'Latino Americans' on PBS: 500 years in 6 hours

A family of migrant workers. The film chronicles the deportation of 500,000 Latinos from southern California in the Depression.

It's a daunting task: summing up five centuries of a large and disparate group's experience on this continent. With Latino Americans, PBS devotes six hours over three consecutive Tuesdays to the topic and still does not do it justice.

Source materials are not all that abundant. As historian David Montejano, one of the film's many talking heads, says, "We're trying to recover a history that has not been written."

But the timing of this project is propitious. Hispanics, 50 million strong, are about to become the majority in California, as they already are in New Mexico. Texas will pass the same ethnic tipping point in the next few years.

Their future is now, but what is their past?

The first hour, "Foreigners in Their Own Land," focuses on the Mexicans living in the sprawling territory that would later become Texas and California. Wave after wave of Anglo settlers arrive to supplant and subjugate them.

One interesting footnote explores Las Gorras Blancas, a group of hooded vigilantes who cut fences and blew up railroad tracks during the Range Wars in New Mexico in the 1880s.

The second installment, "Empire of Dreams," takes us from that era to the 1940s, as Latino immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico established large communities in the U.S., many of them driven here by American imperialism.

Among the personalities celebrated are revolutionary Jose Marti and early film stars Ramon Novarro, Lupe Velez, and Dolores del Rio. The film also chronicles the deportation of 500,000 Latinos from southern California during the Depression.

Narrated by actor Benjamin Bratt, Latino Americans employs maps, documents, paintings, and photos effectively, but is undone by its reliance on artificial-looking dramatizations. The procession of historians, authors, and academics spend a good deal of time recapping, but rarely contribute worthwhile insights.

Its biggest mistake, however, is focusing on a series of ordinary working people, a tactic that repeatedly stalls the momentum and dulls the interest.

The most interesting hours are the third and fourth, "War and Peace" and "The New Latinos," which encompass World War II through the '60s. The latter episode, with its distinctly Nueva York flavor, is a lively account of the people fleeing Caribbean dictators like Fidel Castro and Rafael Trujillo.

The final installments are concerned with mobilizers, activists, community organizers, and labor leaders, such as Cesar Chavez, and with the anti-immigrant pushback that has emerged in the last two decades.

Latino Americans has an unfortunate habit of circling over the same ground, but it makes a compelling case that this often overlooked ethnicity has played a crucial role in shaping this country, a role that is expanding rapidly.


Latino Americans

8 p.m. Tuesday on WHYY-TV12

Contact David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_TV.

Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/daveondemand.