By: Edwin Martinez
The story of Hispanic Americans stretches from coast to coast and across 528 years of history. The Spanish first arrived in Florida long before the pilgrims and the settled in California. Long before California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas were part of the United States, it was Mexico.
But the history of the United States, as most of us learned it, still begins with Jamestown, Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims.
“We tend to think of the United States as an English thing,” says Ray Suarez, who wrote the companion book to “Latino Americans,” a six-part, three-night documentary series on PBS. “But this is a case of three empires, Spain, France and Britain, that went charging into this new territory, elbows out, bumping into one another and jostling for dominance.”
In fact, Suarez reminds us, “The first American settlement in 1565 in St. Augustine, Fla., predates Jamestown, and Spanish was the first language spoken in what became the United States. So, Latinos are the newest immigrants to the United States and also the oldest inhabitants.”
Suarez, chief national correspondent for PBS’ “NewsHour,” admits that covering the entire history of Latino Americans in just six hours or 256 pages is “a lot to tackle. It’s a big bite of history, and there’s a lot to stuff into each hour. But I think the series handles that in a way that’s both interesting and coherent, and I hope the book supports that.”
The series and book are structured chronologically, beginning with the earliest history of the Americas. But each episode or chapter also singles out characters (sometimes depicted in dramatizations) through whom the story comes alive.
We meet Apolinaria Lorenzana, who as a child is snatched from Mexico and grows old as an important figure in the Spanish Missions. Juan Seguin, both Texan and Mexican, fights at the Alamo on the American side, next to Davy Crockett. Moving along, in World War II, Macario Garcia becomes the first Mexican National to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta march for the rights of migrant workers in the 1970s.
Hispanics service to the United States Military can be traced back to the Civil war. Records of Hispanics in the armed forces were not kept until the 1970s, according to the Pew Center for Latino Studies. While some records show that thousands of Hispanic American men — Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans for instance — fought in the Civil War as well as the two World Wars, researchers have determined that many more served and died than official documents show. As a result of the omission, the full story of Hispanic sacrifice may never be fully told. And that is a shame, since Latinos have been part of the building of America — including dying while protecting it — for hundreds of years. If the records don’t show that Hispanics served and died, that we toiled in the trenches and contributed with blood, how does our nation measure Hispanic contributions, let one acknowledge them?
In the new American conversation, cultural celebrations like these matter, and they matter greatly. They help us better explain our Hispanic story to each other and ourselves; they matter for the individual and national psyche, because they allow the 50 million-plus Hispanics, and the larger American family, to better appreciate the Hispanic story within the greater American narrative.
Why is this important to know? By 2050, almost one in three people in the United States will be Latino, a total of more than 130 million, Suarez writes, citing a Pew Hispanic Center projection. Pew also expects the Hispanic population to triple between 2005 and 2050.
As immigration remains a divisive issue, the vision of the United States as a melting pot is different today, Suarez says.
“Our ideas of what becoming American means have changed. The old idea was that we gave up everything we were. In the middle of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for grandparents to talk to parents in the old language to exclude the children, because they didn’t want the children ever to speak that language.”
Now, the children or grandchildren of immigrants may want to be 100 percent American, or they may want to celebrate their roots and their family history, he says. “It’s up to them. For young Latino Americans, Spanish and English can exist side by side, as two living tongues.”
Suarez’s family came from Puerto Rico in the 1930s, escaping terrible poverty during the Depression, and more followed in the 1950s, when migration was encouraged by both the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States. He was born in New York, the first in the family born on the mainland, and grew up in Brooklyn, “confident that I was Puerto Rican and proud of it.”
Now, his own three kids speak Spanish “from very well to hardly at all,” Suarez says. “It’s been interesting watching them construct their own identity. Their mom isn’t Puerto Rican, so they are figuring out who they are and where they fit.”
Watching (and reading) “Latino Americans” will tell them a lot about where they came from. And for non-Latinos, “I hope we shed some light, and if we poke a few holes in American history, do it in a way that will open minds.”
You can watch the video at: http://video.pbs.org/program/latino-americans/