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New PBS documentary uses personal stories to recount 500 years of Latino history

Published September 15, 2013 1:48 pm

'Latino Americans' • Identity and its evolution at the heart of three-part series that begins Tuesday on KUED.
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Actor Benjamin Bratt believes history is best told with a first and a last name.

Too often, though, the story of a people in a place is portrayed primarily through a litany of socioeconomic and political realities.

A new three-part PBS series that begins Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. on KUED explores the economics and politics of Latino immigration in the U.S. in all their complexities. But "Latino Americans" does so using powerful personal narratives that enable viewers to experience the drama and appreciate the journey regardless of their heritage, said Bratt, who narrates each of the series' two-hour segments.

"There are so many stories yet there's commonality in all of them in how American they are," he said in previewing "Latino Americans" last month at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference in Anaheim, Calif.

"It's hard not to feel moved because they are our stories," said Bratt, whose mother is a Peruvian immigrant. "[The series] fills me with a great deal of pride."

"Latino Americans" is ambitious, described by PBS as the "first major documentary series to chronicle the rich and varied history and experiences of Latinos in North America over the past 500-plus years."

Following history • Episode one begins as the first Spanish explorers enter North America and follows U.S. expansion into territories in the Southwest before ending as the Mexican-American War strips Mexico of half its holdings.

Subsequent episodes rely on intimate interviews and evocative illustrations, photos and footage to document the evolution from the 1500s to the present day of "Latino American" identity and its far-reaching — and ever-growing — cultural, economic and political influence.

Producer Adriana Bosch draws on the stories of more than 100 Latino politicians, business leaders, actors, musicians and writers, including singer Gloria Estefan, actress Rita Moreno, author and commentator Linda Chavez and labor activist Dolores Huerta. Interviews also capture the stories of lesser-known individuals whose insights about key moments in history are profound.

The production, coupled with a companion book of the same title, is illuminating beyond anyone's expectations, Ray Suarez, the book's author, said at the NAHJ conference.

"It helps us understand how we got from zero to 53 million [Latinos in the U.S.]," said Suarez, chief national correspondent for "PBS NewsHour."

Bosch, who was born in Cuba, emphasized in a statement that the series does not "shy away from addressing key issues of legitimacy, justice, discrimination and the very meaning of citizenship."

"But what I am most proud of is that we were able to tell history in the first person," she said. "That is what makes our stories compelling."

Utah conversations • On Sept. 17, in conjunction with the debut of "Latino Americans," KUED will present online at kued.org a series of six conversations with Utah Latinos interviewed by Venezuela-born filmmaker Laura Montoya.

There's much to be learned by viewing each immigrant — whether they live in Utah or not — as an individual, said Montoya, who first came to Salt Lake City as an exchange student.

Her interviews capture the stories of Jose Enriquez, executive director of Latinos in Action; state Sen. Luz Robles; University of Utah law student Jasmin Fierro; speedskating Olympic medalist Derek Parra; Armando Solorzano, a U. of U. history professor; and Barbara Melendez, a law professor and a member of the Utah Commission on Immigration and Migration.

Each story is unique, as is each person's contribution as he or she molds a new identity that recognizes both Latino heritage and U.S. influences, Montoya said.

More than anything, the PBS series and KUED's Utah Latino interviews enlighten by demonstrating the complexities that define Latinos and their history in North America — or that of any other significant contributors to U.S. history.

"It helps us think about how we define the American dream," Montoya said.


Twitter: @lcarricaburu —

'Latino Americans'

The PBS documentary series exploring the history and experiences of Latinos in North America over 500 years airs in three two-hour segments on KUED at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 and 24 and Oct. 1. Companion interviews conducted by filmmaker Laura Montoya with six Latino Americans living and working in Utah can be viewed at kued.org or on Vme, KUED's Spanish-language channel.