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.”

Read more TV & Radio stories from the Miami Herald

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category