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PBS’ ‘Latino Americans’ Puts Faces on a Long History

18 Pt. Drop Head

St. Louis — The story of Latino Americans stretches from sea to shining sea and across 500 years of history. The Spanish in California. Mexicans in Texas and across the Southwest. Puerto Ricans in New York and Cubans in Miami.

But the history of the United States, as most of us learned it, still begins with Jamestown, Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims.

“We tend to think of the United States as an English thing,” says Ray Suarez, who wrote the companion book to Latino Americans, a six-part, three-night documentary series beginning tonight at 8 on PBS. “But this is a case of three empires, Spain, France and Britain, that went charging into this new territory, elbows out, bumping into one another and jostling for dominance.”

In fact, Suarez reminds us, “The first American settlement in 1565 in St. Augustine, Fla., predates Jamestown, and Spanish was the first language spoken in what became the United States. So Latinos are the newest immigrants to the United States and also the oldest inhabitants.”

Suarez, chief national correspondent for PBS’ NewsHour, admits that covering the entire history of Latino Americans in just six hours or 256 pages is “a lot to tackle. It’s a big bite of history, and there’s a lot to stuff into each hour. But I think the series handles that in a way that’s both interesting and coherent, and I hope the book supports that.”

The series and book are structured chronologically, beginning with the earliest history of the Americas. But each episode or chapter also singles out characters (sometimes depicted in dramatizations) through whom the story comes alive.

We meet Apolinaria Lorenzana, who as a child is snatched from Mexico and grows old as an important figure in the Spanish Missions. Juan Seguin, both Texan and Mexican, fights at the Alamo on the American side, next to Davy Crockett. Moving along, in World War II, Macario Garcia becomes the first Mexican National to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta march for the rights of migrant workers in the 1970s.

Why is this important to know? By 2050, almost one in three people in the United States will be Latino, a total of more than 130 million, Suarez writes, citing a Pew Hispanic Center projection. Pew also expects the Hispanic population to triple between 2005 and 2050.

As immigration remains a divisive issue, the vision of the United States as a melting pot is different today, Suarez says.

“Our ideas of what becoming American means have changed. The old idea was that we gave up everything we were. In the middle of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for grandparents to talk to parents in the old language to exclude the children, because they didn’t want the children ever to speak that language.”

Now, the children or grandchildren of immigrants may want to be 100 percent American, or they may want to celebrate their roots and their family history, he says. “It’s up to them. For young Latino Americans, Spanish and English can exist side by side, as two living tongues.”

Suarez’s family came from Puerto Rico in the 1930s, escaping terrible poverty during the Depression, and more followed in the 1950s, when immigration was encouraged by both the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States. He was born in New York, the first in the family born on the mainland, and grew up in Brooklyn, “confident that I was Puerto Rican and proud of it.”

Now, his own three kids speak Spanish “from very well to hardly at all,” Suarez says. “It’s been interesting watching them construct their own identity. Their mom isn’t Puerto Rican, so they are figuring out who they are and where they fit.”

Watching (and reading) “Latino Americans” will tell them a lot about where they came from. And for non-Latinos, “I hope we shed some light, and if we poke a few holes in American history, do it in a way that will open minds.”