BY 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, Miguel Gastelo, Frank Delgado, Jose Barrera and Trujillo 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 forebears.
This meant fighting for their country, as their fathers had done in World War II and the Korean War. The five boys from Corcoran (two of whom volunteered for duty) could hardly guess just how profoundly the insulated life they knew in Corcoran would be changed by their experiences 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 horrors of a war that tore two nations apart. All the Corcoran men were wounded — Trujillo lost his right eye — 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. The veterans and family members in “Soldados” describe the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that they share: fits of rage, insomnia, flashbacks, isolation and emotional numbness.
After more than 30 years, the veterans and their families now understand how they were changed by the war. “Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam” is moving testimony to an important but little-remarked chapter of America’s Vietnam experience.