CNN Explores Latino Life In The U.S. What does it mean to be Latino in America? As CNN prepares to debut "Latino in America," a two-part, four-hour documentary that explores the many answers to the question, Host Michel Martin talks to CNN's Soledad O'Brien, who hosts the documentary. The project comes on the heels of "Black In America," a similar network series, also hosted by O'Brien.
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CNN Explores Latino Life In The U.S.

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CNN Explores Latino Life In The U.S.

CNN Explores Latino Life In The U.S.

CNN Explores Latino Life In The U.S.

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What does it mean to be Latino in America? As CNN prepares to debut "Latino in America," a two-part, four-hour documentary that explores the many answers to the question, Host Michel Martin talks to CNN's Soledad O'Brien, who hosts the documentary. The project comes on the heels of "Black In America," a similar network series, also hosted by O'Brien.


What does it mean to be an activist lawyer in Phoenix, a celebrity chef in Miami, a suburban teen in Charlotte, North Carolina, to be locked behind the bars of a detention facility for undocumented kids?

Tonight, CNN debuts a two-part four-hour documentary titled "Latino in America" that tells those stories and many more. The program is hosted by Soledad O'Brien who previously hosted the highly acclaimed and controversial "Black in America" series on CNN. And Soledad joins us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us again.

Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (Host, "Latino in America"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: The first part of this documentary, which premiers tonight, begins with a very nice (unintelligible) I have to say. You look at, I think it's five different people or families, all with the last name Garcia which is - drum roll please - the eighth most common last name in the U.S. Did you know that?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I had no idea. In fact, before the screenings and if you have a screening in front of a Latino audience, for example, same thing, the reaction is a gasp. You know, so the people who you think might know had no idea. And so to me that seemed like it was a really good idea to show, you know, the range of Garcias. Of course, it's a metaphor. These Garcias are really representative only of themselves.

MARTIN: Yes, I do have to clarify these are not all members of the same extended family.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Oh, gosh, no.

MARTIN: I just want to clarify that.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Well, that might have been easier to do. But it's really is a look at a handful of Garcias.

MARTIN: You talk about the fact that this is a nuanced look. I want to -the first couple I want to bring up is not perhaps the one that people might think. Bill and Betty Garcia moved their family from New York City to the suburbs of Charlotte to give their kids, I don't know how would you want to put it, a more all-American kind of classic suburban upbringing?

Ms. O'BRIEN: He wanted a backyard.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. O'BRIEN: He wanted a backyard and, you know, a football game in that backyard with the neighbors kind of life.

MARTIN: And she's Dominican and he's Puerto Rican. But now, they fear their kids may have lost touch with something that is very important to them. Let me just play a short clip. Here's what the parents have to say.

(Soundbite of television documentary, "Latino in America")

Mr. BILL GARCIA: I think that they don't have a good sense of who we think they are, you know, as Latinos.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah. They say my parents are Latinos.

Unidentified Woman #2: They don't think they're Latinos?

Unidentified Woman #1: They - no, by default, but they are. But I mean, if you see them, they're - they feel they're Americans.

MARTIN: And adding a wrinkle here, because this is radio, and you can't see the clip, is that they are Afro-Latino, and this is something that becomes clear when you interview one of the sons. Here's Brian(ph). This is what he has to say when you ask him how he identifies himself. Here it is.

(Soundbite of television documentary, "Latino in America")

BRIAN: I tell them I'm Hispanic, but I mean, I'm never with Hispanic people (unintelligible). Most of my friends are black, really, because in the south, it's either you're, like, black or Mexican. I don't like being called Mexican. That's a stereotype.

MARTIN: That's interesting.

Ms. O'BRIEN: So complicated, isn't it?

MARTIN: Yeah. What was surprising to you about this?

Ms. O'BRIEN: You know what? First of all, I always love conversations about race and identity and ethnicity and identity. I also am really intrigued with how people self-identify, as well. And what was really interesting about Brian and his brother was at one point, I said to him, you know, your mom feels like you're rejecting her culture. You know, she really, she thinks you're embarrassed of her.

And he said to me: Wow, I can't believe she would say that. That's not true. I'm embarrassed of me, he basically said, meaning I don't speak Spanish well enough to be Latino. I don't know how to dance salsa well enough to dance with my relatives at these, you know, parties my mom has. And so he feels like he doesn't meet the bar, and it was so interesting because for me, I had a lot of similarities.

You know, my Spanish is poor. I understand a lot, but I don't speak it well, and I'm embarrassed to speak it. And so I suddenly looked across at this, you know, 17-year-old kid, and we had a lot in common in terms of, you know, identity.

MARTIN: How do you see yourself?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I see myself as black, a black girl, mostly because I don't speak Spanish. And yet, in the process of doing this documentary, people would say to me all the time, well no, and even my mother would say well, you're an Afro-Latina.

And my mom used to say that when I was growing up all the time. She'd say: Don't let anybody tell you you're not black. Don't let anybody tell you you're not Cuban - all the time. And I remember thinking she's crazy. Like, who's the they who's going to tell me that? What is she talking about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'BRIEN: You know, I was a teenager at the time, and I was in an all-white neighborhood. And so, you know, there was no they that was reminding you that you are not, you know, you're not Cuban, or you're not black. It was just, like, why is your hair so big?

So it's been a really interesting process of figuring out that these two things can reside very comfortably within one person.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting, too. You talk about all these various sort of cross-cutting connections. Like, one of the things that's stuck with us is when Brian said I don't like being called Mexican because that's a stereotype. And as you just mentioned, you are rather well-positioned to evaluate these whole questions of race and ethnicity and how they all intersect.

In fact, you also talk to Eva Longoria Parker, who plays Gabrielle on "Desperate Housewives," and she mentions that when she was growing up that she was often picked on because she's perceived as dark. If you would just talk a little bit more, if you would, about how the whole race and ethnicity comes together in this documentary. You talk about the whole intra-racism and, sort of, the black-brown issue.

Ms. O'BRIEN: We do, and we don't. I mean, we raise it a little bit, but I don't think you can do it as part of a documentary. I think it's its own documentary. I have a number of people who have said, and my mom is one of them, you know, you should do Afro-Latinos, because the racism, the color-ism in the community, is great.

You know, the subject, where you just have to dig and dig and dig because no one's going to tell you, at the get-go, about how they feel about it. And you know, I think for these boys, their issue about being Mexican is that it's sort of a metaphor for being everything that America rejects, is how they see it. They feel like there's so much ill will toward Mexicans that, you know, who would, as a teenager, want to be that? I mean, that's just an incredibly sad thing.

At the same time, you do hear a number of young people, older than these boys, but young, sort of saying, you know, we're all Latinos. And I heard that a lot from the sort of 20s-to-30s generation, which was really interesting to hear.

MARTIN: You tackle, in this documentary, some of the difficult stories that I think are very much in the news. One is this whole question of, frankly, the high birth rate among younger Latina women.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: There's - you meet Cindy Garcia(ph). Her step-father's in jail, her mom is single-handedly supporting a large family, and you report that Cindy's pregnant. Here's what she has to say.

(Soundbite of television documentary, "Latino in America")

Ms. CINDY GARCIA: I don't want to be another baggage for my mom. She already has to deal with the store, the house, the baby, her sickness, the bills, my step-dad, the lawyers, the courts, my niece. She does not need another grandkid.

MARTIN: Tell me what you want to say about that.

Ms. O'BRIEN: You know, I was just going to say I love Cindy Garcia, because for me, Cindy, you know - and as we were watching the documentary unfold, we don't really know what happens to her, and then all of a sudden, she sort of has this massive, self-inflicted obstacle -and you see in the process of watching the documentary just how hard she works and how many walls she has to climb, some that frankly she put in her own way, but some that our society's put in her way.

You know, she's not a victim in any sense of the word. She's just a girl who is in a failing school district. The reason that I loved the Cindy Garcia story was, to me, it was a real cautionary tale about, you know, the population with the fastest-growing demographic. You know, Cindy Garcia's part of that. So if she fails, there's a bigger message for all of us. We as a nation can't succeed with Cindy Garcia failing.

MARTIN: The Garcias was Part One, and Part Two of the documentary is called "Chasing the American Dream," where you also talk about people with different paths to the U.S. One of the people you interview is a girl who crossed without papers and is alone as a minor, is now being held in detention. So that's her story, too, which I'm sure a lot - will push a lot of other people's buttons.

Ms. O'BRIEN: The story of Marta(ph), who is this young girl who has crossed the border and then is - has no papers, and basically we follow what are her chances with a lawyer. Because there is a process by which minors get representation in the court of law and can be on a path to becoming a citizen of the United States.

So to me, that's just a good story. That's an interesting story. For people who are not interested in that or feel, like, well, you shouldn't be covering that, I guess I don't, sort of, try to check off the box in terms of what everybody's going to feel good about. I try to do stories that are compelling and thoughtful, and nuanced, because there's no right or wrong answer.

MARTIN: Okay, finally, before we let you go, we have to - I just have to mention one story, which I - pretty irresistible. And that is of Lorena Garcia(ph), and she is a celebrity chef. She has her own show on Univision. She wants a show on the Food Network; and watching this, I think she's going to get it. Here it is. Here's a little clip from Lorena Garcia.

(Soundbite of television documentary, "Latino in America")

Mr. LORENA GARCIA (Chef): We're in the middle of America, and there is a Venezuelan Latina coming, you know, out of Miami and Venezuela and being able to be here and (unintelligible) and having people interested in what you do. That's the bottom line.

MARTIN: See, I like her because she's the only person I've ever met on television who talks faster than I do.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. O'BRIEN: And she can cook, man, I tell ya. And I took some recipes home with me after I interviewed her, didn't work at all. I couldn't do it.

MARTIN: You were not cooking that food. You were waiting for her to come over and cook it. Who are you kidding?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Exactly. That was my mistake. No, she's amazing, and what I love about Lorena Garcia is that, you know, she confronts also every stereotype. Which is, you know, a woman who was told to lose her accent, who decided that that wasn't going to happen. And you know, now, five years later, sort of the world has come around to her.

She is - doesn't have children. It's her big regret, she says, because she'd love to have a family, but she's been building a career. She's the CEO of six companies, and you know, she's again a remarkable story. Is Lorena Garcia's success the story of success for every Latino? Absolutely not. But it's the story of one Latina who's done incredibly well and many Latinos who've done incredibly well. And so I think what we tried to do was to show the mixed bag that is every community.

There are some major struggles, and there are some huge successes, and there's a lot in between, as well.

MARTIN: Soledad O'Brien is the host of "Latino in America." It's a four-hour documentary in two parts. It premieres tonight on CNN. Soledad, thank you.

Ms. O'BRIEN: Always nice to chat with you.

MARTIN: Coming up, we first met her as the cute-as-a-button Olivia on "The Cosby Show." She grew up into a tween sensation, starring in her own TV series and a string of hit movies. So what's Raven-Symone up to now?

Ms. RAVEN-SYMONE (Actor): Yes, I've had a hard time growing up, finding out who I am, personally, which is why at this moment in time I am taking my own personal vacation away from the industry.

MARTIN: Raven-Symone, she's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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