Library Association, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a few more students on campus have ben able to gather at the fire. The series, Latino Americans: 500 Years of History is hosting one more event on April 21 for those who want to see what the fire is about.

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