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The Ombudsman Column

The Longoria Affair, an Old Wound That Still Festers

What follows is not one of my usual offerings. It is neither an ombudsman's column nor a mailbag. Rather, it is simply an effort to record opposing views about a historical event and documentary that probably will never satisfactorily be resolved for one side or the other.

The one-hour documentary is called "The Longoria Affair" and it aired this week on a number of PBS-member stations as part of the weekly film series Independent Lens. It deals with an episode that began in 1949 in Three Rivers, Texas, a small town about 70 miles northwest of Corpus Christi.

There, according to the producers of the film, "the only funeral home in town refused to hold a wake for Felix Longoria, a decorated Mexican American soldier killed in battle during World War II. Longoria's widow was told, simply, 'The whites wouldn't like it.' Those words became front-page news across the country, sparking outrage and setting off a series of events that would come to be known as the Longoria Affair. The incident fueled the rise of a national civil rights movement led by Mexican American veterans, and bitterly divided Three Rivers for generations to come."

Independent Lens presents the work of independent filmmakers, and before this film was broadcast on PBS it was shown in many locations — schools and theaters — around the country. So the mail I got challenging the content of the program arrived before PBS viewers, including me, had actually seen it.

This is a powerful film and, since its airing, it has attracted lots of good comments online and in some reviews. But it is also the kind of film that cannot be easily challenged unless you are from that area in Texas, know its history and believe there is a stronger, other side to this story than has been presented.

The opposing viewpoints about this film are best summed up in an e-mail exchange between Janis Hudson of Texas, whose husband appears in the film, and Lois Vossen on behalf of the team that produced the film. Hudson wrote to me on Oct. 26, well before it appeared on PBS, and I passed the message along to Vossen for a response.

What follows is their initial exchange. Combined, it is quite long but I felt it was worth getting on the record in this matter. It can also be hard to follow in places if you haven't seen the film. Independent Lens says it is only making it available in English online from Nov. 10 through Nov. 16. The Spanish version, however, will be available to stream until Jan. 10, 2011. The film may also be broadcast, or re-broadcast, by some PBS stations.

Hudson's Case Against the Film's Depictions

The Longoria Affair, independently produced by John Valadez through Kitchen Sync and Independent Lens, is currently being screened at small colleges, universities, and forty major cities across the United States selling box loads of the DVDs. The film fails in the standards of accuracy, impartiality, objectivity, and balance. The documentary airs on PBS-Independent Lens on November 9, 2010. Mr. Tom Kennedy and the town of Three Rivers, Texas, accused of racism in the film, were exonerated by five official investigations with just two individual dissents. Only one investigation is alluded to and then disparaged in the film.

The pre-showing publicity campaign is even more damaging than the 61-year-old legend, which caused irreparable harm to a family and small town in Texas. Given valid documentation from reputable sources regarding the fallacies, the producer retained the old story and dismissed each counter fact. The pre-publicity in newspapers, television talk shows, and a multitude of websites goes even further than the film disseminating false information.

'False Accusations'

As shown, the film and its publicity fallaciously accuse Tom Kennedy, a funeral home director, of refusing to bury the remains of a repatriated Mexican American soldier killed in WWII. Documentation reveals a request by the veteran's widow to exclude the deceased's family from the wake in the chapel. Mr. Kennedy refused only to exclude the soldier's family. He negotiated a wake, funeral, and burial. The producer was provided information and a CD of testimony from the pianist in the chapel, verifying the request for exclusion of the family. The CD was delivered to the producer at least five months before film production. The request of the widow turns the entire outcome of the film as now presented.

This film does not come near equal representation to the Kennedy family or Three Rivers with visual frame or content. The omissions and distortions are voluminous. Wherever it is shown, it polarizes Hispanics and Anglos. The political slant is heavily weighted, taking almost half of the film. The old 1949 virulent story was used to garner Hispanic votes, the deciding factor in placing JFK and LBJ in the White House. Intensive screening before November elections appears designed to influence Hispanic votes again. Is The Longoria Affair more propaganda than documentary? Can a vulnerable public trust PBS to deliver unbiased information?

For the counter side, please go to http://www.longoriaaffairrevealed.com.

Vossen Responds for Independent Lens

1. "The film fails in the standards of accuracy, impartiality, objectivity, and balance."

During the two years that this documentary was in production, the producer/director John Valadez and his team discussed in detail each incident portrayed, examined the supporting evidence and historical research, and carefully balanced the film presentation.

Of the eleven people on-camera during the film, four represent the perspective you [Hudson] believe, including: your husband and town resident Richard Hudson, town resident Patti Reagan, and two members of Tom Kennedy's family, daughter Susan Zamzow and wife Jane Kennedy. Four people represent the Longoria family's perspective: Felix's sister-in-law Sara Posas, Hector Garcia's daughter Wanda Garcia, activist Santiago Hernandez, and Vicente Ximenes, Dr. Garcia's colleague in the American GI Forum.

The usage of these interviews is balanced: Sara Posas says the town is "racist," while Patti Reagan talks about being "color-blind" when she was growing up in Three Rivers. The daughter of Tom Kennedy, Susan Zamzow, takes the viewers through the abandoned building where her father worked and says he helped everyone, "black, white, purple, or green." The daughter of Hector Garcia, Wanda Garcia, takes the viewers through the abandoned building where her father worked and talks about his selfless devotion to his practice as he "treated the whole Mexican American community."

The remaining three on-camera interviews are the pre-eminent historian of this story and author of Felix Longoria's Wake, Patrick Carroll of Texas A & M University; presidential historian and Johnson biographer Robert Dallek of Boston University; and Henry AJ Ramos, author of a book on Mexican-American veterans, The American GI Form. In addition, the film was reviewed by outside advisors: Patrick Carroll; Henry AJ Ramos; Julie Leininger Pycior, Professor of History at Manhattan College; and Ignacio Garcia, Professor of History at Brigham Young University. We believe this is a fair range of perspectives, balanced by historians' analysis.

2. "Mr. Tom Kennedy and the town of Three Rivers, Texas accused of racism in the film were exonerated by five official investigations with just two individual dissents. Only one investigation is alluded to and then disparaged in the film."

We are not clear what "five official investigations" you are referring to. The most significant investigation, which is the one presented in the film, was convened by the Texas State Legislature. Historian Patrick Carroll presents a detailed account of the committee's work in his book, Felix Longoria's Wake. The "Texas Regulars," partisans of Coke Stevenson, whom Johnson had defeated in the recent senatorial race, set the committee in motion and it worked in the poisonous atmosphere of a deeply divided Texas Democratic Party. The "Texas Regulars," according to Carroll, wanted to find a way to embarrass Lyndon Johnson for his support of the Longorias. The four committeemen who were appointed by the "Regulars" wrote a majority report that supported the Three Rivers Anglo position that there had been no discrimination. However, the one Johnson supporter on the committee wrote such a powerful minority report — a report that, Carroll writes, "clearly documented" both prejudice on Tom Kennedy's part and discrimination against the Longorias — that one of the anti-Johnson committeemen asked to remove his name from the majority report. Unable to reach agreement and possibly because the report was not damaging enough to Johnson, the committee's work was shelved. As the narration in the film says, "In the end, the committee could not agree on what happened."

Texas' Good Neighbor Commission conducted another investigation. Politics also played a key part of this inquiry, and we refer you to Dr. Carroll's book for the ins and outs of Texas politics in the 1940s and 50s. This commission found Tom Kennedy "guilty of racism for refusing use of his funeral chapel," but it also condemned Dr. Garcia for bringing the issue to the public, rather than waiting for a mediated solution. It did not seem to us that including this commission's work added measurably to the facts; it certainly does not support Ms. Hudson's thesis.

The filmmaker did not include a report that was written by an Army Department specialist sent by the American Graves Registration Division. This report was based only on conversations with the town's most "prominent citizens." None of the people interviewed was Hispanic, and the specialist did not talk to Beatrice Longoria or to the Longoria family. Not surprisingly, the report accepted the Anglos' version and blamed Dr. Garcia. We felt this story mostly spoke to the town's attempts to re-interpret the Longoria controversy; we did not include it because we thought it was too harsh on the town. We also did not include the story of the town leaders' attempts to coerce Guadalupe Longoria, Felix's father, into signing a declaration that the Longorias were estranged from Felix's widow, Beatrice. Despite repeated visits, Guadalupe refused to sign, saying the declaration was not true; ultimately he left town to avoid further pressure. The town decided to publish the letter anyway, as if Guadalupe had agreed.

We believe there was talk of an investigation by the American Legion posts that censured Johnson for his role in the Longoria incident. Patrick Carroll said he was never able to find documentation of this report; it may have been only a threat to investigate, not an actual investigation. Richard Hudson claimed there was another investigation of Tom Kennedy by a mortuary association. We did not find this investigation.

3. "The 61 year old legend ... caused irreparable harm to a family and small town in Texas."

The film is very clear that Tom Kennedy and his family paid a serious price. Richard Hudson, Patti Reagan, Susan Zamzow and Jane Kennedy detail the hate mail the family received, the effect the controversy had on Mr. Kennedy, and the downward spiral that ended in his death. These speakers are in the film directly blaming Hector Garcia.

4. "Given valid documentation from reputable sources regarding the fallacies, the producer retained the old story and dismissed each counter fact."

Again, this is an ad hominem attack and is incorrect. The "reputable sources" charge is discussed under #6.

5. "The pre-publicity in newspapers, television talk shows, and a multitude of websites goes even further than the film disseminating false information."

The websites that were created for the film by the producer and Independent Lens have been fact checked and are accurate. If you can site specific errors, we would be pleased to respond to those questions. We cannot be held responsible for what newspapers, television talk shows, and other websites say about the film or this event in history. We haven't seen any "false information" in reports on the film, but perhaps you have seen media we haven't.

6. "As shown, the film and its publicity fallaciously accuse Tom Kennedy, a funeral home director, of refusing to bury the remains of a repatriated Mexican American soldier killed in WWII. Documentation reveals a request by the veteran's widow to exclude the deceased's family from the wake in the chapel. Mr. Kennedy refused only to exclude the soldier's family. He negotiated a wake, funeral, and burial. The producer was provided information and a CD of testimony from the pianist in the chapel, verifying the request for exclusion of the family. The CD was delivered to the producer at least five months before film production. The request of the widow turns the entire outcome of the film as now presented."

The program and all publicity we generated is careful to say that Tom Kennedy refused to allow the Longoria family to wake their dead soldier in Kennedy's funeral home chapel. It does not say Kennedy refused to bury Felix Longoria, although archival materials from the time (newspaper headlines, a newsreel voiceover) say this. In the film Patti Reagan contradicts this assertion.

Ultimately the town looked for other solutions to burying Private Longoria. Negotiators, including the Good Neighbor Commission, suggested burial in other Texas cemeteries; Tom Kennedy, under pressure from the town, reversed his position on waking Private Longoria. The family did not accept these solutions, offered after Kennedy's well-documented refusal to allow Mrs. Longoria to use his chapel because "the whites wouldn't like it." They were offended and by now they had a new option, burying Felix Longoria at Arlington National Cemetery.

You offer as documentation "testimony from the pianist in the chapel, verifying [Beatrice Longoria's] request for exclusion of the [Longoria] family." According to producer John Valadez, he went with Richard Hudson to meet the pianist, Ms. Betty Reynolds. In the research interview (not on-camera), Ms. Reynolds said she could not remember such an incident. John says they spent about a half-hour with the elderly woman, asking in numerous ways if she could remember any incident or argument between Mr. Kennedy and any Hispanic woman. She could not. Valadez concluded that there was simply not enough evidence to support the claim that Beatrice and her in-laws were estranged, or that she requested that they be excluded from the wake for her husband.

Just to be sure we're covering all possible charges: this story, as sometimes told, says the Longorias and Beatrice were estranged because Beatrice had begun dating, three years after her husband's death. Beatrice, who died several years ago, always refused to discuss whether she was dating, and the Longorias always denied any bad feelings between themselves and Felix's widow.

7. "This film does not come near equal representation to the Kennedy family or Three Rivers with visual frame or content. The omissions and distortions are voluminous. Wherever it is shown, it polarizes Hispanics and Anglos. The political slant is heavily weighted, taking almost half of the film."

As mentioned above, the film script was reviewed by advisors Patrick Carroll of Texas A & M University, Julie Leininger Pycior of Manhattan College, Ignacio Garcia of Brigham Young University, and Henry AJ Ramos, author of a book on the American GI Forum. Other leading scholars have now viewed the film and agreed that it is accurate and fundamentally fair, including: Oscar Martinez, Professor of History at the University of Arizona; Maritza De La Trinidad, Professor of History at West Texas A & M University; Roberto Calderon, Professor of History at the University of North Texas; Marianne Bueno, Professor of History at the University of North Texas; Susan Gonzalez-Baker, Professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington; Jose Angel Guiterrez, Professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington; Victor Gomez, Professor of History at South Texas College; Trinidad Gonzalez, Professor of History at South Texas College; Jose Limon, Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin; Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin; Emilio Zamora, Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. These are all well considered scholars, not activists or partisans.

8. "The old 1949 virulent story was used to garner Hispanic votes, the deciding factor in placing JFK and LBJ in the White House. Intensive screening before November elections appears designed to influence Hispanic votes again. Is The Longoria Affair more propaganda than documentary? Can a vulnerable public trust PBS to deliver unbiased information?"

We agree that the Longoria story was influential in helping JFK and LBJ "garner Hispanic votes." The film makes that clear.

We do not believe that releasing The Longoria Affair in early November is "propaganda," likely to "influence Hispanic votes again." As the Series Producer of Independent Lens, I had the discretion to select the broadcast date. When I chose November 9th it was to coincide with Veterans Day. PBS has a long history of broadcasting films about veterans during this week, both to honor their service to our country and because audiences are interested in seeing programs about veterans when the Veterans Day Holiday is in the news. The Longoria Affair is the story of four veterans — Felix Longoria, Tom Kennedy, Hector Garcia, and Lyndon Johnson — and highlights the key role that Mexican American veteranos played in the Hispanic civil rights movement. I maintain that airing it for Veterans Day is appropriate.