New PBS series ‘Latino Americans’ shines light on Latino history in U.S.

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    An actor portrays Juan Seguín, a political and military figure of the Texas Revolution and Republic of Texas in PBS series ‘Latino Americans’. (Brett Buchanan Photography, 2012.)

    Latino history in the United States has been obscure until now. A new documentary series narrated by actor Benjamin Bratt will chronicle the history of Latinos in the United States, going back 500 years and leading up to where Latinos are today, the largest minority group in the country.

    Producer Ray Telles, responsible for producing a portion of a new upcoming series on PBS called “Latino Americans“, spoke to VOXXI about the project, his contribution and the future of Latinos in America.

    The Emmy award-winning producer has been behind PBS Frontline’s “Children of the Night” and “The Fight in the Fields”, a 90-minute documentary on Cesar Chavez, among other films.

    Being Mexican-American himself, Telles couldn’t be more passionate about “Latino Americans”. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Telles maintains a connection to his Mexican roots. In a way, this series shows the history of his family and allows for other families to relate and learn more about their own culture.

    I was fortunate enough to interview Telles and get more details about this upcoming documentary based on the history of Latin people and the last episode of this series, which he produced.

    Q&A with Ray Telles

    ray telles, PBS Latino Americans

    Producer Ray Telles of PBS’ ‘Latino Americans’. (Photo PBS)

    Q: So Ray, tell me a bit about “Latino Americans”?

    A:  It’s a three-part series made up each of two hours airing three consecutive Tuesdays.  Basically, it’s a total of six hours and each hour goes through a different period of Latin history. It begins in the 1500s and ends in present day so we cover a lot of territory. The first show, for example, covers the 1500s to the 1880s, Spanish explorers landing in North America up through the Mexican American War, and that’s just the first hour of the first night.

    Q: Where did the idea to create this series arise from?

    A: This idea has been around for at least 20 years. Several independent producers in the mid ’90s and I tried to raise money for it and couldn’t do it. But about four or five years ago Jeff Bieber, executive producer for WETA, got together with Latino Public Broadcasting and tried to get this off the ground. We got together, started to raise the money and develop this so it’s been in the works for about four or five years and we went into production about a year and a half ago.

    Q: What was your role in this project?

    A: I produced the last show, show number six, which deals with history from the 1980s to present day. The people of Miami in the ’60s and ’70s were basically in a bilingual city. You had the bilingual forms at the county and people could get city services in both English and Spanish. But in the 1980s there was a strong reaction to it and it started to trigger anti-bilingual measures around the country that continued for 20 years. That’s where we start and we go through the history to bring us to where we are today. Hour six [Episode 6] takes us through the last 30 years.

    Q: What would be your hopes for Latinos in the future?

    A: I think the key is education. Marta Tienda,  a sociology professor at Princeton, says you got to look at Latino youth, which means there is going to be a huge number of Latinos coming to age over the next 15 to 20 years and what happens to them is going to dramatically influence what happens to this country. These are the people of our future. If we educate our youth that’s good. If we don’t, then things can go badly. How we deal with our youth is going to have a dramatic impact on the direction of this country, just by looking at the numbers. I hope that Latinos get fully recognized for our contribution and we all thrive and prosper as full members of this society. I’m hoping that we are all allowed to have a place in society. It’s kind of a utopian idea, but I think it would be good for the whole country.

    ‘Latino Americans’ to serve as educational tool

    PBS latino americans

    An actress portrays Apolinaria Lorenzana in PBS series ‘Latino Americans’. (Brett Buchanan Photography, 2012.)

    “Latino Americans” will serve as a form of education for both Latinos and non-Latinos.

    “We want to get the word out there about who we are and get some recognition for our contributions,” Telles said. “It’s important that North Americans understand that the issues that are concerning us as Latinos concern all Americans and the issues that concern other Americans concern Latinos.”

    “Our population is growing so large that it is a very considerable part of the American population. Whether people are documented or undocumented at this point isn’t the issue, because those 11 or 12 million undocumented people do pay taxes and use the social services and we all deserve a voice. We really all have to be incorporated into the American discourse.”

    Along with the narration being done by Bratt, there will also be some recognizable figures sharing their experiences such as Gloria Estefan and Rita Moreno. Estefan was pivotal in terms of Latino music and Moreno migrated from Puerto Rico and became the star of “West Side Story”, along with winning numerous awards. “We have people telling stories of that period that they were brought up in, and personal stories is something that engages people,” shared Telles.

    The series airs in September and right now it is gearing up for an outreach campaign with Voto Latino. The whole idea is to get young people engaged, to bring them together to make changes in the community. “Voto Latino has this principal that American issues are Latino issues and vice versa. It focuses on Latino Youth. Ultimately the power is in the vote and they are trying to get youth to understand that whole concept,” Telles said.

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