Prof. Tomás Summers Sandoval Will Bring the Stories of Latino Vietnam Veterans to the Stage

Prof. Tomas Summers Sandoval

Pomona College Professor of History and Chicana/o Latina/o Studies Tomás Summers Sandoval will bring the stories of Latino veterans of the Vietnam War to the theatre stage. The project is a continuation of Summers Sandoval’s multi-year research collecting and documenting the oral histories of the veterans and their families.

Summers Sandoval is one of eight humanities scholars from across the country awarded with a 2017 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship. The $50,000 grant will fund “Vietnam Veteranos,” his storytelling theatre project to premiere in spring 2018.

The Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship is a new humanities program for faculty members pursuing projects to engage directly with the public beyond the academy.

“Vietnam Veteranos: Latino Testimonies of the War” takes root from Summers Sandoval’s previous research documenting the oral histories of local Latino veterans who served in the Vietnam War.

This new project centers on the oral histories of these veterans that have been curated by Summers Sandoval. The oral histories will be presented as a staged performance read by the some of the veterans themselves as individual historical monologues, also known as “testimonios” in Spanish.

“I feel honored to receive the support of the Whiting Foundation.  It’s a humbling thing for me to be part of a cohort of such an amazing and engaged scholars,” says Summers Sandoval.

Summers Sandoval has worked on the topic of Latinos and the Vietnam War since 2011.  He is working on a book that delves into the social history of the “brown baby boom” and how the war in Vietnam serves as a prism into the experiences of Latino veterans in the 20th-century U.S.

This project is based on that work, an opportunity for me to connect people to this history in an accessible way as well as a deeply personal one,” he says.

The project “Vietnam Veteranos” will draw from the expertise and support of Rose Portillo ‘75, alumna and theatre instructor at Pomona College. As a collaborator on the project, Portillo will draw from her experience translating oral histories into theatrical monologues, and she will also direct the production and oversee a team of professional actors to serve as coaches for the veterans. The performance will be staged at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre and an East Los Angeles-based venue in spring 2018. In addition, a video and accompanying print and digital publication will be produced to be shared with a wider audience.

The topic of the Vietnam War is more than academic for Summers Sandoval, chair of Pomona’s history department.

“My father is a Vietnam veteran.  His brother, my uncle, is a Vietnam veteran.  Most of the males I knew growing up were also Vietnam veterans.  This work is deeply personal for me.  In many ways, it’s a way for me to bring my skills as a historian to better understand not only why Latinos made up such a significant share of the combat troops in Southeast Asia but, as important, how the war framed a long-term impact on their lives and the lives of their communities.”

“At a moment when political leaders portray Latinos in the United States as criminals, and as economic and cultural threats, I hope work like mine can serve a purpose.  On one level, histories like these humanize Latinas and Latinos.  It’s both troubling and sad that this is even a need in the 21st Century, but it is. The humanities help us understand people within the context of their own complex lives, filled with hopes and desires as well as struggles and contradictions.

I hope my work presents this generation in this way, as human beings seeking lives of dignity. Perhaps more importantly, Latinas and Latinos represent the future military personnel of the United States.  Because of that, I think it’s vital for us all to recognize and better understand the enduring impacts of both military service and war.”

In the past five years, Summers Sandoval has collected more than 50 oral histories of Latino veterans of the Vietnam War and their families. Two years ago, Summers Sandoval received a $10,000 grant from the Cal Humanities California Documentary Project for a youth-centered, community history project in partnership with The dA Center for the Arts in downtown Pomona, Calif. The project trained local youth and Pomona College students to conduct oral histories of local Latino veterans and their families.

A free exhibition of that earlier project, “Voices Veteranos: Mexican America and the Legacy of Vietnam 2017,” will run from March 11 to April 15 at The dA Center for the Arts in downtown Pomona (252 S. Main St., Pomona).