Here’s the highest praise I can pay a three-part, six-hour documentary series on anything: I sat down to watch “Latino Americans,” which premieres Tuesday on PBS, in its entirety with grim determination. When I was done, I couldn’t stop talking about it.
About Juan Salvador Villaseñor, who fled the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to become an American bootlegger, then successful businessman. About World War II Marine Guy Gabaldon, who captured more enemy soldiers than anyone in American military history, only to be played by a white actor in the film about his exploits.
And about Macario Garcia, the first Mexican national to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, who was later refused service in a Texas diner. About activist Hector Garcia and his extensive relationship with Lyndon Johnson, about Dolores Huerta’s co-founding of the National Farm Workers Assn. and 1968’s East Los Angeles walkouts for better schools.
But mostly about the mind-boggling realization that there is no good way to tell a single history of the United States because there really is no single history of the United States.
“Latino Americans” is familiar in many ways. It is the history of an often-marginalized group overcoming oppression as detailed by various scholars, writers and activists; narrated by someone famous (in this case, Benjamin Bratt); scored by culturally appropriate music; and brought to cinematic life by photographs and eventually, film clips.
Largely because of the many centuries and the hugely diverse Latino population covered by the series, the first two hours seem at times both scattershot and a bit pat. Certainly, anyone who has had to write or oversee the writing of California’s dreaded fourth grade mission report will find the first hour well-trod.
But hang in there, because by the end of the second hour and certainly by the third, “Latino Americans” begins to do exactly what it promises: Chronicle American history from the viewpoint of a group too often left in the shadow of mainstream culture. PBS has developed a thriving sideline explaining what it is to be American, regularly turning out documentaries that examine the historical experience of certain groups or another “Eyes on the Prize,” “The Irish in America,” “The Jewish Americans,” “Women, War & Peace.”
Life wasn’t easy for most folks during early centuries of what would become the United States, but especially with Mexican Americans, as with Native Americans, endured the particular indignity of invasion. They were made second-class citizens in their own homes.
By the 1920s, an alarming pattern had emerged. When the U.S. economy demands a large, underpaid workforce, Latinos are welcome, only to be deported when things take a turn for the better. As was the case with African Americans and women, World War II offered a glimpse of equality and independence, which the postwar boom whisked away.
But the activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s took root in the Chicano movement, forcing Americans to confront issues of language and diversity, and proving that even among similarly oppressed groups there can be prejudice.
Executive producers Jeff Bieber and Dalton Delan had already made the 2007 PBS series “The Jewish Americans,” so they knew the tricks of the trade — framing large historical events with personal stories, using images to show what oppression really means. Covering nearly five centuries, half a dozen groups and a dozen wars, with interviews from 100 subjects, “Latino Americans” looks to be exactly what it claims to be: the most thorough documentary on Latino American history yet made.
Emphasis on yet — six hours isn’t long enough to do more than skim the surface. For example, although the filmmakers go out of their way to include women when they can, “Latino Americans” focuses almost entirely on the male experience, making little mention of how Latino culture affects women.
But you have to start somewhere, and “Latino Americans” is a darn good somewhere to start.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday