[16 October 2013]
“This is the tragedy of immigration. Countries want workers, but they get people, families, and somehow we haven’t been able to come to terms with that as a nation.”
– Marta Tienda, sociologist
The six-part PBS documentary series, Latino Americans, has the daunting task of covering 500 years of history in only six hours. The fact that the documentary is able to touch on so many topics is a testament to how interconnected the histories and identities of so many Latino Americans are with other Americans. Attempts to not only offer historical context, but also cultural tone and setting, is one of the larger reasons why Latino Americans is so successful.
Beginning by examining the roots of the largest Spanish and Mexican settlements in the United States, the documentary offers insight into these early Latino Americans known as Californios and Tejanos. The most successful of these were wealthy landowners who eventually lost their land to Americans looking to expand, particularly as events like The Gold Rush took hold. These settlers are especially important because they were intent, initially at least, on being a part of the United States in a way that still preserved the way of life and culture that they knew.
Latino Americans covers this early history quickly and often broadly, yet it still manages to tell individual stories that resonate in ways that offering only the big picture cannot. As it offers glimpses into certain people’s lives and events, the series understands that the details go hand in hand in making historical context matter. The balance between the two is handled very well throughout.
Perhaps the documentary’s largest focus, cultural identity, is examined from perspectives as varied as Mexicans in Texas, Central Americans in California, Cubans in Miami, and Puerto Ricans in New York. While they all have similarities in their experiences as Latino Americans, their paths to the United States contrast in numerous ways. For example, Cubans have been afforded special refugee status because of their flight from Communist power during the Cold War. They see themselves less as immigrants and more as exiles, and as such their assimilation into American culture has been very different.
On the other hand, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, yet they have no real voice in American government. The ways in which Puerto Ricans have contributed to the Latino American influx is unique precisely because of the ways in which they are already tied to the United States. Moreover, the sheer numbers that have settled in the US have at times outnumbered those left on the island, yet like other Latino Americans, they have also encountered a great deal of discrimination and prejudice.
The documentary is especially good at framing large historical events, like the Great Depression, as it relates to Latino Americans. While the Depression was clearly devastating for all Americans, Mexican-Americans in California and Puerto Ricans suffered tremendously. In fact, it led to mass deportation for Mexican-Americans while Puerto Rico felt the affects of the Depression even more than the United States, due to the drop in sugar prices. It’s important to point out that despite such economic instability the United States remained a destination for those seeking a better life.
One of the documentary’s most interesting areas of focus has to do with Latino Americans’ contribution to the United States in times of war. The story of World War II hero Guy Gabaldon is a prime example of the way that one story can offer hope to many, yet still manage to come up against so many obstacles. Gabaldon’s heroics were even turned into a film, Hell to Eternity (1960), but instead of hiring a Latino actor to play him, the studio chose an Anglo actor.
Gabaldon may have been a war hero, but upon returning to the United States, little had changed. Many minority servicemen had to deal with the dramatic shift from military life – that now afforded them more equality – to civilian life, complete with the prejudice and lack of opportunity they thought they had left behind. Similarly, Macario Garcia, the first Mexican-American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, also during World War II, still faced discrimination upon his return and was denied service in a Texas diner.
The issue of civil rights permeates the entire documentary series, but there’s particular emphasis on the ‘60s and ‘70s. Just as African-Americans were fighting for their rights, Latino Americans were also protesting, marching, and organizing. The farm workers union movement, headed by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, speaks to the staggering obstacles faced by migrant workers in California, and by extension shed light on the perceptions many held about these minorities.
The story of Chavez and Huerta is especially intriguing because of Huerta’s prominent role in the labor struggle. She is one of the few women highlighted in the documentary that is not an entertainer or an author. Latino Americans emphasizes her importance as equal to Chavez’s, and more challenging as both a Latina and a woman negotiating for labor rights in the ‘60s.
The struggle for migrant workers’ rights leads very naturally into the documentary’s discussion of the emergence of the Chicano pride movement during the same time period. Stemming from a frustration with the lack of Latino representation in school curricula, Chicano pride grew out of the high schools and led to massive walk-outs in East Los Angeles. The idea that certain minority groups were being left out of the courses being taught in schools was a catalyst in establishing pride for those less represented. As the history of Mexican-Americans became a part of what was taught about the country’s larger history, Chicano pride grew and flourished, as well.
The history of Latino American entertainers also plays a key role in changing perceptions and eliminating prejudice. The representation of Latinos in American film is especially of note in how much it has shifted. Rita Moreno is interviewed and speaks about her early roles in Hollywood. She, like most other minority actors, was typecast as a half-dressed native island girl over and over again. It wasn’t until her role as Anita in West Side Story (a film that still depicts Latinos in problematic ways) that she played a more fully formed character and was able to break out of her earlier typecast roles.
It’s important to remember that any generalization that the documentary makes about a specific group of Latino Americans is just that, a generalization. Stories are as wide-ranging as the countries they come from and they don’t always fit into their assigned categories. That is also at the root of the documentary, particularly as it applies to present-day Latino Americans. As their population grows in the US, so do their myriad contributions to politics, culture, and society as a whole.
Although it’s impossible to run through the entire history of Latino Americans in only six hours, this documentary does a nice job of hitting a lot of the larger themes and offering entry points into further study. Narrated by Benjamin Bratt, Latino Americans is well paced and always engaging. The documentary stands as an important glimpse into the struggles and contributions of Latino Americans, all while offering historical context and personal connections to the people it highlights.