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PBS' 'Latino Americans' aims to expand on a complex U.S. history

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When Jeff Bieber was growing up as "a Jewish kid from Queens," his awareness of Mexican American border culture largely consisted of owning a Davy Crockett coonskin cap.

"I suppose you knew about the Alamo, but the word 'Tejano,' I had no clue," says Bieber, an executive producer of "Latino Americans," a three-part, six-hour PBS series that premieres this month. "I had no clue there was a guy named Juan Seguín, or other people who were part of this history."

If you're already Googling "Seguín," a Mexico native who fought for Texas independence in the 1830s and later served as a Texas senator, you're part of the target audience for "Latino Americans." The epic series, which airs Tuesdays starting this week through Oct. 1, purports to be the most comprehensive TV special on its subject to air on U.S. television.

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As a veteran executive producer of landmark PBS documentaries, including the 2007 six-hour series "The Jewish Americans," Bieber says he wanted to expand the U.S. historical narrative beyond the usual accounts of white men in wigs speechifying in 1776, or buckskinned Tennesseans being slaughtered in San Antonio in 1836.

"History is not just Europeans and Eastern Europeans coming to Ellis Island," he says. "It's a history of conquest, it's a history of migration. It's a very complicated history. But it's an American history that in many ways has been dismissed or buried."

Bieber's awareness that much of this tale remained obscure to him and other English-speaking Americans, even at a time when the nation's 52 million Latinos are the United States' largest and fastest-growing ethnic "minority," led him to invite Adriana Bosch, the series' Cuban American producer, to dinner one night in 2008.

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"What I remember about that moment is how the two of us were surprised that this hadn't been done," says Bosch, who previously had produced a well-regarded TV series, "Latin Music USA," and directed a documentary about Fidel Castro.

Narrated by actor Benjamin Bratt, the series was assembled from archival research and interviews with nearly 100 Latino academics, journalists, politicos, labor leaders and cultural luminaries such as Rita Moreno and Gloria Estefan.

George Sanchez, a USC professor of American studies and ethnicity who's interviewed in the series, affirms that there have been few large-scale overviews of Latinos, either in print or other media. "They're very difficult to do, because there are so many different histories, so many different nations, represented," he says. "I don't think it's ever been attempted on television."

"Latino Americans" begins by laying out the saga of the Spaniards' colonization of the Americas, which preceded the first English and Dutch settlements in what would become the United States. The series also devotes considerable attention to the territorial upheavals of the Mexican-American War, and the migration of Cubans and Puerto Ricans to the U.S. in the years surrounding the Spanish-American War.

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One of the series' thematic through-lines is how Mexican Americans and other Latinos have struggled for acceptance in U.S. society, even though some of their ancestors have lived here since before Plymouth Rock. "The ever-present 'foreigner' is one of the things I think you see in Latino history," Sanchez says, "that there's a lack of recognition of a long-standing relationship to other Americans in this country."

Episodes 3 ("War and Peace") and 4 ("The New Latinos"), airing Sept. 24, investigate the role that Latinos played in World War II and the growth and expanding influence of Latino communities in the 1950s and '60s.

Throughout, the series underscores how U.S. foreign and economic policies have intersected with Latino mass migration and affected the reception for new arrivals. For instance, Mexican migrant workers repeatedly have been welcomed to the United States during periods of temporary labor shortages, then shunned or deported once the nation's economy picked up.

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Bosch also points to the example of Cubans fleeing Castro's authoritarian socialism in the 1960s, who were welcomed as Cold War refugees, her own family among them. But a generation later, when the Mariel boatlift brought 100,000 more Cubans to Miami, they were eyed warily because their numbers contained an estimated 25,000 who'd been released from Cuban jails or mental health facilities.

In subsequent years, rising crime and the crack cocaine epidemic, fueled by Latin American drug trafficking, further tainted the image of Florida's Spanish-speaking population. Pop culture reflected the shifting perceptions with TV shows like "Miami Vice" and movies like "Scarface."

In the ratings-sanctioned manner of Ken Burns' marathon series on the Civil War, "Latino Americans" alternates wide-angle views of major historical events with close-ups of compelling individuals.

Among those receiving thumbnail profiles in the "War and Peace" segment is war hero Marcario Garcia. He earned a Medal of Honor for taking out two German machine-gun nests single-handedly, only to later be refused service at a diner in a small Texas town. (A restaurant sign there read, "NO DOGS, NO MEXICANS.")

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"Across the series, I think we make a real effort to capture the complexities of the narratives, so that it is not just 'us' against 'them,'" Bosch says. "It's kind of a first rewrite of American history that includes Latinos. It's a remix."

"Latino Americans" is being aired as part of PBS' celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sunday-Oct. 15). Other related programming includes a "Latino street festival" edition of "Sesame Street" on Thursday.

Latinos currently make up 12.3% of the total U.S. television audience. According to network figures, PBS draws 13.5% of its daytime audience from Latino-headed households; the prime-time figure is 7.1%.

"While we're always looking to attract diverse audiences, we see a series like this as an opportunity to attract a larger Latino audience than we've had before," says Beth Hoppe, PBS' chief programming executive, so that "the content on PBS is reflective of a changing America."

The series wraps up by examining the emerging Chicano and farmworkers rights movement of the 1960s and '70s, and the diversifying Latino population's migration to new corners of the United States, particularly the Southeast. In the years ahead, the series' creators contend, ongoing events such as the immigration-reform debate will continue to reframe the centuries-old narratives of Latino Americans.

"Latino history is American history," Hoppe says, "and that's one of the things I think you can't help but take away from this series."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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