Latino Americans tells the story of early settlement, conquest and immigration; of tradition and reinvention; of anguish and celebration; and of the gradual construction of a new American identity from diverse sources that connects and empowers millions of people today. Narrated by Benjamin Bratt, this landmark series is the first major TV documentary to chronicle the rich and diverse history of Latinos. The six-part series begins tonight at 8/7C on PBS (check local listings here) with Episode 1: “Foreigners in Their Own Land” followed by Episode 2: “Empire of Dreams“.
Series producer and producer of Episodes 1 and 2, Adriana Bosch, talks to LPB about this epic documentary. The Cuban-born filmmaker Bosch has written, directed, and edited acclaimed political and social documentaries for over two decades. Her two-hour special Fidel Castro was honored with a Silver Hugo from the Chicago International Film Festival and was nominated for the Writers Guild Award. She was senior producer and producer/director of Latin Music U.S.A. and was producer, writer and director of Jimmy Carter, a three-hour documentary biography for American Experience. She has won a Christopher Award, a Peabody Award, an Erik Barnouw Award and an Emmy Award.
It seems that the only place this series could be showcased is public media. Why is public media the only place willing to tell this story?
PBS has a long trajectory of making these sweeping narrative series which require an enormous investment of resources and sheer commitment. The majority of the producers in the series ‘Latino Americans’ had worked on PBS and knew their way around the story telling, production values and unflinching adherence to fairness that is PBS’s hallmark.
The ‘Latino Americans’ team of producers is composed of very talented and prestigious filmmakers. Can you tell us about the process of choosing the producers for each episode?
Jeff Bieber and I wanted to build a diverse staff that represented the Latino population. We felt that the series was too important to take too many chances with new producers or producers that were not familiar with the type of collaboration needed to make these kinds of series. We did not necessarily feel you had to pair country of origin to producer we did feel that familiarity with the community at hand was an important asset in the story telling. Though the series benefited from tremendous experience and skill of non-Latinos as well, we made sure that each team had a strong Latino presence.
What new information is included in ‘Latino Americans’ that has never been discussed or covered before?
That is a very difficult question to answer, as so much of what there is in the series has not been visited in a documentary narrative before. The stories that stand out to me are the stories of early California, the story of the building of Los Angeles in the 1920’s and the story of the Mexican repatriation. The entire narrative of World War II has never been told from the point of view of Latino participation; the story of the Dominican immigration, the rise of a Cuban enclave, the English Only movement … So much, I can only scratch the surface.
A lot of the history recounted in Foreigners in their Own Land was buried for more than a century. What implications did this have on the identity of Latinos in United States?
The narratives that were discovered in the 60’s and 70’s by Latino and non-Latino historians, were the building blocks of the history that became a touchstone for Chicano identity and of a rich and blossoming Latino narrative. David Montejano begins the series with the question “Who Are We, What Are We, What is Our Claim to Being Members of This Society.” Those narratives that were brought into the light were crucial to answering all those questions. Today I think the narratives of so many then and since are the heartbeat of a new interpretation of American history; a remix if you will where the voice of Latinos becomes recognized not as a page or a chapter in American history but as an important thread running through it.
The concept of manifest destiny and territorial expansion throughout the west spread within the United States in the mid 1800’s. What would you say were the long-lasting social consequences on the inhabitants?
I think Mexicans who became American Citizens by conquest under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did so as a conquered people in land that had been occupied by war. This established a hierarchy in California and the South West that was often enforced through violence. Landed people became landless, elites became powerless, and natives and mestizos did not fare much better under the rule of a nation that was characterized by racial differences and, as one interviewee, Gary Gerstle says had a “sense of superiority that inhered in (their) race.” Waves of immigrants arrived to that already established reality and then had to fight their way through that already existing perception.
Juan Salvador Villaseñor overcame a strenuous journey when fleeing from the Mexican revolution of 1910 with his mother and sisters. He later transformed his life from a bootlegger to a successful businessman. The women in his life, his mother and wife, had a tremendous influence in both his survival and success. In fact, throughout the series you highlight the vital role that women have played in shaping the history of Latino Americans. In a culture that has often times been referred to as machista, what do you hope this will communicate?
Women have struggled to get recognition in our communities for much of our history, but as the documentary shows, from Salvador’s mother, Doña Margarita all the way to Dolores Huerta, Gloria Estefan, Rita Moreno Julia Alvarez, María Elena Salinas, they are the sometimes unsung heroes of our history.
Episode 2 illustrates the pattern of demand for Mexican labor when needed to the anti-sentiment and deportation of Mexicans when it is no longer needed. How do you feel this pattern has impacted our view towards immigrant labor today?
Exactly as you suggested. The economic push and pull of immigration is the key factor determining the flow of immigrants arriving on US ports and crossing the US border. It is a universal truth that applies to immigrants everywhere, and drives migration flows. Other factors such as famines, wars and natural disasters, also account for occasional massive flows of people from one place to another. In the case of Puerto Rico, where the migrants were American citizens, migration was actually encouraged as a policy to foster economic progress at home. What Puerto Ricans found on the other side did not always add up to their American Dream, but they did find jobs and made new lives in the thriving industries of the North East. With the decline of New York City in the 1970’s many of those opportunities went away.
Mexican Americans make up the majority of the Latino population in the United States and therefore the majority of the history. Latinos as a whole are made up of different groups. Do you feel each of these groups will feel they are represented and can take something from the series?
I suspect that in six hours no narrative of such a complex history can be completely and fully told. We tried the best we could to tell the iconic stories of our people. I do think, and have experienced at screenings across the nation, that most people feel represented and can take something from the series, not only about the story of their own nationality but that of other Latinos.
covers the vast history of Latinos in the United States – something that has never been done before. However, there are some people that feel six hours is still not enough time. Are there any important portions of the history you would have liked to included, but were left out?
The institutional story of Latinos could not be told as well as I would have liked to—labor disputes, court cases, other exciting characters….As most critics have mentioned a series such as this is only a beginning. It should serve to underscore the importance of the work LPB continues to do – funding independent documentaries that will continue to examine the rich and varied history of Latinos in the United Sates.
Why do you feel it is important to shed light on the experiences of Latinos in the United States, specifically during this time?
When we first began working on this story in 2008, the talk was of 50 million Latinos, the largest minority in the United States At the end of program 6 we quote a new statistic 127 million by mid century. By the time this program airs September 17th 2013, the projection is that there will be 132 million Latinos by 2020. The demographics alone tell the story of the immediacy of this series. As we look toward the future questions of identity and opportunity will dominate the agenda of Latinos in the United States. Our series is very pertinent as it addresses those themes.