Filmmaker Charley Trujillo opens P.O.V.'s "Soldados: Chicanos in Viet Nam" (PBS, Aug. 31, 10 p.m.) with a story about picking cotton with his parents after he returned from the Vietnam War. A U.S. agent asks him for his papers, to see if he is eligible to work. Instead, he pulls out his glass eye, the replacement for the one he lost during the war. "In peacetime, I'm seen as Mexican," he says. "But during wartime, I'm an American."
Trujillo guides the story of a handful of Mexican-Americans who left their lives as migrant cotton pickers in California to fight in Vietnam. Fresh out of high school, they volunteered while other young men had to be drafted. They chose to fight because many of their fathers and grandfathers had served in World War II and Korea. Their stories are similar to other Vietnam vets', from fear to witnessing atrocities, but its relevance increases with the current war.
In Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, several soldiers in Iraq spoke about the rush of killing. They seemed monstrous, but the vets in "Soldados" joke about throwing brains at one another. But their laughter, even 30 years later, seems forced, like if they don't laugh, they'll cry.
When they first arrived, Trujillo explained that they felt powerful, but that quickly changed into a desire to save their hides. As time passed, the Mexican-American soldiers began to identify with the enemy. "It was our farm workers fighting their farm workers," he says. And when shrapnel tore into his eye, he promised God that he would pick cotton the rest of his life, as long as he could get out of Nam alive.