American Exile preview draws community together around story of U.S. veterans facing deportation
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2021, members of our community came together at WKAR to preview the new documentary, American Exile, and to hear from filmmakers John J. Valadez and Carleen L. Hsu, along with Manuel Valenzuela, a Vietnam combat veteran, and Olivia Segura, Gold Star mother, both of whom appear in the film. The evening's discussion was moderated by Prabu David, dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.
American Exile highlights the story of Manuel and Valente Valenzuela, two Mexican-American brothers who volunteered to fight in Vietnam over fifty years ago. Despite their outstanding service, these decorated veterans received deportation notices, threatening to separate them from their families and entire lives in America.
“When Manuel and Valente told me about their situation, I kind of didn’t really believe it. The U.S. deporting military veterans? It seems so out of character with this country,” said John Valadez, the Peabody Award-winning director of American Exile.
Hosted by WKAR, alongside MSU School of Journalism, MSU Film Studies Program, and MSU Chicano/Latino Studies Program, the event attracted a capacity audience of approximately 100 to Studio A at WKAR, plus a virtual audience of nearly fifty more. The in-person event followed MSU COVID-19 protocols, including masks worn by all participants.
“It makes me so proud to be associated with a university and faculty members who are doing this type of meaningful work for the community,” said Susi Elkins, director of broadcasting and general manager at WKAR. “This is why we’re here. This is what public broadcasters are meant to do. To truly share every story, particularly those stories that not everybody knows about and needs to know about.”
Valadez initially heard about Manuel’s powerful story after he attended one of Valdez’s film screenings. His determination to share this story with the world was matched by fellow MSU professor Carleen Hsu, who served as the film’s editor. Together they worked over a span of seven years to communicate the story of the Valenzuela brothers, as well as the thousands of other military veterans who have been or are in danger of being deported.
“We have a heritage in this country of deporting U.S. citizens, namely Mexican-Americans. As a Chicano, it is a part of the trauma that I am very aware of. Generation after generation, we have been deported out of the country and this seemed to be the latest iteration of a longer historical tale,” said Valadez.
During the Q&A session, Manuel reflected on his dedication to those who have been affected by the deportation notices—family members and the veterans themselves, who are often physically and psychologically disabled by their war experiences.
“I personally went and met the families [of the deported soldiers]. They cried on my shoulders. You cannot ever imagine the pain. You talk about PTSD, the hell, the things I had to do in Vietnam—that’s nothing compared with the families crying on my shoulder,” said Manuel.
“My last mission in Vietnam, we got some guys out of the jungle. We never leave nobody behind. Never. We always bring each other home. No matter who we are, Army, Navy, we’re all brothers and sisters. We bring each other home. I’ve given my oath. I will not stop until they are home.”
This event truly highlighted the determination and activism generated by Manuel and Valente, along with countless other individuals who helped them on journey and contributed to the documentary’s creation. In the final minutes of American Exile, the film reflects on the progress of this activism: “In July, President Biden ordered the department of homeland security to create a process to bring back deported veterans and their families.”
When asked about his hopes for the main takeaways of this film, Valadez reminds us: “You can’t be a bystander. You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. There’s no middle ground. There’s no time for that anymore. It’s time to get involved and it’s time to try to make a difference.”
American Exile aired on PBS stations nationwide on Nov. 17, 2021.