Carl Juste, a Miami Herald photographer who has traveled the world in two decades with the newspaper, sensed there was something he wasn't meant to see while touring a jail in eastern Brazil this spring.
So he persuaded a softhearted police officer to let him slip past a barricade for a glimpse into one of the cells. ``There were 16 people crammed into space for four. It took about a minute to get that image and I was out of there.''
Carl was one of a dozen photographers, reporters and editors working on a special report about Afro-Latin Americans and their push for equality at the same time as a new awareness of race spreads through the region.
They traveled to every part of the hemisphere to weave a portrait that includes civil rights campaigns, a teenager's first black beauty pageant, jails jammed with black prisoners and cultural conflicts of every variety.
It's a story that has gone mostly ignored both here and in Latin America. For years, the topic has been obscured by myths and denials only now beginning to lift centuries after the slave trade carried perhaps four times as many Africans to the Southern Hemisphere as the Northern.
For all these reasons, World editor John Yearwood decided about a year ago to launch the project. It has since become one of the most ambitious foreign assignments the paper has ever undertaken.
''We've written about Latin America for so long,'' said John, who grew up in the Caribbean. ``But black people had largely been invisible -- not only in our paper but in the American media in general.''
With the title ''A Rising Voice: Afro-Latin Americans,'' the project runs in The Miami Herald, in El Nuevo Herald, on MiamiHerald.com and on WLRN-Miami Herald news radio (91.3 FM). You'll notice some new approaches, such as a timetable that spread the stories out over much of June to give them more reach, a magnificent full-page graphic today that traces the paths of slavery, and online reports that tell the story in slide shows, graphics and audio.
''The visuals bring the story to life in a way that words alone can't do,'' said Nancy San Martin, who covers Central America and has also helped lead the newsroom's work with video and slide shows. ``To hear the natural sounds -- you can write beautifully and still not capture that the way audio does.''
For today's introductory package that begins on Page 1A, reporter Audra D.S. Burch and photographer Charles Trainor Jr. travel to a tiny Nicaraguan port town to illustrate how this awakening reaches every part of the Americas.
Subsequent stories, running Wednesdays and Sundays the next two weeks, take up the civil rights campaign in Brazil, how Cuba has pretended to solve racial issues, how skin color and hair texture fit in the debate in the Dominican Republic, the way governments are finally changing the laws.
The final installment on June 24 is an essay by Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., the most eloquent writer on race in the United States today. He visited Rio de Janeiro to write about the contradictions and obsessions at work in the country with what is likely the world's most complex racial landscape.
For many of the contributors, the project became more than an assignment. That was very much the case with Carl, originally from Haiti, who found himself alternately uplifted by the progress he saw and startled by the discrimination he encountered as restaurants turned him away and police stopped him repeatedly for checks. Yet he was struck above all by the powerful current of change he felt among the many Afro-Latin Americans he spent time with on trips to three locations for the project.
''You feel it everywhere you go,'' Carl said. "It's a rhythm and it's vibrating in every one of these countries.''