PBS series on Latino Americans is long overdue, they say

Maria Recio

When most Americans talk about the heroes of the Alamo, the historic Texas battle for independence from Mexico, they may know the names Davy Crockett, William Travis and James Bowie, but not Juan Seguin.

A young captain in the upstart Texas forces, the Texas-born Seguin had been sent out of the Alamo as a courier at the time the Mexicans finally overran the compound, and he escaped the massacre. He became a celebrated military officer who helped defeat the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto and went on to be a senator in the Texas Republic and mayor of San Antonio. But discrimination and suspicion by whites forced him out of office and even into exile in Mexico.

It’s a little-known story about Latino history in this country that’s now being told as part of a 500-year look at Latino Americans that will be broadcast on PBS stations beginning Tuesday.

Timed to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sunday, the six-hour, three-part series, called “Latino Americans,” examines the development of a new “Latino” identity through 100 interviews, including some famous Latinos such as labor activist Dolores Huerta and singer Gloria Estefan. It will be aired on three consecutive Tuesdays from 8-10 p.m. EDT, broadcast in both English and Spanish.

“We’re trying to construct a history that has not been written,” historian David Montejano, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says in the first episode. “We had a blank slate that had to be recaptured, recovered.”

The series portrays the struggle of Latinos, from enduring “No Mexicans or dogs allowed” signs outside restaurants and segregated schools in the Southwest to a Texas restaurant refusing service to a World War II Medal of Honor winner and the backlash of English-only rules.

The nation’s fastest-growing minority, Latinos say the attention is long overdue.

“One out of six Americans is Latino,” said Ray Suarez of PBS, who wrote an accompanying book for the series. “But if you turn on the TV you’d never know that.”

“Everyone thinks we’re newly arrived,” said Felix Sanchez, the chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. “People never noticed us because we were doing manual labor.”

The history of Latinos, he said, “really is about the growing pains of a country.”

Sanchez said the lack of awareness extended to the present day. He’s led a campaign against the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, saying it’s all but ignored Hispanics in its honors program for lifetime achievement. Last week, the center named two Latinos – opera singer Martina Arroyo and musician Carlos Santana – to this year’s honors, doubling the number of Hispanic recipients in the 35 years the award has been presented.

The PBS series is an ambitious undertaking, covering the history of different migrations, including Mexican-Americans to the Southwest, Cubans to Florida and Puerto Ricans to New York, as well as later waves from the Caribbean.

“The incredible diversity of Latino histories and the regional distinctions of how, when and why make it difficult to capture,” said Anne Martinez, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. “We as a nation are not very cognizant of our history.”

Martinez’s American-born father was in Chicago and was part of the Depression-era “repatriation,” when Latino families were given one-way train tickets to Mexico only to be encouraged later to return to aid the effort during World War II.

“My hope would be that this series would give depth, dimension and subtlety to what has been a black and white history of the U.S.,” she said.

Henry Munoz, a San Antonio businessman who’s the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman, described the recent emergence of Latinos this way: “I’ve heard it referred to as ‘brown time.’”

Munoz, who uses “Latino” instead of “Hispanic,” as does the PBS series, recalled being part of a march with farmworkers organizer Cesar Chavez from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin – Munoz was only 6 years old and rode a burro – to fight for a $1.25 minimum wage.

“We really need to teach the next generation our struggles,” he said.

Nicolas Kanellos, a University of Houston Hispanic studies expert who held a viewing of the series for students, didn’t like the use of celebrities such as Estefan to showcase the Latino struggle or narrator Benjamin Bratt, a Latino heartthrob.

“As a scholar, I would criticize this emphasis on entertainment figures,” he said. “The struggles were at the grass roots, in science, education. There’s a lot more substance to the stories that need to be told.”

By Maria Recio
McClatchy Washington Bureau