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'Latino in America,' premiering Wednesday and Thursday on CNN

Verne Gay
Newsday (MCT)

REASON TO WATCH: Soledad O'Brien's wide-angle look at the Latino experience, and a companion piece to CNN's recent "Black in America."

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: The United States has 51 million Latinos, or the largest population in the world outside of Mexico. Over four hours, O'Brien tells the story of a few. Neither she nor the network promise a perfect representation of this incredibly complex community — that would be foolish — but the program does seem to hit on the big themes, from assimilation to language barriers to "chasing the American dream" (Thursday's installment), which does attempt to embrace the issue of illegal immigration.

The special is broken into individual stories, each following a particular individual. For example, Wednesday night is simply entitled "The Garcias," with each profile a portrait of someone named Garcia — the pretext being that this is fast becoming one of the most common names in the country.

First up is Isabel Garcia, county legal defender of Pima County, Ariz., and pro-illegal immigrant — her reasoning is not precisely given — and her battle with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's aggressively enforced federal law. Next: Lorena Garcia, a hugely popular TV chef/empire builder on Univision. She's followed by Betty Garcia, a teacher and homemaker in North Carolina, who worries about her sons' lack of interest in their Latino heritage, and Cindy Garcia, who's struggled to graduate high school on time — a common problem in the Latino community, according to this program. Other segments explore prevalence of teen suicide among Latinas (as one doctor explains, "many are caught between two worlds" — of their parents' culture and expectations and their own need for independence); a complex and fractious divide in a Roman Catholic parish over issues like celebrating Mass in Spanish; and, finally, Latino portrayals in entertainment. (Guess who's interviewed?! Of course — Edward James Olmos.) Eva Longoria Parker has a few minutes, too.

BOTTOM LINE: What O'Brien is trying do here seems very difficult, which is explore the fault lines — not quite the right term, but in a pinch, it'll do — between Latino America and non-Latino America. This is difficult because those fault lines are so fractured, or interwoven, or complicated, or maybe even illusory in some places. This is, after all, the oldest nonnative community in the United States. It also is the most refracted — Ecuadorean, Nicaraguan, Mexican, Cuban and on and on, each with their own culture, history and, of course, identity. The immigration debate is the pig in the henhouse here — a wild, raucous, angry issue that could have threatened to totally overwhelm this special.

Instead, O'Brien — who seems a little skittish on the whole issue — wisely pushes on after the first segment. Some of the segments are quite good — especially the one on Latina suicide — while others feel a bit threadworn, like the language debate or the obligatory and unilluminating Hollywood segment.

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