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Marching to a Latin beat in 'Concert for the Troops'

June 05, 2009|Reed Johnson

During several of America's 20th century wars, the sight of Bob Hope rallying U.S. troops became practically as familiar a symbol of the military as Old Glory flapping in the breeze. Today, U.S. men and women of a new generation serving under arms, many of them Latinos, are being regaled by performers named Frankie J, Baby Bash and Paula DeAnda, some of whom are as likely to be singing and joking in Spanish as in English.

For the last few years, the growing presence of Latinos in the U.S. military has become a focus of Universal City-based mun2 (pronounced moon-dose), a lifestyle cable network targeted at bilingual Latinos ages 18 to 34. A mun2 news special, "For My Country: Latinos in the Military," which investigated the patriotic, as well as some of the harsh socio-economic, reasons why many young Latinos choose military service, won a Peabody Award in 2007.

This week, mun2 is continuing its examination of how Latinos are affecting U.S. military culture and vice versa by airing "Concert for the Troops," which airs at 6 p.m. today. The concert was staged live before an invited audience of U.S. Army troops, both Latinos and non-Latinos, a number of whom have done tours of combat duty, as well as some of their spouses and significant others.

Taped in April at the Conga Room in downtown Los Angeles, the concert's highlights are performances by the three aforementioned artists, who pumped up the flag-waving, high-spirited crowd with musical numbers and praise for the soldiers.

"Being the fact that I am Latino, I wanted to reach out to the Latino military personnel and be a supporter at the same time," said Frankie J, a.k.a. Francisco Javier Bautista, who was born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego, during an interview at the taping. "Coming from my Mexican roots, I feel that it's very important to show that love and appreciation toward our military people . . . who are of Latin descent."

Flavio Morales, vice president of programming for mun2, said the main idea behind the concert was simply to honor Latino soldiers and acknowledge their decades-long service. Mun2, part of the Telemundo Group, a division of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, reaches 29 million households.

"This is something that's handed down for generations," he said. "There's a long history of military service. Then you also have a lot of Latinos that are seeking a better life, and whether it's the GI Bill or whether it's immigration issues, gaining citizenship through military service -- that is also something that they seek."

Morales said his wife's cousin, Marine Lance Cpl. Victor A. Gonzalez, 19, of Watsonville, was killed in Iraq's Anbar province in October 2004. His parents, illegal immigrants from Zacatecas, Mexico, received U.S. citizenship after their son's death.

Assessing the relative participation of Latinos in the military depends partly on the index being used. A 2006 report on "Population Representation in the Military Services," issued by the Defense Department, determined that "with 11 percent of active duty enlisted members counted as Hispanic, this group remained underrepresented relative to the growing comparable civilian population (17 percent)."

However, a 2003 study by the Pew Hispanic Center noted that one reason Latinos may be proportionally underrepresented is because many young Latinos lack the necessary immigration status to enlist. Statistics compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Heritage Foundation indicate that Latino military enrollment has grown considerably since September 2001.

The way that popular culture depicts the role of Latinos in the military sometimes provokes controversy. In 2007, documentary maker Ken Burns was criticized by Latino advocates for initially not including narratives of Latino soldiers in his seven-part documentary about World War II, "The War." Burns subsequently agreed to incorporate narratives of Latinos and Native Americans.

"Who's doing the stories, who's writing the textbooks?" Morales said. "We've all seen the war movies. If there is no person of color, it's as if they don't exist."

In a written statement, Col. David Glover, diversity officer with the U.S. Army Accessions Command, said that, "by partnering with media outlets, such as mun2, that are a natural fit with our Latino youth, the Army is able to communicate" the opportunities it offers to young men and women.

"We take pride in our inclusive environment where the diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences of our soldiers add to our strength and our ability to defend our nation," he wrote.

Among those attending the concert taping were actor Jon Voight and Bob Archuleta, L.A. County commissioner of military and veterans affairs. A veteran himself, with two sons serving in the military, Archuleta said he believes that "pride of country" is mainly what drives Latinos to serve the U.S. armed forces.

"If you turned a clock back," he said, "there are grandfathers and fathers who served, from World War II, Korea, Vietnam era, and now of course the younger children that are serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, serving all over the world, doing the job that needs to get done."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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