Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service

Mexican-American theater contributed to WWII effort, sense of citizenship

Thu, 07/17/2014

LAWRENCE – For Latino-Americans, World War II was a turning point in melding home country nationalism with recently acquired U.S. citizenship. A University of Kansas scholar has studied how those dynamics unfolded in Mexican-American theater during the 1940s.

Peter Haney, assistant director of the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies, has researched how the war influenced popular Spanish-language entertainment in San Antonio and throughout the Southwest.

His work is a featured chapter in the book “Latina/os and World War II: Mobility, Agency, and Ideology.” The anthology is the first book-length study on the Latino-American experience during World War II, covering a wide range of ethnicities, including Cuban-American, Spanish-American and Mexican-American viewpoints.

Not only did Latino-Americans make significant contributions during World War II, but participation in the war gave way to a Civil Rights movement in the years that followed.

“Because so many people of Latin American descent served in the war, many came back with an increased sense of having contributed something to the United States, and that became the grounds for new demands for equality,” Haney said.

For the past 15 years, Haney has been collecting stories of those who preformed in San Antonio’s Spanish-language theaters and the eclectic, carnival-like tent shows known as carpas, which were popular among the working class and followed migrant workers throughout the Southwest.

War touched the lives of many of the performers. While some Spanish-language performers were part of USO shows, others saw members of their groups drafted. José Abreu, a member of the tent show Carpa Cubana and son of the owners, died in action in Italy.

Haney knows of another family of five brothers who recalled being ordered by the government to stop their tent show’s tour in order to work at a tent manufacturing company that aided the war. The family’s entertainment business never recovered.

And the war itself was incorporated into acts as comedians parodied songs of lovers going off to war and told jokes of soldiers in the field that alluded to the grim side of war.

During the war years, Haney found that shows once associated with Mexican nationalism were used to promote the war effort.  Unlike World War I, where the United States had suspicions that Mexico would side with Germany, during World War II both countries were fighting the same enemy.

“Among other things, it meant the whole pattern of exile patriotism that had been established by Mexican immigrant performers during the '20s and '30s meshed pretty easily for support of the war effort,” Haney said.

Before the war, live-theater performances were often used to raise money for community-based institutions with ties to Mexico. During the war years, Haney found that funds moved increasingly to support the Red Cross or war bonds.

A prime example of the mixing of Mexican culture with U.S. wartime effort was the arrival of the famous Mexican comedic film actor known as Cantinflas. Before appearing at  San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium, Cantinflas and his fellow performers paraded through the streets of San Antonio on military jeeps encouraging the public to buy war bonds.

“A lot of times we think of cultural distinctiveness and U.S. citizenship as opposed,” Haney said. “What was interesting about this is not only did Mexican-American individuals become part of the war effort, but so did their sense of cultural distinctiveness.”

Happy Kansas Day, Kansans! We caught sunflowers standing tall at the Grinter Family Farms just outside Lawrence last fall. You may wonder how the sunflower came to be the State flower in 1903 and we found an excerpt from Kansas legislation: Whereas, Kansas has a native wild flower common throughout her borders, hardy and conspicuous, of definite, unvarying and striking shape, easily sketched, moulded, and carved, having armorial capacities, ideally adapted for artistic reproduction, with its strong, distinct disk and its golden circle of clear glowing rays -- a flower that a child can draw on a slate, a woman can work in silk, or a man can carve on stone or fashion in clay; and Whereas, This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future, and is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, "the sunflower state"... Be it enacted ... that the helianthus or wild native sunflower is ... designated ... the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas.

Have family visiting Lawrence? #exploreKU and take them to the @KUnhm like @ChrisCanDesign did.
Explore KU: The Bells of Mount Oread KU’s Campanile, a 120-foot-tall timepiece that tolls automatically on the hour and quarter-hour, not only sounded in the 2015 New Year at midnight with 12 mighty gongs, but also regularly rings up memories for many Jayhawks – the 277 faculty and students who gave their lives during World War II, the graduates who walk through its doors at commencement, and aspiring students who have strolled through the Lawrence campus. (See For nearly 60 years, KU’s 53-bell carillon has been tolling the sounds of peace and serenity across Mount Oread since it was installed in June 1955 inside the landmark World War II Memorial Campanile, which was dedicated in 1951. (See The carillon is also a four-octave musical instrument, which is played with a giant keyboard and foot pedals. University Carillonneur Elizabeth Egber-Berghout (, associate professor of carillon and organ, climbs 77 steps up a spiral staircase in the bell tower to perform recitals several times a month.

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