Is there really a ‘shared Latino history?’
This week, the six-hour “Latino Americans” documentary made its national debut. I was one of the few who actually received the whole series in advance and was excited about the prospect.
Yet when I saw it, I was disinterested until the series moved into more modern times with first-person accounts.
Like one friend said to me, “This series feels like going to a really cool history class with a very bad professor.” One reviewer said it best: “The documentary, narrated by Benjamin Bratt (son of a Peruvian mother), is rather dry in spite of the rich subject matter. It’s particularly slow-going at the start (the pre-Alamo section is a slog), but it picks up steam as the chronology moves toward the modern age with notables contributing first-person accounts.”
Don’t get me wrong, the early content needed to be examined and yes, a large part of the U.S. history covered in the series’ first hours is rarely told.
But such a progression from the really boring to the somewhat promising makes sense to me for this very simple reason: the PBS series tried really hard to force-feed a narrative that U.S. Latinos were a cohesive group of people back in the day. In fact, this notion of Latino cohesion is still in an infant and experimental phase.
Unlike the experiences of other marginalized groups in America, there was no clear “Latino” experience years ago, unlike say, a Black experience or an Irish one. It was more a hodgepodge of different groups from different parts of Latin America and from different parts of a territory that used to be part of Mexico but was lost in a war that no one really wants to discuss. There was also an indigenous experience that uncomfortably gets overlooked.
The experience of a Nuevo Mexicano living in the 19th century was vastly different from say, a Cuban living in Florida. To suggest that “Latino Americans” have always been around feels contrived because this is Hispanic Heritage Month and PBS made the natural choice to aggressively market and broadcast the series during this time.
Of course, kudos to PBS for the intent, but presenting the series in a larger thematic “Latino” umbrella is a false narrative, especially since such a term is relatively new (some would say imposed) to the American experience. In other words, we came into this country as Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, etc. – and we had vastly diverging stories.
The idea of a more unified Latino voice – and what that voice will eventually evolve into – is happening right now. That unification process is a messy one, and it is nowhere near fulfillment. Furthermore, there are those that will forever reject the notion that looking at commonalities will lead to loss of one’s individual identity. We still have a long way to go, for sure.
But this is all part of the plan. Let’s step back for a minute and see this from a larger lens: a major U.S. English-speaking network invested money in creating a very high-profile documentary about a group of people who share a cultural connection to a Spanish colonial past that had its own tragic consequences. That cultural connection can get murky, but it is what it is, regardless of whether you like it.
The fact that people are actually talking about the documentary—dissecting it, praising it, criticizing it—is a huge step forward. Yet, let’s not fall into the trap that those who self-identify as Latino in America have always been Latino Americans since the early days of the Republic. That came later, and to be honest, it was imposed on us. Nonetheless, I have always felt that the Latino term had more to do with latinidad than anything else.
We are still figuring it out, but the future is a bright one, because this notion of the much talked-about 52 million and growing group of people turning into an economic and political is slowly becoming reality. Now through technology and social media, that Nuevo Mexicano can talk directly to that Cuban in Florida. They can share the commonalities that they once thought divided them.
The real Latino American renaissance is now.
This is why so many are telling their stories and sharing them, and why we see so much more interest (and push back) into crafting an more united front. I don’t need to sit through a six-hour documentary to tell me that, although I understand why others might.
I look forward to the sequel 30 years from now. That is when we will know whether we achieved our goal or not.
Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.