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

Thursday, July 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.”