The aim of PBS’s new documentary on Latinos in the United States becomes clear in the first moments of the broadcast: “What is our history?” asks a man with the weary smile of one who has posed such questions before. “What is the claim that we have to being members of this society?”
The six hours that follow are an ambitious effort to chart that history and establish that claim by reinterpreting familiar American sagas — from the Alamo to World War II, the Depression to the civil rights movement — and casting Latinos in leading roles. Though the film stresses the unique impact of Hispanics in the United States, it does not portray a people set apart. ”Latino Americans” is as relentlessly assimilationist in its viewpoint as it is unfailingly sympathetic to its subject.
To take us from 1565 — when Spain created Florida’s San Agustin, the first European settlement in what would become the United States — to the 21st century, with Dreamers marching and Minutemen on patrol, the filmmakers deploy still images, recovered diaries, press reports, artwork, video re-enactments and insights from historians, journalists and activists. They also mix in interviews with legendary Latino cultural figures including Rita Moreno, Gloria Estefan and Julia Alvarez. It’s an impressive group, but a culturally safe one, validated by crossover appeal — qualities the overall project seems to strive for.
It’s not necessary; the story is impressive enough. Beginning with Tuesday night’s first two-hour installment, Latinos are building church missions and working fields, fighting wars and organizing voters, launching businesses and marching on state capitals and, finally, from Los Angeles to Miami, erecting great cities, from which leaders with Spanish names have emerged to reach some of the highest offices in the land. If 21st century America is witnessing a “Hispanic moment,” it was a long time coming.
The moment traces its beginnings to men like Capt. Juan Seguín, a third-generation Tejano from San Antonio who fought for Texas independence alongside Crockett and Bowie, and whose life bookends the film. Seguin escaped death at the Alamo and later would lead soldiers into battle against Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, helping Sam Houston defeat the Mexican strongman.
Seguin become a senator in the new republic of Texas in 1837 and later mayor of San Antonio. But as a backlash grew in Texas against all Mexicans, even those who had fought for independence, he felt like “a foreigner in my own land” and fled to Mexico. Not until 1976, more than eight decades after his death, would his remains be returned to Texas.
That is a recurring theme in “Latino Americans” — a people scapegoated and rejected, second-class citizens on soil they had once claimed. Even though treaties and reforms gradually granted Latinos rights to land and representation, such privileges dissipated when they collided with economic interests.
During the California Gold Rush, for instance, hundreds of Mexicans, descendants of families who had populated the West in Spanish colonial days, were lynched in brutal displays of Anglo power. And historians recount how some 300,000 to 500,000 Mexicans and Mexican American workers were forced out during the Depression, through raids, deportations and voluntary train rides back to Mexico.
Such episodes reinforced the logic that still defines America’s immigration debate — “a pattern of wanting Mexican labor at times in which employment is needed,” a historian explains, “and wanting people to just leave and go somewhere else when that labor is no longer needed.”
The film depicts instances of Latinos fighting back — such as Las Gorras Blancas, hooded resistance riders who burned rail bridges and sliced barbed wire throughout New Mexico in the late 1800s, battling white ranchers whose new holdings cut through their lands — but it more often shows them wielding the lawful tools that marginalized groups use to gain power: military service and the quest for civil rights.
Consider Hector Garcia, a Mexican American doctor and World War II veteran. Because of his ethnicity, Garcia was first assigned to the infantry rather than the medical corps, but still looked back on his service in North Africa and Italy as a time free of discrimination. It was not until he set up medical practice in south Texas after the war and witnessed the poverty in Latino slums that he turned to activism.
Garcia launched the American G.I. Forum to help Latino vets receive the benefits of the G.I. Bill. And when the forum took up the cause of Pvt. Felix Longoria, who died in action in the Philippines but was refused burial in his hometown of Three Rivers, Tex., Garcia’s efforts sparked a friendship with a recently elected U.S. senator: Lyndon Baines Johnson.
LBJ arranged for Longoria to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and Garcia soon became the most prominent Latino civil rights leader of his era. When John F. Kennedy picked Johnson as his running mate, Garcia started the “Viva Kennedy” clubs to help turn out voters. And when Johnson addressed Congress on the Voting Rights Act, he recalled teaching in a poor Mexican American school: “It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students.”
The film’s narrator, Peruvian American actor Benjamin Bratt, acknowledges that “many saw the new laws only in the context of the black civil rights movement.” But “Latino Americans” places the Hispanic experience squarely within the movement, likening the labor organizing by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in the West to Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts in the South.
The documentary dutifully presents the viewpoint of those advocating more restrictive immigration, but its images of adorable immigrant children and a generous helping of stars and stripes inspire pro-immigration emotions. It depicts new waves of Latinos in America — generations of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans, in addition to the dominant Mexicans — as overcoming misunderstanding and overzealous police forces to build a life here.
The film rejects the notion of Hispanic immigration as a purely economic force. “This is the tragedy of immigration,” a sociologist laments. “Countries want workers but they get people; they get families.” Yet it also concludes with an ode to Latino economic power. “We are the workers of today and tomorrow,” a commentator boasts. “We are the consumers of today and of tomorrow.” At some point, you need to choose the case you’re making.
Which leads to the question of audience. Is “Latino Americans” for Hispanics eager to explore their history, or for others who need to be sold on the 51 million Latinos around them?
“Latino Americans” is far too elegant to be dismissed as a sort of “Latinos for Dummies,” but at times it has a “Latinos for Gringos” quality. If Latinos ever find a spot among the ethnic enclaves on the National Mall to create a museum of their own — and thus a forum for expressions of acceptance, guilt or curiosity by outsiders — I can only assume “Latino Americans” will be available in the gift shop.
(two hours; first of three parts) airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WETA and MPT. Continues Sept. 24 and Oct. 1.