WASHINGTON — Who said a Puerto Rican is the same as a Dominican? What does a Salvadoran have in common with a Guatemalan? Are Brazilians Latinos?
The Latino denomination is as complicated as the differences between empanadas from one Latin American culture to the next. Some are deep-fried, others are baked, some use bread, while others have flaky exteriors, and traditional ones contain ground beef while more modern versions are pizza-filled.
The ingredients and methods for creating the consummate empanada spans the entire American continent and reflects the overlap, combination, absorption and embrace of Latin American people in the United States.
CNN’s “Latino in America,” a four-hour documentary series reported by veteran journalist of color Soledad O’Brien, is the newest project that will attempt to tell numerous stories about the Latino experience for all Americans. The special will air both 21 October and 22 October at 9 p.m.
“I knew from the outset I had to have as broad a focus as possible to cover such a large story. My team of producers, photographers and editors had to look at the Latino community through many sets of eyes,” O’Brien wrote in a book by the same title, chronicling her experience in filming the special. “You can’t easily group people who come from as far away as Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with people of Mayan, Incan and Taíno descent who have mixed with Spaniards, Africans and Jews. We are about so much more than where we came from or how we look.”
At an event at the Newseum Annenberg Theater, Washington, D.C.-area Latinos, including both scholars and activists, were invited to a brief preview and discussion about the documentary. The 46-minute clip looked at individual stories, focusing a critical lens on the largest minority group to answer the question: “Where are they as a people and how are they included in American life?”
Trying to pinpoint Latinidad can be elusive. It can start in Latin America and travel back and forth across the continent including and excluding indigenous and African-descended segments, so producers focused instead on U.S.-based characters that run the gamut of experiences from immigration activists to successful chefs to a troubled young Latina from East Los Angeles struggling to adjust to life in the suburbs.
From these stories, producers said they found a divergent and often divided community united only by their common experience in America, said Rosa Arce, senior producer on the project and native Washingtonian, who co-authored Latino in America.
“You may not agree with the way we covered it, you may think we spent too much time on one thing and not enough on another,” said Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer of CNN Productions. “But at least this is a starting point for a discussion.”
Capturing a multicolored, multicountry, multilingual and multigenerational population was more than a challenge, Nelson said. It was a lesson in the meaning of diversity.
“I thought CNN did a very good job of thinking through the wide diversity of Latinos,” said Dr. Joseph Palacios, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University. “Their methodology of going to people directly was a very good way of getting to know them. If the American population wants to know any group, it’s best to catch people in their daily lives, their family lives and the barriers they confront.”
Using the Latino/Hispanic marker is a contentious point among some Latinos who would rather identify by their subgroup because a lump label cannot describe nuance. Arce said they used Latino instead of Hispanic to express a phenomenon that occurs only in the United States.
While Hispanic tends to describe Spanish origin or immigration, Latino promotes collectivity and belonging, Arce said. She said events like Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court appointment is a victory that touches all Latinos.
“The essential point is that we don’t come together in a real way until we set foot on U.S. soil,” O’Brien wrote. “That’s when our ‘Latino’ experience begins. Latino is an American identity.”
Palacios agreed with the film’s framework, saying the “Latino” designation is a political label that describes how Latin Americans who come to the U.S. — whether they come from Mexico, Venezuela, and Chile — become Latinos.
“Somehow along the way by living in the U.S. they have to double identify at the very least,” Palacios said. “Latino has become a way to become part of the United States that allows them to be a Cuban becoming Latino, becoming American.”
Applause came with a hint of apprehension from the audience as the lights went up on panelists who were careful to tread lightly on the multiple controversies surrounding Latino identity.
“We have to be as vigorous in our praise as in our criticism,” said panelist Mickey Ibarra, a government relations and public affairs consultant and former Clinton appointee. “What we have here is a first, to tell stories that have never been told before to millions of people.”
Georgetown University senior Joshua Guzman said he was concerned with some of the assimilation language in the portrayal of Pico-Rivera, a town in California populated heavily by Hispanics yet described as “Americana.”
In the documentary, Latinos played baseball instead of soccer, cooked hot dogs instead of tacos and generally did not speak Spanish while the narration extolled Pico-Rivera as the example of assimilation others may want to embrace.
Guzman said the emphasis on assimilation and glorification of the “American Dream” is problematic since many immigrants never get there.
“I don’t know if there is enough consciousness about the idea of the American Dream to frame the entire four hours,” said Guzman, co-chair of Georgetown’s MEChA organization, a politicized Latino student group. “It is more detrimental to the Latino community because it sends the message that, if you don’t look like Pico-Rivera, your dreams can’t happen here. The rhetoric is fueling the immigration, and they go through so much only to get a small sliver of the dream. It’s a big lie.”
Nevertheless, the South Texas native said the documentary will allow educated Latinos to recognize their privilege to discuss identity and hopefully engender a sense of collective responsibility on behalf of the powerless in the Latino community.
For some audience members, CNN’s special was welcomed but fell short of a concession to the Latino community for broadcasting Lou Dobbs’ hour-long, primetime show.
Adam Luna, of America’s Voice, an immigrant reform advocacy group that has called on CNN to drop Dobbs, asked whether the documentary delves into Latino media portrayals.
“We appreciate the four hours of coverage,” Luna said but added that Dobbs is allowed to broadcast more than 260 hours a year, “propagating dishonest reports about Latinos and immigrants.”
Before the event, demonstrators carrying enlarged photographs of Dobbs with “LIAR” plastered on his forehead circled in front of the venue from the immigrant rights organization CASA de Maryland.
“Bashing, bashing, bashing Latinos. I don’t recall if he has said a positive thing about Latinos,” said Frederico Subervi, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media and Markets at Texas State University.
Subervi said CNN’s documentary is a good start for better coverage of Latinos but warned it cannot end there.
“A band-aid is better than letting it continue to hemorrhage,” Subervi said, characterizing the relationship between mainstream news media and the Latino community. “But it won’t heal the wound.”
See http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2009/latino.in.america/ for more on “Latinos in America.”