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.”

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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