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'Latino Americans' Documentary Shows the Pueblo's History of Immigration

Photo: Courtesy Photo, License: N/A

Courtesy Photo

Make like these niños and learn more about La Raza with PBS’ epic, six-part documentary Latino Americans


Latino Americans, a six-hour documentary with its first two chapters airing Tuesday on KLRN (out on DVD in complete form October 1) is an ambitious project that excels in at least two areas: its in-depth look at the history of the Central American, Caribbean and, of course, Mexican diaspora in the United States, and, simultaneously, its strong reminder of the fact that Latinos were here before Anglos.

The series begins with “Foreigners in Their Own Land,” which covers the 1565-1880 period, when Spanish explorers first landed in North America. The episode then focuses on how European squatters took land from Mexicans and Native Americans even before the ransacking became official following the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. Episode 2, “Empire of Dreams,” discusses the influx of Cubans and Puerto Ricans that began in 1880 and lasted into the early 1940s. The third installment, “War and Peace,” is dedicated to Latino soldiers that served in World War II and the continued discrimination they faced after returning home from war. The star of Episode 4, “The New Latinos,” is poet/liberator José Martí, hailed as the father of Cuba by both exiles and pro-Fidel Castro Cubans, but the episode also examines the growth of Caribbean immigration and the ambiguous position of Puerto Ricans, neither a U.S. state nor an independent country.

Episode 5, “Prejudice and Pride,” centers on the figure of César Chávez, examines how Mexican-Americans embraced their identity and is the perfect companion to PBS’ 1996 Chicano! documentary, with special attention given to civil rights developments that took place in and around San Antonio.
The final episode, “Peril and Promise,” begins with the arrival of the Cuban “Marielitos” in the ’80s and ends with Latinos finally going mainstream in the U.S. It includes the massive surge of Central Americans fleeing civil wars, the renewed effort by conservatives to stop the growth of the Latino populations through laws like California’s Proposition 187, and the Latin music boom of the ’90s that catapulted Miami Sound Machine, Marc Anthony, Jennifer López, Ricky Martin and others to fame.

The best thing about Latino Americans is not just the wealth of information and stunning photographs provided, but the personable focus on the moving—and largely unknown—stories of individuals who shaped the Latino identity. For San Antonians, Episode 5 is a must-see: after revisiting the César Chávez/Dolores Huerta feats in California, it focuses on three key regional Mexican-American leaders with radically different styles—Henry B. González (the first Hispanic Representative from Texas and longest-serving Hispanic Congressman ever), José Ángel Gutiérrez (co-founder of the Raza Unida Party, which won municipal elections in Cotulla, Carrizo Springs and Crystal City in 1970) and Willie Velásquez, whose voter registration efforts in the early ’70s were proof of his vision and solidified San Antonio’s historical status as a center for brown empowerment. Unfortunately for the Latino cause, Velásquez died of kidney cancer in 1988 at age 44. Avoiding hagiography, the series is quick to point to in-fighting among the key reasons for the eventual wane of the Chicano movement.

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