Skip to main content

Si se Puede!: 'Latino Americans' Unearths Unsung Heroes from 500 Years of History

By Chelo Alvarez-Stehle

From the six-part series Latino Americans, which airs on PBS

Nearly five decades after 10,000 students walked out of four high schools throughout East Los Angeles, one of the key demands of their strike may soon be met. The inspiration may be Latino Americans, a three-part, six-hour PBS documentary series covering five centuries of history and airing this fall. The events of the 1968 "Walkout Now or Drop Out Tomorrow" strike are told in part through emotional, electrifying accounts by some of those students and by Sal Castro, the teacher who led the demand for Mexican-American history to be included in the country's school syllabus. "He made me feel like loving Mexican culture," says filmmaker Moctesuma Esparza, who was a student of Castro's, in the series. "Our own heritage was actually cool! And that was both unsettling and revolutionary—and exciting!" 

Narrated by Benjamin Bratt, Latino Americans, which will also broadcast in Spanish on Vme TV, includes a strong education curriculum and public engagement campaign. "If we don't capitalize on an investment in education," Princeton University professor Marta Tienda admonishes in the film, "we will lose what I call the Hispanic Moment." That seems to be the final lasting message of the series—the fact that educating the largest and youngest growing sector of the American population, Latino Americans, will determine the success of the United States in the 21st century.

Although the series includes insights from Latinos from the worlds of politics, business, pop culture, academia and journalism, the personal stories stand out. "This is historia con nombre y apellido—history with a first and last name," maintains series producer Adriana Bosch. While such renowned Latinos as union leader Dolores Huerta, politician Herman Badillo, actress Rita Moreno, writer Julia Alvarez and singer Gloria Esefan are featured in Latino Americans, it is the stories of the unsung heroes that brings to life key chapters in the 500 years of often-unacknowledged Hispanic history in the US.

The intimate accounts about ongoing discrimination are at times emotionally touching, at times revealing, and serve as an effective storytelling vehicle for a twofold US target audience. Latinos watching the series will certainly feel empowered to reclaim their place in their country's annals, and non-Latinos will have a chance to deepen their knowledge about this concealed part of their country's past. They will perhaps feel less threatened by, and more inclined to appreciate, the largest minority group in the US. "If past is prologue, then it would do all Americans some good to learn about this American history," says Jeff Bieber, series creator and co-executive producer with Dalton Delan.

Latino Americans introduces us to Apolinaria Lorenzana, one of the early documented "forced migrants" sent by the Spanish Colonial Government in Mexico, along with 21 orphan children, to populate its American empire. "I knew I did not want people to speak to camera in monologues, but I wanted at least one speaking character," Bosch explains. "That is why I chose Apolinaria Lorenzana, who is filmed dictating her memoirs to Thomas Savage, a scribe, in an interview that took place in Santa Barbara in the 1880s." Re-enactments are the cinematic tool for covering nearly 400 years of history in the first two episodes. "I wanted a style that was familiar to the PBS audience and that looked 'period' without being stilted," says Bosch. "I had seen David Belton's and Tim Cragg's work on God in America and in a film about Vincent Van Gogh and was very impressed by the quality of the direction and the cinematography, and most importantly by the credibility of the re-enactments." Belton and Sonia Fritz directed the re-enactments with producer Cathleen O'Connell.

Episodes Three through Six, which take viewers from World War II to the present, rely heavily on archival footage. "I was amazed at how much everyone was willing to share, from individuals sharing personal photos, to universities—everyone understood this was a very important story," says Monika Navarro, an associate producer of the series, along with Yvan Iturriaga and Sabrina Avilés. This team did an immense amount of archival research under supervising producer Salme López. "We knew what a responsibility we had to address this huge chapter of American history that has often been left out, or whitewashed," Navarro notes.

John Valadez, producer, along with Dan McCabe, of Episode III, "War and Peace," maintains, "We wanted to make sure that the Mexican [-American] contribution to the army is recognized in US history—the fact that close to half a million Mexicans fought in World War II, that there were 65,000 Puerto Ricans serving in that war, that Latinos fought in all the major battles." Latinos were also the most decorated minority group to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. This recognition is particularly sensitive, given that the 2007 PBS series The War had initially ignored the role of military men and women of Latino heritage. That omission was amended after the American GI Forum and other organizations as National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) led a campaign demanding recognition.

Valadez, who is currently producing his own documentary on two Latino World War II veterans who are fighting unexpected deportation, had his first taste of discrimination in high school, growing up in Seattle. "My nickname was 'Spic,' and it perplexed me as I had no idea what it meant," says Valadez, who, like many Chicanos, did not grow up speaking Spanish.

"The Hispanic accent and very, very dark makeup followed me all around the world," says actress Rita Moreno in Episode IV, "The New Latinos," produced by Nina Alvarez. Moreno, the first Latina to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, for her role of Anita in West Side Story, owes the honor to her immigrant experience. "It was the first time that kind of racial hatred was depicted in a movie," explains Moreno, whose own experiences growing up in the barrio helped her performance.

Alvarez was born in the Bronx to Salvadoran parents, at a time when there were no Salvadorans in New York. "I grew up thinking I was Puerto Rican until the second grade," she recalls. Alvarez and Moreno shared a similar experience in terms of Latino stereotyping. "I felt that being a woman and being Latina, there is a set of assumptions that come with that," says Alvarez. "One is that you can dance, but the other one is that you are probably a good worker, but not [good enough to be] a leader, or that we can only do stuff that relates to Latinos or Latino America. One of the reasons I left ABC News is, when I wanted to go to Bosnia or Chechnya, they looked at me and said, 'No, you will do just fine in Cuba.'"

"Each Latino group has a very different relationship with this country," says Alvarez, whose Episode IV focuses on the three large migration movements from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic after World War II. "[It's about] how you were welcomed or not welcomed. It is crucial to understand our reason for being here: It has so much to do with US action in our countries."

Episode V, "Pride and Prejudice," produced by Valadez and McCabe, follows the evolution of the farmworkers' struggle and the Chicano movement. "Workers were literally like slaves," says activist Dolores Huerta in the film, who helps tell the story of the farmworkers' movement and Cesar Chavez's transformation into the Martin Luther King, Jr. of Latinos. "Cesar proposed for both of us to create a union that ‘we would not see in our lifetime.'" Contrary to that prediction, in 1966, Chavez and Huerta, through their National Farm Workers Association, organized a march from Delano, California to Sacramento. The march attracted 10,000 participants by the time they reached the capitol.

The ongoing immigration debate lies at the heart of Episode VI, "The Peril and the Promise," which covers the last four decades and is produced by Ray Telles. "It was not easy," says Telles. "I spent over a year trying to nail down a Republican member of Congress or senator to talk about immigration, but I could not get anybody to talk to us."

For Telles, the biggest challenge was "making good journalism. We found out in the work of demographers and sociologists, research showing that the rate of immigration is now at zero. There is the same number of people arriving that is going back to their countries. That information has been out there for five or six years and nobody had bothered to publish it."

The story of Jorge Salaces illustrates the tragedy of Latino families destroyed by forced separation. Salaces moved from Mexico to the US and eventually settled in Dalton, Georgia. Though he became a citizen in 1998, his wife, once caught entering the country illegally, was ineligible. When Georgia enacted its own version of Arizona's infamous anti-immigration bill, she was deported, leaving six children behind, all of them US citizens. The wish for the series is that it can help change long-held perceptions about immigrants. "It is my hope that Latino Americans will provide critical historic context to the debate over immigration reform," says Bieber, who is also credited with creating The Jewish Americans, a six-hour series that aired in 2007, and The Italian Americans, a four-hour series currently in production. "That is why I created this initiative."

"The future is in our youth," says Telles. "By the middle of the century, if trends continue, a third of the population in the US is going to be Latino." This is why, as Bieber describes, "Perhaps the most important component of our initiative is the education curriculum. That provides the long tail for Latino kids to see themselves in the American narrative, and for non-Latinos to see this history as an integral part of their past as well." The public education campaign includes 14 multi-media educational curriculum modules, designed for Grades 8-12. "The series is going to serve as a galvanizing tool, getting educators to make this content available to school-age Latinos," says Neyda Martinez, national engagement consultant for the series. The bilingual digital engagement campaign includes a historical timeline, a user-generated bilingual video library and a blog allowing audiences to share their stories and insights about culture, heritage and identity.

 "The secret to the series is how concentrated the work was," Bosch explains. "We delivered six hours of TV in a year and a half." Navarro, who worked under Valadez in Episode III and V simultaneously, says, "We did 24 interviews in 20 days in four states." The production had five editing rooms running at the same time, with a team of five editors—David Espar, Dan McCabe, Jon Neuburger, Peter Rhodes and Manuel Tsingaris.

Producing the series was an epic accomplishment, but in the process of condensing five centuries of history, some of the critical issues facing Latinos in recent times were left untold. "I wish we could have done more about the undocumented living underground," Telles admits. "Also about the condition of farmworkers in the agricultural fields in California, Florida, the whole South or the miserable, abysmal condition of Guatemalan, Oaxacan and Salvadoran workers in the poultry industry in Georgia. There was so much we could not do."

 "As we move forward and this whole immigration question settles," says Bosch, "I think we are going to have to start looking very hard at what has happened to Latinos in generations, and how can those issue be addressed. There are a lot of young Latinos in a lot of danger, and that is why the chapter on education in the series [Episode VI] is so important. That is why education becomes the key of the future of Latinos in America."

Latino Americans airs Tuesdays on PBS, from September 17 through October 1. The series will also air in Spanish on Vme, the Spanish-language channel on public television, over six consecutive Fridays beginning September 20.

Chelo Alvarez-Stehle is a world reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her current project includes the documentary Sands of Silence and the social impact game SOS_SLAVES.