PBS Documentary Looks at Complex History of Latinos in the U.S.

By María Peña, EFE News Services

The Latino presence in the United States dates back 500 years and the new documentary “Latino Americans,” which is being aired on PBS, hopes to dig into the history and fill the voids that persist in the group’s collective memory.

Few Americans know the history of Juan Seguín, a Texan-Mexican who fought for Texas’ independence during the 1830s; the establishment of 21 Spanish missions in California; the heroism of Guy Gabaldón, a U.S sailor who served during World War II; the participation by Latinos in all of the U.S. wars, or Latino’s early role in national politics.

Benjamin Bratt, right, who narrates the PBS documentary “Latino Americans,” at a Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour session in Los Angeles last month discussing the history of Latinos in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

Benjamin Bratt, right, who narrates the PBS documentary “Latino Americans,” at a Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour session in Los Angeles last month discussing the history of Latinos in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Rahoul Ghose/PBS)

The six-hour documentary, which starts this week, hopes to explain the comprehensive history of the largest minority group in the United States during its more than 500 years of history, during Hispanic Heritage Month that runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

The PBS documentary used historical archives, photos, black and white film and interviews with nearly 100 experts and Hispanic celebrities, including actress Rita Moreno, singer Gloria Estefan and authors Victor Villaseñor and Julia Alvarez, to emphasize that the nation was not only forged by Europeans but also by the contributions of Latinos.

As for Mexicans, who now make up 65% of all Latinos in the country, the documentary describes the discrimination and contempt they were subjected to during the 1960s– signs on buildings prohibited the entrance of “Dogs, Blacks and Mexicans” – while they looked for work during labor shortages.

This cycle of acceptance and rejection, the documentary suggests, has been on-going in the country. Currently, since the beginning of the economic crisis, the U.S. has deported more than one million Mexicans.

Narrated by Benjamin Bratt, the documentary, being broadcast in three, two-hour long segments, summarizes the successful Spanish conquest of the Americas, the fight over territory between the United States and Spain in 1898, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Fidel Castro coming to power in Cuba and the rebellion against the Dominican Dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, among others that caused an exodus to the North.

The documentary covers the creation of the American identity as it is intertwined with a “bird’s eye view” of the major events both in and outside of the U.S. with vignettes by Latino celebrities.

Alvarez, for example, points out that the American culture “needs certain things from us,” and that, thanks to the immigration of her family to the United States in order to escape the dictatorship of Trujillo, possibly influenced her play “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” in which she explored the hybrid identity of the new generation of Latinos who claimed their space in the country.

“The exclusion and marginalizing of Latinos is like a weak but persistent fever that never goes away. It’s like the country has not assimilated to the fact that one in every six Americans has their roots in the Spanish empire in this continent,” said Ray Suárez, host for PBS.

“Would they continue not accepting it when they become one in every three? I doubt it! The good news is the Latino presence continues; they, we, will continue here for a long time,” added Suárez, who is the author of the book that accompanies the documentary.

But the chronological work by PBS is not free of criticism because although it mentions the waves of immigrants from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Central America and South America – the majority of the documentary focuses on the history of Mexicans, especially their influence in the Southwest.

The program’s broadcast, which will air on PBS and V-Me throughout the month, comes at a time when Latinos total 53 million or 17% of the population, according to the 2012 census, and they are being courted by businesses and politicians.

Check your local listings for broadcast times.

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September 19, 2013  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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