Time to Realize Latino Stories Are American Stories

“CNN Presents: Latino in America” looks at important, growing part of U.S. population.

Last Updated: October 20, 2009 @ 12:18 PM

If you want to write something, film something, sing something, produce whatever content possible for an American audience, then you must also produce content for and about Latinos.

Not to be wise-ass Latinas, with all due respect to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, but our nation has 51 million Latinos, from Pico Rivera to Puerto Rico. Half the country’s new residents are Latinos, one of four children under 5, the largest minority in 20 states.

If you’re not telling their story, you’re not telling the American story.

That was what we wanted to accomplish with our book “Latino in America,” published by Penguin to complement our documentary of the same name, airing on CNN Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. EDT. The book builds on the documentary’s reporting to give a personal perspective to write Latinos into the American story where they are often missing.

Just 6 percent of people working in TV news and 4 percent of the newspaper reporters in this country are Latinos. So it’s not surprising that there is a lot of segregated news content out there, things that run only in Spanish or only target Latinos, and there is an emphasis on Latinos mired in conflict, even though that is not the way many of us live our lives.

There are some stereotypical expectations of someone with a name like Maria de la Soledad and her team (Rose Arce is co-author of the book “Latino in America” and one of several producers on the documentary).

Some folks expect us to tell the same Latino stories flavored with some authenticity. Instead we’ve told the stories of people with roots in 21 different countries whose Latino experience is about what happens once they’ve arrived.

We look at them as the Americans they are; 71% of them are U.S.-born. Our Latinos are more like America Ferrera in “Ugly Betty” rather than being cast as sidekicks like Lupe Ontiveros, who has played a maid in hundreds of movies including “As Good as It Gets.” Lupe, ironically, is one of the loudest voices on why we need to give voice to the Latino mainstream and dispense with the stereotypes and immigration conflict storylines.

You can do this, too. Shed this idea that someone is a minority in America just because they are of Hispanic descent.

We asked Eva Longoria what being Latino in America meant to her and she said: "We’re ninth-generation Americans. We didn’t just cross over. We’re on the same land that we got in our Spanish land grant from our ancestors. We were Mexico and then the border moved and we were Texas, and then the border moved again, and we were America without ever moving."

Once you do that, Latino stories have universal impact. It’s not just a Latino story that Latino teens are among those facing substandard, overcrowded schools in Los Angeles, or experiencing frightening rates of suicide attempts or pregnancies or bigotry. Nor is it only interesting to Latinos to see how Latino sport, food, music and work and family ethics are enriching U.S. culture.

Everyone has a stake in this story because it’s the story of tomorrow’s America. That is a story that needs to be told.


Soledad O'Brien is an anchor and special correspondent for CNN Worldwide. In addition to "CNN Presents: Latino in America," her recent documentary projects include "Black in America" and "Escape From Jonestown." Rose Marie Arce is a senior producer for CNN, working on the "In America" documentaries. She previously was a producer for CBS News and WCBS.