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Cepeda: 'Latino Americans' is an uninspiring documentary

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September 13, 2013

History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Here's a cheery description of the upcoming PBS documentary “Latino Americans”:

“It is the first major documentary series that highlights the varied history and experiences of Latinos. This series is going to serve as an inspiration for young people and their families to learn more about their unique cultural heritage, history and contributions to this nation.”

I screened the film, airing nationally on three consecutive Tuesdays starting Sept. 17. I did not come away feeling inspired.

Instead of an evenhanded chronology I found something resembling the canned rantings of leftist zealots who see America's history and present solely in terms of colonialist oppressors who toil at keeping the United States predominantly white in the face of rising multiculturalism.

 On display is every type of discrimination, bigotry and intolerance toward newly arrived immigrants from Latin America with little context about the mistreatments to which the United States has subjected its own born and bred (America is frequently equal-opportunity awful) and with few mentions of commonplace brutalities “back home.”

Yes, there are scores of wonderful, fascinating points of rarely discussed history and many uplifting stories of Hispanics who went on to lead accomplished lives. But their victories seem couched almost exclusively in terms of how they overcame white bigotry while guarding their culture against the evil forces of assimilation.

 I dreaded that non-Hispanic viewers would either feel guilt-tripped or come to the conclusion that all Hispanics are aggrieved and generally reluctant to melt into the American pot.

The endless wrongs cataloged in this six-hour film make you wonder why anyone would ever want come to such an awful land in the first place.

 As a member of the scant one-in-five people of Latin American descent the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project reports using the term “American” most often to describe their identity—as opposed to “Hispanic,” “Latino” or a specific nationality—my negative reaction was probably to be expected.

Sure, I'm the daughter of two low-income immigrants who faced stresses and slights on their way to attaining the American dream. But the country I grew up in did not hate my parents or me, didn't think less of me or deny me anything because of my skin color or last name. And it never made me feel anything but 100 percent American, so I'll grant you that I'm the odd one out here.

I took my concerns to the producers of “Latino Americans.” “We worked very hard to write a straight, factual script with a high level of impartiality and we worked very, very hard for weeks on certain lines to make sure there was a balance there,” said Jeff Bieber, vice president of news and public affairs programming at PBS. “History is interpretive, and when somebody watches a film their feelings aren't wrong, but you must give credit to the segments that are triumphant and positive.” Adriana Bosch, the documentary's Cuban-born producer, offered me some very thoughtful, honest reflections of her own internal conflicts about how to portray the Latino experience.

Bosch described the filmmakers' meticulous efforts at balancing complexities and offering accurate historical perspective. She reported that they actually feared their end product could be offensive for sounding too many triumphant notes.

 “But I see what you're referring to,” Bosch told me. “Maybe the odds are exaggerated. Sometimes when you're making a documentary things get over-dramatized because that's nature of the beast, you maybe overplay the adversary. But it was never intentional.” She also pointed out that due to time restraints, the film is light on stories about successful second- and third-generation Latinos, which may have added to the film's nearly singular focus on struggle.”

I can understand the discomfort. It's a hard story,” Bosch said. “But our telling of it was designed to stir debate, not to rub anybody's nose in anything. It was always designed to be viewed in the context of an America that is, indeed, welcoming. An America where Latinos (BEG ITAL)have(END ITAL) found a land of opportunity and (BEG ITAL)have(END ITAL) realized equality, freedom, democracy and the aspiration to the better life.”I'll be tuning in on Tuesday to watch “Latino Americans” again with those intentions in mind—and hoping to have a different experience, within the frame of reference the film's creators say they attempted.

 Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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