Daily Grito » HBO’s Latino List Succeeds Where Others Have Failed
Daily Grito » HBO’s Latino List Succeeds Where Others Have Failed

by Matthew Stieglitz – October 18, 2011

Lost in the hate and negative news reports we see and hear is the notion that Latinos have a place in this country. Lost in immigration talks that throw metaphors around like “flood”, “attack”, and “invasion”, is the notion that Latinos have something to contribute to this country. I and many others naively hoped that Latinos could be adequately portrayed in a CNN documentary last year that had the potential to show a rich culture with much to give to the glorified melting pot we call America. Instead, we got two hours of stereotypes that fell terribly short of inspirational and was actually pretty nauseating. So when HBO announced their attempt to chronicle the plight of Latinos in the United States, The Latino List, all I hoped was that they’d do better than Soledad O’Brien did. I curtailed my expectations to something that could offer a glimpse of Latino culture to others not familiar with it. My hope was this glimpse wouldn’t be wrought with stereotypes and minimal hope for the future, and perhaps pique an interest in Latin culture for non-Latinos. Well-made, informative, and entertaining, HBO’s Latino List certainly surpassed my expectations, and was the true “Latino in America.”

Bringing together a dynamic group of successful Latinos from a NASA pilot to the rapper Pitbull, the documentary showed how varied and crucial Latino contributions to America have been. This was highlighted not through the celebrity success the interviewees enjoyed, but through their individual and shared perseverance in the face of adversity. Most came from truly humble beginnings, yet managed to attain success by relying on key elements of Latin culture, including but certainly not limited to familial bonds and hard work. Each had a link in dreaming hard and dreaming big while observing and heading the examples of inspiring parents who conveyed a strong work ethic to their children. The result is anything and everything from actors, to musicians, to a politician, and a Supreme Court justice.

Although each of the interviewees had common denominators of family solidarity and humility, the significance of the Latino List went beyond telling a story of Latino commonalities. It was about an adequate portrayal of Latinos, something that Hollywood and the media just haven’t been able to get right. It was about how the cumulative causation of Latino success rests in what many would call the American dream: a generation comes to this country, works from the bottom up, and if they don’t reap the rewards of their labor, they position their children to do so. While this positive image of Latinos is a breath of fresh air, it was the underlying message of the Latino List that needs to be shouted at every town hall, classroom, and rally: there is a place in this country for Latinos.

Often times the vitriol we see on TV would have us think otherwise. Although not new to American political discourse, Latinos are the current predominant immigrant group and thus are on the receiving end of the backlash our broken immigration system and poor economy cause. More specifically, terms such as poverty, education, and welfare have become attached under the umbrella of “vicious cycle” with the word ‘Latino’ usually written in the same sentence. Such negativity fosters misguided perceptions of Latinos, subsequently necessitating perfection from any portrayal of Latino culture.

Essentially, at the heart of any documentary on Latinos is a small glimpse being given of what it means to be Latino to other groups whose conception of this may be relegated to that particular portrayal. That’s why Soledad O’Brien failed. For non-Latinos who watched her documentary for an inside look of our community, their perception of Latinos was not one of success. Perhaps it just fell victim to editors and producers who didn’t have a clue what they were doing, but it sure did turn the pressure up on a counterargument like the Latino List.

Sure enough, wrapped in the Latino List were the personal and inspirational tales of sixteen Latinos rose above various obstacles, struggling yet prevailing. These are the stories that should be published but often aren’t. Stories like that of Jose Hernandez, the astronaut who applied to NASA not once, not twice, but for twelve consecutive years before finally getting his foot in the door. Stories like that of Emilio Estefan, who started his career going table to table at restaurants to play for tips and is now a millionaire. We weren’t beaten over the head with the dropout rate, crime, obesity, illegal immigration, refusal to learn English, or teen pregnancy. We instead saw stories that didn’t include those labels, stories that showed the hard work it takes to get to the top.

These success stories need to be reiterated not to make us feel better about ourselves, but to show what our potential is. To be clear, the Latino List wasn’t an hour of kumbaya. There wasn’t a single interviewee who didn’t have to climb through hoops to get where they are, and at least from their rhetoric, not a single one has forgotten where they came from. They’re living the American dream, and on their road to success encountered many of the issues we still face today. We heard the stories of the plight of immigrant workers, the plight of children going on to positions of significance, and the discipline it takes to become agents of change. A true List of Latinos, this was about identifying obstacles, mowing them down, and pursuing dreams.

As I watched the documentary, I couldn’t help but think of my own family, specifically my Abuela. An immigrant from Cuba, it was my grandmother who as a single parent spent a career as a factory worker. When people in this country suggested she go on welfare, her response was, “Why? I can work.” When all that is seen and heard today are stories of welfare abuse or circumstances that lead to welfare, her response is almost unimaginable. Yet that was her mentality, the same mentality that allowed her to become a homeowner, put two daughters through college, and ultimately contribute to this country. Her story is not unlike those from the Latino List, and not unlike those of countless other Latinos in America. We absolutely have a place in this country, and for those who think otherwise, at least the Latino List tried to debunk such foolishness.