PBS series looks at 500 years of Latino history in America

2013-09-17T00:00:00Z 2013-09-17T10:56:04Z PBS series looks at 500 years of Latino history in AmericaBy Ernesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

When Ray Suarez, the senior correspondent for the PBS “Newshour” program, began to write about Latinos in the United States, he began with a conundrum: how to compress centuries of history into a book that could be accessible to a teenager as well as an adult.

“There’s so much to say,” Suarez said.

He says it in a 256-page book, “Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation,” the companion book to the PBS documentary series that will be airing in Tucson today on Arizona Public Media’s three television channels.

Suarez said the book is aimed at a general audience that has little to no knowledge of the long history of Latinos. The book is also directed at Latinos who may know the history of their national group in the U.S. but are unaware of the histories of other Latinos.

“It’s not Latino history: It’s American history,” Suarez said.

In these days of intense debate over immigration, Suarez believes Americans’ knowledge of Latinos in the U.S. goes back only a few decades, if that much.

“The immigration debate talks about Latinos as being the newest kids on the block,” Suarez said.

Latino history precedes the arrival of English settlers on the East Coast. Spanish was the first European language spoken in Florida, later Texas and the rest of the Southwest. As the 13 colonies gained independence from England and the fledging United States developed, Latinos, inside and outside the Eastern Seaboard, added their contributions.

The history continued as the U.S. expanded westward, primarily through war with Mexico, in 1846 and by end of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War in Cuba again altered the history of Latinos in the U.S. The 20th century witnessed the growth of Latinos, in all facets of American life, which continues to the present.

But Suarez pointed out that the history of Latinos is not a separate American history. It is not a story of separatism but inclusion and more.

In the face of rejection and setbacks, Latinos “whose Americanism is always under question, kept on proving they are membzers of this national community,” Suarez said in a phone interview from the his Washington, D.C., home.

Suarez unfolds the history through the experiences of individuals’ stories. Some are famous — Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar in 1961 — to lesser known — Dr. Hector Garcia who founded the American G.I. Forum, a veterans and civil rights organization. 

Suarez said there remain many other individuals’ stories to tell that help us understand American history through Latino eyes.

That will have to wait for a second book.

Ernesto Portillo Jr. can be reached at netopjr@azstarnet.com or at 573-4187.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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