A Mexican Independence Day celebration in 1920's Los Angeles. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

A Mexican Independence Day celebration in 1920’s Los Angeles. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

Author and journalist Ray Suarez tells the “Latino American” story

Ray Suarez, a senior correspondent for PBS News Hour and host of radio show, American Abroad, had thought he already knew about some American Latino history. However, after being asked to write “Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy that Shaped a Nation,” he says, “I really thought to myself, ‘Wow, you really didn’t know anything.’”

“Whether it be the early years of Puerto Rico‘s Operation Bootstrap — to the journalism of José Martí — he was a fascinating essayist and writer — it was just really interesting stuff,” says Suarez, whose book also chronicles Mexican-American civil rights struggles with school desegregation and the activism of the United Farm Workers, as well events such as the Mariel boatlift and the changing Latino demographics.

Available in English and Spanish, “Latino Americans” which hit shelves this month, is the companion book to the PBS series of the same name, which premieres Tuesday, September 17. The project, also led by Emmy Award-winning producer Adriana Bosch, brings to light the role of Latino men and women in America for more than 500 years — from life in the early European settlements to the Great Depression, to the Spanish-American War and Civil Rights Movement through the present.

“The producers of the TV series approached me when it was just a dream,” says Suarez, adding it took him about 18 months to write “Latino Americans.” “The book had to be done about six months before the TV series, but I had to work with the team because the book had to be on track with the series.”

He says you can read and watch the PBS series and still learn something new.

“They are complementary but not exactly the same,” says Suarez, who rummaged through countless black-and-white photos in state archives, university systems and even family possessions to include in the book.

The most challenging part of writing the book he says, was fitting the 500-year history in 256 pages.

“I had to keep it short and accessible and attach the history people do not know to what they do know,” says the author. “That was really fun — it was hard, but it was fun.”

He further explains how hard it was to not include some stories in the book. One of the ones it pained him to exclude, due to space, was the story of Pedro Albizu Campos. He was the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard Law School who was also imprisoned 26 years for attempting to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico and died shortly after his release from federal prison.

“He was one of the fathers of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement — he’s a fascinating story who deserves a whole book of his own,” says Suarez, who himself is of Puerto Rican descent.

Overall, he says history proves that Latinos were not victims, but fighters who overcame their obstacles.

“By persevering they prove their worth as members of the community,” says Suarez. “They fought for the right to vote, fought against social exclusion, and they kept on fighting until they were part of a whole.”

He also foresees books like “Latino Americans” becoming more and more necessary as the Latino population is now more than 50 million and growing.

“I consider both the book and the series just an introduction as the community grows — the necessity of more programs will only grow,” says Suarez. “I hope this creates enough of an appetite to know more about this history. This will be a failure if just Latinos watch — part of the point is to bring these stories to other Americans as well. This story is their story, even if they’re not Latino.”

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