It’s not uncommon for authors to have public readings of their newest books. What was uncommon May 29 was the at-capacity crowd of family and friends who filled the Historical Society Museum in Hollister to hear four teenage writers read contributions to a unique book, “Veteran Voices Project: Honoring the Experiences and Perspectives of Local Latino Veterans.”
The book is the culmination of a two-year San Benito County Arts Council project to tell the stories of 13 local Latino veterans: Augie Garcia, George Nava, Berto San Roman, Ray Ramos, Bernie Ramirez, Mark Medina, Anthony Gutierrez, Armando Salcedo, Eric Ortiz, Joseph Haro, Bob Picha, Manuel Chavez, and Felipe Galvan.
A California Arts Council “Veteran’s Initiative in the Arts” grant funded the project. Over 50 students from Frank Perez’s Mexican-American studies class at San Benito High School interviewed the vets and wrote narratives about their experiences.
Perez said the Arts Council started the Veteran Voices Project in 2016, and reached out to him last year to expand the program to include Latino veteran voices. Perez and Jennifer Laine, executive director of the San Benito County Arts Council, developed the strategy for interviewing veterans.
“This took place over two semesters and we had about 25 kids per semester who were placed in groups to develop questions and interview the vets," Perez said. "Each student picked a part of the vets’ stories that resonated with them, and then wrote a narrative based on the story. We chose 13 of the student narratives from the 50 or so produced that we felt best represented the project.”
The writers of the 13 narratives chosen to be included in the book were: Alejandra Bautista, Anita Lombardo, Cyntya Avendano Diaz, Denisse Mendoza Hernandez, Emily Christensen, Isabel Hernandez, Jordan Ramos, Ladessa Henry, Laura Cordova Beltran, Maria Bedolla Aleman, Mayvene Molina, Michelle Rodriguez, and Rosa Cortez.
Perez said 100 copies of the book have been printed. Each veteran will receive two free copies. Each student in the classes will receive a copy; one copy was donated to Historical Society archives, one to the county library, two to the high school library, one to the San Juan Bautista library, and one to the San Juan Bautista Historical Society. He said there are plans to sell the book.
Four of the writers read their portions of the book and it quickly became apparent that the students came away deeply effected by what they heard as they listened to the heartfelt stories the veterans told them. High school senior Emily Christensen was one of the students who interviewed Bernie Ramirez. She titled her narrative, “A heart of gold.” She said after meeting Ramirez she came away with a respect for veterans that wasn’t something she thought a lot about before.
“It was humbling to hear his stories,” Christensen said. “He is super involved in sending packages to those currently serving to show them the love they deserve.”
Christensen described herself as left-leaning liberal when it comes to politics, but said the idea of disrespecting Ramirez or other vets by protesting is not acceptable. She said people need to hear what veterans have gone through. She spoke about Ramirez’s encounter with the Salinas family of a young soldier who had died in combat. The mother, who only spoke Spanish, wanted to see her son’s body before burial, but because the soldier’s body was badly mutilated from a bomb explosion, Ramirez advised her to remember her son as he was before going to war.
“That was the most emotional part of the story for us and even for him,” Christensen said. “The group was dumfounded. You could hear a pin drop. It was emotional and scary. But he also told us funny stories about his family and when he was a kid, and what led him to join the Army.”
Denisse Hernandez, 17, got the chance to meet and talk with Ray Ramos. Her story is called “Freedom Fighter.” She described Ramos as “…one of the most charming people one could meet.” She said she had the preconceived notion of veterans that they were cold and kept their emotions bottled up.
“When we started talking to Ray Ramos, he talked about a lot of things I didn’t think a veteran would talk about,” Hernandez said. She said her favorite part of the project was coming up with the questions to ask the veterans. “I enjoyed the interview process. It was supposed to be a team effort, but I kind of took it over. I wanted it to be perfect because it wasn’t for me, it was for them and I wanted to represent them in the best way I could.”
The last sentence in Hernandez's narrative explains how Ramos’ story affected her.
“Listening to Ray Ramos opened up my mind about who veterans are. They are fighters. They keep us safe by putting themselves at risk, so they should be honored and respected.”