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“Latino Americans”: a history of activism
By KEN NASH
“Latino Americans,” a 6-hour PBS documentary, links our present to our past, showing that much of what is now the United States was settled by Mexicans (after they subdued the Native Americans). They then were gradually conquered by European Americans in California, Texas, and the Southwest. In the process, their land rights were trampled on and other forms of discrimination reduced Americans of Latino ancestry to second-class citizenship for centuries.
Despite this, Latino Americans fought in our wars, frequently heroically, but their contributions, often celebrated for a moment, were soon forgotten. When they returned from World War II, they faced the same discrimination and poverty despite fighting against fascism abroad. But they fought back with newly founded Latino veterans organizations.
The 1960s saw a new upsurge of Latin American activism throughout the country paralleling the movement of African Americans. On the labor front, there was the valiant battle of desperately poor farmworkers beginning in Delano, Calif., led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
In Texas, school walkouts and mass demonstrations by poor students for better education and appreciation of their heritage started in San Antonio and then spread throughout the country. The next step was voter registration drives, especially throughout the Southwest and California.
But despite this success, progress here was thwarted because of gerrymandering. In New York City, Puerto Rican migrants who came here in droves to escape poverty found discrimination in employment, housing and education. They also organized politically to elect their leaders to positions of power.
In the 1980s, immigration from Central America increased due to political repression there which was often supported by the United States. Mexican immigration also increased because of rising poverty, especially after North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented.
Descendants of former European immigrants — feeling their dominant position was threatened by the increasing Latino population — began calling for their mass deportation. But immigrants and their allies fought back with massive rallies throughout the country and in Washington, D.C., Latino activists now count with the support of organized labor and religious groups. Even cultural icons point out that economic studies that show immigrants create jobs and infuse American culture with new energy.
The DVD is available in stores and online at PBS.org, and at the DC 37 Education Fund Library.
“Latino Americans” puts our present national debate about immigrants in historical perspective. It shows how we got to this point and that only unity and activism will determine where we go from here.
Yet this DVD only skims the surface of the Latino Americans’ history, struggle and contributions to the country.
Ken Nash, is the retired librarian at the DC 37 Education Fund Library, and co-host WBAI Radio’s Building Bridges.