'Latino Americans' Producers Share Their 'Aha' Moments

Photo (L-R): Producer Dan McCabe, Associate Producer Monika Navarro, Sal Castro, Producer John J. Valadez and Cinematographer Elia Lyssy

"Latino Americans" on PBS is a landmark six-hour documentary series featuring interviews with nearly 100 Latinos and more than 500 years of history. The series is wrapping up its first run on PBS, but check your local listings for upcoming air dates, and some episodes are available to stream online here.

Several NALIP members worked on the series, and we asked them to describe their biggest "aha" moment: when working on the series gave them a significant personal insight into the history of Latinos in America. The responses from John J. Valadez (Producer), Adriana Bosch (Series Producer), Ray Telles (Producer), and Sabrina Avilés (Senior Associate Producer) are touching, profound, and worth a read.

John J. Valadez, Producer, "Latino Americans":

A Few Brief Hours With an American Hero

On the morning of Monday April 16th, the day after the NALIP conference had ended in Los Angeles, I got up and headed for Marina Del Rey.   I arrived at the home of a Chicano attorney, where I met the rest of the film crew and we started setting up for an interview with someone I had long admired, a retired Los Angeles high school teacher named Sal Castro. 

Forty-four years ago, back in March of 1968 Sal had led the largest high school walkouts in the nations history.  About 30,000 students staged a huelga of public schools in L.A. to demand that Chicano kids have access to the same educational opportunities that most white kids had enjoyed for generations. 

When I sat down to interview Sal, it didn't take long for all of us to realize what an incredible guy he was: puro Chicano, rough around the edges, he swore often, had the whole crew laughing and then with a turn of phrase had us struggling to hold back tears.  When you see hour 5 (PREJUDICE AND PRIDE) of LATINO AMERICANS, you will know exactly what I mean.   

It wasn't until we got into the edit room that I realized how profoundly Sal actually shaped the LATINO AMERICANS series.  

You see, the 1970s saw more Mexican Americans graduate from college than all the previous decades of American history combined. The students who walked out, under Sal's leadership went on to create Mexican American studies, Chicano Studies, Ethnic Studies and Latino Studies programs and departments at over 160 colleges and universities across the country.  And those scholars then began to write the history of Latinos in America.  Almost all of the scholarship upon which the LATINO AMERICANS series is based was written by that generation of students who walked out.   Sal and the students he led had literally saved the memory of our people and our contributions from extinction.   

A year after my interview, almost to the day, Sal Castro was dead.  He passed away on April 15th 2013.  When I heard the news, I cried. 

PREJUDICE AND PRIDE, the film I produced with my friend Dan McCabe airs on Tuesday, October 1st.  The film is dedicated to the memory and the life of Sal Castro.

Adriana Bosch, Series Producer, "Latino Americans":

My biggest "aha" moment was to see so many Latinos working together in harmony and embracing each other's narratives as the film was constructed on the Seventh floor at 119 Braintree Street in Allston,  and with Ray Telles in Berkeley.   The support and understanding we shared through a difficult process  was remarkable.  The respect that each hour shows for everyone's history is a great example of the power that comes from knowledge and understanding.  It is my secret hope that by learning how everyone in their own way struggled with the challenges of life in the United States—immigrant or native born—we will grow closer together.  One day I would like to look back at this series and see it as a milestone in the coalescing of a Latino identity.  My respect for everyone of my colleagues and their personal stories grew exponentially as I witnessed their commitment, passion and openness.    As for the films.  I still find things in them that amaze me at every turn.  

Ray Telles, Producer, "Latino Americans":

In working on the series and especially in producing episode 6 I came to realize that we have so many brilliant,  talented and experienced Latinos in so many fields  who are working at the highest levels; in entertainment- Univision anchor-Maria Elena Salinas, actress Rita Moreno and singer-producer Gloria Estefan; in education- Eduardo Padron president of Miami Dade College, Princeton sociologist Marta Tienda, historians  Maria Cristina Garcia, David Montejano and many others. Some are featured in our series and  then there are  others who worked behind the scenes to make "Latino Americans" a ground breaking television event. What a wealth of talent.

Sabrina Avilés, Senior Associate Producer, "Latino Americans"
Working on LATINO AMERICANS gave me an entirely different perspective on our collective history as Latinos in the country, since we all come from different backgrounds. My "aha" moment occurred the day I realized that it doesn't matter what our families' country of origin is, because we are all the same to all our non-Latino compatriots. So although we're here each raising the flag of the country of our origins – Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, etc. – in many ways it weakens us. Our non-Latino audience doesn't differentiate us. It's easier for them to clump us into one group. We should take advantage of that – not only by educating them, but working towards raising one VOICE as Latino Americans, despite the differences in our cultures. It is only when we stop raising our individual flags and start raising the flag of the country that is now our home, that we will be a force to contend with.