Charley Trujillo's 'Soldados' recounts the disappointments and abuse of minority soldiers
Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam begins not in the rice paddies of southeast Asia, but in the cotton fields of central California. Charley Trujillo, looking directly at the camera, is telling a story about what happened after he returned from the war three-and-a-half decades ago.
"I was hanging out at my dad's house, and he told me to come out here and work in the fields because he didn't want bums hanging out at his house," he says. One day the border patrol came around and asked him what he was doing. "Well, I'm working. What do you think?" Trujillo responded, flippantly. "Oh yeah, where are your papers?" they asked him. "Papers?!" he exclaims in the film, reaching for his right eye. "Here are your papers, you hijos de la chingada!" he says, holding out his glass eye, a war-inflicted wound which earned him both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
Trujillo's characteristic sense of humor disarms while making a point. "When you come back you're just another Mexican," he said in an interview with the Current, recognizing the contradiction faced by black and Chicano veterans of any U.S. war who fought because they believed they were upholding the ideals of equality and freedom overseas, only to find conditions unchanged for them upon their return.
Like several of his peers, Trujillo volunteered for the draft in the belief that he was fighting for a good cause. "I'm a man of conviction. Here's what I thought at the time. Then I learned better," he says.
Soldados features Trujillo's story alongside those of four other GIs who left the small farming community of Concoran, California, to fight in Southeast Asia. The documentary, part of PBS' award-winning POV series, shows this group of men at their most honest and vulnerable. The vets speak candidly about the realities of war and its aftermath. They talk about killing the Vietnamese, in a manner which is neither glorified nor glossed-over, and about their bouts with depression, alcoholism, and post-traumatic stress disorder upon their return.
That they speak so openly is a testament to the abilities of Trujillo and Sonya Rhee, the project's co-director and co-producer. (The film is based on Trujillo's book of the same name, a collection of 19 stories from Chicano Vietnam vets.) One of Soldados many strengths comes from the different perspectives the filmmakers brought to the project. Rhee, a cultural outsider born a generation apart from the men featured in the program, asked questions and pressed for explanations for things which the men might have otherwise assumed to be common knowledge. As a woman, she was able to raise more gender-sensitive issues with the mothers in the documentary.
Trujillo, in contrast, speaks from experience. Like the other four men profiled in Soldados, Trujillo shares aspects of his personal story with other vets, regardless of the war they fought or the communities from which they came. Unlike other movies and documentaries on Viet Nam, however, the half-hour long documentary shows what the war experience was like for Chicanos - a group which has fought for this country without recognition until recently. "We're a people removed from history," Trujillo explains. Chicanos "have never been shown" as part of the war effort. "The documentary shows us that `the Vietnam War` didn't do us any good," he says. "It goes beyond Chicanos. It goes for anybody that was there at the time."
"I'm advocating peace, not violence. I'm not advocating the overthrow of the state," he says.
Trujillo says that an understanding of the Vietnam War is relevant to current events. "I don't think that history repeats itself," but in terms of technological advances, changes in society and the political environment, we face different circumstances, he says. "At the same time, if the pretext is bullshit - once you start with that it's very difficult" to justify war. "The whole premise is false, fueled by stereotypes and racism."
"They lied. I can't follow nobody that lied to me."
PBS presents an encore screening of Soldados on August 31, along with The Sixth Section, a look at Mexican immigrants in upstate New York and how their philanthropy has improved the lives of their hometown of Boqueron, Oaxaca. •