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Latinos 'Not Just A Chapter In U.S. History'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear about the songs that keep Cuban-American rapper Pitbull grounded, that is when he's not cranking out his own chart-topping hits. First, though, we want to tell you about a new documentary series that takes a look at the long, some might say, overlooked, history of Hispanics in this country. It's called "Latino Americans."


DAVID MONTEJANO: What is our history? What is our past? What is the claim that we have to be members of this society?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are not here to threaten or to beg. We are here to participate.

MARTIN: The series will be running on PBS throughout Hispanic Heritage Month. Now, earlier this week, we spoke with veteran journalist Ray Suarez who wrote the companion book. Today, we meet the producer of the series, Adriana Bosch. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ADRIANA BOSCH: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So, you know, you've done so many documentaries about historic figures like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro. How did you approach something like this, which is so broad, so sweeping? I mean, 500 years of history. What was the first thing that you thought about? What was your objective in trying to figure out what to leave in and want to leave out?

BOSCH: The choices were very hard. Are you going to do a chronological story, or are you going to do a group-by-group hourly story? You know, these stories intersect. Some do, some don't, and if you divided it up an hour per group, you would be - probably, you might end up with a more satisfying trajectory for each group, but you wouldn't see the full picture of Latinos in U.S. history. If we wanted to make the point that we are not a chapter, we're a page in American history, but that we are American history, we had to basically do a trajectory that intersected with the major events in American history.

MARTIN: Well, indeed, you start at the very beginning, as we said - that the series goes back 500 years before this was a country. What is the first piece of information you think people should know about the presence of Latinos in this land?

BOSCH: Well, you know, we took the approach that this country really was born from different fountains, and we built this image of the United States as a multiethnic nation from its inception. So it isn't the picture of the United States, you know, going west from Plymouth and Jamestown and becoming a nation by expanding, - manifest destiny - but rather a nation that came from different places and began to kind of color the map, if you will. And I think when you watch the documentary, you will see that and you will feel that very distinctly.

MARTIN: You were born in Cuba.

BOSCH: I actually was 15 years old...

MARTIN: Fifteen.

BOSCH: ...When I came to the United States. Yes, I left Cuba when I was 13.

MARTIN: So you grew up here...

BOSCH: I did.

MARTIN: ...And spent your adult life here. Do you feel that that kind of outsider-insider perspective influenced the way you approached this project?

BOSCH: Well, I think it does inform the way you look at this. I think what helps me is that I was raised with another vision of history and another way of looking at history. And I understood that there were more histories than the history that is taught in the United States and also that American history is not a history that is confined to American borders. I was born in an island near the United States, very influenced by the presence of America in many good ways and in ways that were not so good. And so you get this feeling that you understand that history is more complex than a single driving force that's sometimes accepted as the history of America. It's more diverse.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the PBS series, a six-part documentary series called "Latino Americans." We're talking with filmmaker Adriana Bosch. The film, I think, you know - some of this history will be very well known to some people, but I think some of it will be very new, and particularly when it kind of describes the experience of immigrants - waves of immigrants over time. There's a clip that I want to play. In it, a man named Sal Castro recalls witnessing the Zoot Suit Riots. This was a series of riots in Los Angeles during World War II between white sailors and Latino youth, and I'll just play the clip. Here it is.


SAL CASTRO: They turned on the lights and a bunch of sailors went into the theater looking for Mexican kids. Then they yanked them out, and they started taking off their pants or cutting their trousers. And the worst part is, I said, well, they're going to stop this. The cops are coming and they're going to stop it. Hell, no. The cops stood there laughing.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us more about that?

BOSCH: We struggled really hard trying to figure out what was the root of this confrontation. It was literally that it was a first encounter. You had all these kids coming from the Midwest, kids coming from all over the place and they were thrown into bases on the border of the Mexican neighborhoods. And it's the first time that these two groups had seen each other. And it was a violent - it was a very explosive confrontation, and they looked different in the sense - you know, the de vatos - the pachucos, I should say, were wearing zoot suits and they were, you know, acting out. And for the sailors, this was the first time they saw anything like this. And then there was also - on the side of the pachucos - the sailors were coming and dating their girlfriends. So it created a lot of friction, but I think at the heart of this friction was this first encounter for many of these young people with a new culture that they had not been raised in.

MARTIN: But talk about the complexities of the situation. I think a lot of people are used to seeing, you know, racial confrontations as existing between people who are completely segregated, like there's the whites on one side, there's blacks on the other side. In the military, for example, one of the reasons that this whole episode is interesting - it's interesting for a lot of reasons - but one is that this is taking place during World War II where there were Hispanic-Americans serving in the military alongside white soldiers, unlike that African-Americans who were largely segregated, right, who were in segregated units. So it kind of adds a layer of complexity, right?

BOSCH: I think you have to look closely at the chronology. This is 1942, so it's early in the war. There hasn't been a lot of experience of Latinos and Americans fighting together and all of that. And a lot of the kids that were going into these communities were recruits, and it was a training base. It was, you know - they were just freshly there, and so they hadn't gone through this experience that, you know, that happened of comradery-ship that happened, supposedly, in the armed forces in these units. What really becomes racist in the confrontation is the way in which the LA press and the LA police handled the situation, where the, you know, the Mexicans were blamed for starting a lot of these riots, and even the riots became known as the Zoot Suit Riots, as if the zoot suiters were the ones who began the riots. I mean, why not call them, you know, the Marine Riots or the U.S. Army Riots, you know?

MARTIN: Why zoot suits, by the way? This was at a time when, what, cloth was rationed because of the war. Well, why a zoot suit? Is it just because their outfits were perceived as an affront? Is it - I guess what I'm asking is were these the baggy pants of that era? Were these the saggers of that era?

BOSCH: They were. They were the saggers of that error. I mean, these were - you know, the zoot suits were first worn by African-Americans, and the Mexican-Americans adopted them. And they had the long jacket and the bands, you know, and the attitude that went with it, and there was sort of an expression of pride in difference.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of different perspectives, I mean, you talk about the fact that there are feelings - that there have always been different feelings about different groups of immigrants coming at different times, depending on who they are and when they come. I mean, there's a lot of focus on the experience of Latinos in Miami, particularly Cuban-Americans, many of whom immigrated in the '50s after Fidel Castro seized power. Now a lot of people maybe see Miami as a very kind of Cuban-centric place where people have, you know, a lot of political and social capital. And one of the points that you make in the film is that it isn't always that way, and it wasn't always that way. I'll just play a short clip from a new story from the '70s and '80s. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I hate them using Spanish all the time. You can't get them to speak English.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Make me a refugee, then I'll have some rights, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I say put them on leaky boats.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit about that - about that section.

BOSCH: I was surprised. I tell you, I am a Cuban-American, as you know, and I was surprised when I saw that. There was an acceptance at first with Cubans-Americans coming into Miami. There were white middle-class, you know, people - they were coming into a place that was kind of not well-formed, in some ways. But then, you know, Cubans came in large numbers. You know, our culture is not a reticent culture. We are very expressive and very proud of who we are and sometimes, you know, a little assertive in how we present ourselves.

And eventually, there was a reaction to our being here, but that - those things became easier in the '70s, in the '60s, as Cubans began to make inroads into Miami and began to do businesses and began to move into communities. And then, you had the large wave of Mariel coming in in 1980.

MARTIN: You're talking here about the Mariel boatlift, and it was later learned that many of these people were people that Castro had let out of jail.

BOSCH: Right, and all of the stuff that had been accumulated underneath, all the resentment that had been kind of papered over, if you may, just burst forth. And you had a lot of that happening in Miami, where Americans were, you know, afraid that, you know, here were a hundred thousand Cubans who, on top of it, did not look all white, did not look all wealthy, and, you know - and it became kind of threatening, and a lot of people really saw that as a problem, and Miami became kind of Ground Zero. Oddly, and surprisingly, I think, you know, for a lot of people, of the anti-immigrant - a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that swept the country, subsequently.

MARTIN: So what do you want people to walk away from? As we said, it's a very rich series - six parts. It'll be airing throughout the month on PBS. What would you hope people would take away from this?

BOSCH: I feel that what we are really saying is that humans are not perfect. This country has had a difficult history. At times, it's been a brawl, you know. At times, there's been confrontation, head-on, by different groups. But ultimately, what has remained intact is the promise and the vision and the principles that the country stands for. And every group marches toward the achievement of those principles and tries to find opportunities to get there. The difficulties along the road are huge, but I think there is something still quite valid about that promise of freedom and opportunity that Latinos are, you know, are striving for, and so many of them, as you can see in the film, have succeeded.

And if that promise were not alive, then the success stories would not exist. I think Montejano's opening that you played at the beginning of this broadcast - it kind of encapsulates what we're trying to say. And it is, who are we, what are we and what is our claim to being members of the society? You know, that stands for declaration of legitimacy in a sense. What's our claim? Why? Why do we - why are we Americans? And I think underneath that is - the answer is because we've earned it.

MARTIN: Adriana Bosch is the producer of "Latino Americans." That six-part documentary series will air on PBS throughout Hispanic Heritage Month. She was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami. Adriana Bosch, thanks so much for joining us.

BOSCH: Thank you, Michel. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.