Television

PBS show is a 500-year look at Latino Americans

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

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 Seguín.

A young captain in the upstart Texas forces, the Texas-born Seguín had been sent out of the Alamo as a courier at the time the Mexicans finally overran the compound and 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 is a little-known story about Latino history in this country that is 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, 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. and broadcast in English and Spanish.

“We’re trying to construct a history that has not been written,” said historian David Montejano, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, 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 service and the backlash of English-only rules.

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

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

“Everyone thinks we’re newly arrived,” said Felix Sanchez, 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 extends to the present day. He has led a campaign against the Kennedy Center for all-but-ignoring 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.

“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.”

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

Muñoz, who uses “Latino” instead of “Hispanic,” as does the PBS series, recalled being part of a march with farm workers organizer Cesar Chavez from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin – he 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, did not like the use of celebrities like Estefan to showcase the Latino struggle and narrator Benjamin Bratt, a Latino heartthrob.

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

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