Latino Empowerment through Public Broadcasting
Identity and Culture
A study of national commercial network television news coverage of Latino-related topics from 2008 to 2014 indicated that less than one percent of the news stories that aired on television were about Latinos or featured Latinos. In those stories, arts and cultural topics made up only 1.14% of the total coverage and entertainment stories only 2.62%. The most prominent types of news stories were related to immigration (18.4%) and crime (18%).150
In contrast, public broadcasting has provided a platform for Latinos to express their own realities, identities, and cultures. It has facilitated the exchange of information about the values, beliefs, attitudes, and traditions of Latino communities within the United States. Often as a result of pressure from Latino activists, public broadcasting has opened the door for Latino creators to tell narratives and establish their places within American culture. It has allowed Latino communities the chance to explore, study, celebrate, question, create, and preserve their heritages. Latino communities have used public radio as a way to connect over long distances. Public television has provided opportunities for Latinos to see themselves visually represented as part of American society.
In this section of the exhibit, we present programs in the AAPB collection that address the histories, traditions, and cultures of the four largest Latino heritage groups: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, and Cuban. Latinos comprise the second largest ethnic group in the U.S. In 2019, approximately 60.6 million people of Hispanic descent were living in the U.S., comprising 18% of the country’s population.151
Although classified under the same panethnic label, the Latino population in the United States is heterogeneous. Its members represent different races, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, generations, and national origins. Latinos have been living in what is now the U.S. since before it was a nation. They are descendants of Europeans, Africans, and indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean. Despite the diversity, since the 1970s, many Americans have identified themselves under the labels “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “Latinx” that highlight commonalities within the communities.152
American society often has marginalized African Americans, Latinos, and indigenous peoples.153 In response, many non-whites have rediscovered parts of their identities in the language and histories of their ancestors.154 Instead of encouraging assimilation into the mainstream society, the marginalization of certain groups based on their race or ethnicity has motivated a desire to preserve and identify with their cultures of origin. As sociologist Stuart Hall has contended: “Identities declare, not some primordial identity, but rather a positional choice of the group with which they wish to be associated. Identity choices are more political than anthropological, more ‘associational,’ and less ascribed.”155
Due to their geographic proximity, many immigrants to the U.S. from Latin American and Caribbean countries have been able to travel back and forth between their new homes and their countries of origin. Juan Gonzalez, author of Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, notes that the closeness between countries has allowed immigrants to maintain “more communication and physical connection” with their homelands. This “led to far stronger ties between them and their old cultures” than was possible for migrants from previous waves of immigration.156 Latinos are keeping, mixing, transforming, and sharing their cultural practices to reflect the countries that contribute to their identities. Public broadcasting has been an outlet for these contributions of identity and culture to reach and affect the American mainstream.
The programs in this section are a sampling of materials available in AAPB that portray ways that public broadcasting has covered Latino identity and culture. The exhibit is by no means all-inclusive, and we invite you to listen to and view other relevant programs in the AAPB collection on aspects of Latino identity and culture not included here.
Hispanic presence and cultural influence in the U.S. has been a constant since the nation’s beginning, as Mexican people and indigenous groups lived on North American lands that were colonized by Spain and later controlled by Mexico before they became part of the United States in the 19th century. As Juan Gonzalez has stated, “Only Mexicans can claim to be both early settlers on U.S. soil and the largest group of new arrivals.”157 In 1848, after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War, the northern half of Mexico, including parts or all of the present-day states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, became territories of the United States. The thousands of Mexican settlers living in that region suddenly became American citizens.158 To this day, Mexican culture is still influential in many of these areas, especially in California and Texas, where there is a large percentage of people with Mexican heritage. Based on the Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in 2021 there were approximately 37,000,000 people of Mexican descent in the United States, or 60% of the U.S. Hispanic population.159 For programs on topics relating to U.S. policies on Mexican-American immigration, see "The Immigrant Experience through Public Broadcasting" section of this exhibit.
The documentary series Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, premiering on PBS in April 1996, gave a comprehensive summary of the civil rights struggles of the Mexican American community in the United States from 1965 to 1975. Directed by Hector Galán, the program provided a space for Chicanos to share their culture of activism and community engagement, and take pride in their Mexican heritage. The use of the term “Chicano” emerged, as Sheila Contreras writes, “in activist communities of the 1960s and 1970s to signify self-determination, working-class origins, and a critique of social relations of power.”160 In an interview, Galán noted that not all Mexican-Americans had adopted the term “Chicano”: “It was a term used disparagingly, to describe the poorest of the poor. . . . But we took that term and wore that badge with pride.”161 The series is composed of four hour-long segments. The first segment, “Quest for a Homeland,” focuses on the ties that Mexican Americans have had to lands that the U.S. acquired after the Mexican-American War and ways that ethnic discrimination has shaped their views of the world, concluding with the massive 1970 Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in East Los Angeles. The next segment, “Struggle in the Fields,” covers the fight for labor rights and fair working conditions for farmworkers in the 1960s, highlighting the lack of proper sanitary facilities, fair wages, appropriate treatment of workers, and the use of child labor in the agricultural fields. The third segment, “Taking Back the Schools,” deals with discrimination against Chicanos in the public education system and their efforts to fight back against injustice for the benefit of young Hispanic children. The fourth segment, “Fighting for Political Power,” explores the formation of parties like La Raza Unida and political platforms focused on bilingual education, equitable tax structures, and regulation of public utilities. For additional information on this series, see the "Latino Public Television History" section of this exhibit.
Featured program: Luis Alberto Urrea: Into the Beautiful North (Harvard Book Store/WGBH Forum Network, June 21, 2010)
In this lecture and reading at the Harvard Book Store, Mexican-American poet and novelist Luis Alberto Urrea discussed and read an excerpt from Into the Beautiful North, his novel about a young Mexican woman who goes on a journey north to recruit men who could help her repopulate her village and protect it from bandits. The son of a Mexican father with Irish ancestry and an American mother, Urrea has said that he came from a family of storytellers. Growing up, he also became invested in telling stories because it was difficult for him to relate to kids his age. “I was a [blonde] kid from Tijuana with a Mexican accent. . . . It was open season on me from any ethnic group.” He used his struggles with his diverse background and family history, along with his experiences with growing up in a rough barrio in San Diego to inspire his work. “All those things that as a kid seemed so painful and were such liability to me ended up being the strength of everything.”162 Urrea has honored his Mexican roots and American upbringing through his work. Critics described him as a “border writer” or a writer who focuses on stories related to the U.S./Mexican border. He has won multiple awards for his writings, including the Lannan Literary Award in 2004 for The Devil’s Highway, a story about men who attempted to cross the border through a dangerous part of the Arizona desert. The book also earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination for non-fiction in 2005. Urrea became a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame in 2000.163
Featured program: "A Tejano Revolutionary" (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, October 24, 1995)
Selena Quintanilla Pérez, a Mexican-American singer-songwriter, celebrated as “La Reina del Tex-Mex” [The Queen of Tejano Music], started performing with her family when she was just nine years old. Active during the 1980s and 1990s, Selena helped bring Tejano music to the American mainstream. Tejano music, a genre originating from the early 20th century, mixed Mexican songs and rhythms with musical influences of German, Polish, and Czech immigrants in South Texas and later incorporated pop, hip hop, and country western styles. Her English-language crossover album Dreaming of You, released posthumously, became the best-selling Latin music album of all time.164
At age 23, on March 31, 1995, at the height of her career, Selena was shot and killed by the president of her fan club. Later that year, Selena was inducted into Billboard’s Latin Music Hall of Fame. She was considered “the most popular female Latino artist in the U.S.” and one of the most influential Latino artists of all time at the time of her death.165 In this segment of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, music journalist Ramiro Burr discusses Tejano music and the particularities of Selena’s style, and clips of her performances are included. This segment presents a prime example of how Latino talent has transcended linguistic and cultural barriers to gain recognition in American mainstream media.
Politics and Government
Featured program: "Dolores Huerta" (PBS NewsHour, May 30, 2012)
Mexican-American labor leader and activist Dolores Huerta co-founded with César Chávez the United Farm Workers labor union. The UFW “redefined farm labor activism” and inspired other social justice movements.166 Huerta had no previous negotiation experience, but that proved to be unnecessary. Her passion, natural leadership skills, and desire for justice were more than enough to organize a worldwide boycott that forced growers to negotiate some of the first contracts for the nation’s farmworkers. She utilized her father’s union background and her experience working among Filipino farmworkers in her mother’s businesses to cross the racial divide and unite field workers in a single cause.
This segment on PBS NewsHour focuses on Huerta’s career and includes an interview in which she discusses her decision to quit her teaching career to fight for worker’s rights. “If you don’t go out there and try to solve your own problems, it’s never going to change,” Huerta stated. She encouraged people to fight for their seat at the table and not wait for anyone to give it to them. The program aired a day after President Obama honored Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her career of activism. Obama remarked on her years of social justice work, “Dolores does not play,” referencing her passion for the cause.
Theater, Television, and Film
Featured program: Luis Valdez (Radio Bilingüe)
Regarded as “The Father of Chicano Theater” in the U.S., Mexican-American filmmaker, playwright, actor, and writer Luis Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino in California during the United Farm Workers’ grape strike of 1965.167 The theater troupe traveled from field to field in California’s central valley performing short plays for farmworkers with the purpose to “examine and redefine the heart of the Chicano people: ritual, music, beauty, and spiritual sensitivity.”168 [See the "Latino Public Television History" section in this exhibit for more information on El Teatro Campesino and public television programs featuring the company.] Valdez wrote and directed the play Zoot Suit, which he later adapted into a film that he also directed, with many of the play’s Broadway cast members. The film earned Valdez a Golden Globe nomination in 1982.169 The film La Bamba, which Valdez also wrote and directed, was nominated for a Golden Globe nomination in 1988. Both films have been selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry.170
In this radio interview broadcast over Radio Bilingüe, Valdez talked about the importance of sharing one’s culture with the world because it adds new perspectives that are worthy of consideration. He stated, “Nuestra cultura, nuestro punto de vista, no es solo una cosa que nos corresponde a nosotros, sino que a todo ser humano porque todos somos universales.” [Our culture, our point of view, is not something that only belongs to us, but to all human beings because we are all universal.] While the interview is conducted mostly in Spanish, Valdez gives a message in English, especially to young Latinos, at the end of the program.
Traditions and Culture
Featured program: En Camino: "Day of the Dead Festivities" (KRCB, November 13, 1986)
“El Día de los Muertos” [The Day of the Dead] takes place every year on the first and second days of November. The two-day celebration, an iconic part of Mexico’s folkloric traditions and celebrated by Mexican communities all over the globe, honors the deceased with altars, traditional food, drinks, parades, dances, parties, and traditional masks and toys (skulls and skeletons).171 The purpose of the tradition is for celebrants to welcome back the souls of those who have passed away and be happy for the lives they lived. It sends the message that death is not the end, but a continuation of life. The origins of the Day of the Dead and ways to participate in festivities are presented in this segment from En Camino, a 1980s public affairs program produced by KRCB in Rohnert Park, California. The program is in Spanish with no English subtitles.
Puerto Rican Heritage
Puerto Ricans who have migrated to the U.S. mainland differ from immigrants from Latin American countries in that they became American citizens at birth by virtue of the 1917 Jones Act.172 In that sense, their migration story differs from other accounts, because even though they often have experienced the same culture shock, separation anxiety, and period of adjustment that immigrants feel, they are technically still moving within the boundaries of their own country. The United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 after the end of the Spanish-American War. Officially an unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico is known unofficially as “The Oldest Colony in the World.”173 The 3.2 million Americans that live there cannot vote for the U.S. president, and their non-voting representative in Congress holds little political power. There were approximately 5,800,000 Puerto Ricans living in the mainland United States in 2017, 2.5 million more than the population of the island.174
Before Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States, it had endured 405 years of Spanish colonialism. Puerto Rico’s culture was highly influenced by the language, traditions, religions, customs, literature, and beliefs of Spain, combined with indigenous and African elements that were unique to the island. To this day, Puerto Rico is still Spanish-speaking, even though English also is an official language. To understand Puerto Rican identity and culture, to know what it feels like to be both “foreign and domestic” in one’s own country, an awareness of the political history of the island is essential. The following programs address Puerto Rican history and culture, and provide voices of people of divergent political and cultural identities who were born in Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. mainland or migrated there from Puerto Rico.
Featured program: Mi Puerto Rico (Ortiz/Simon Productions, 1995)
Mi Puerto Rico [My Puerto Rico] is a heartfelt personal journey written, produced, and narrated by veteran public television producer and director Raquel Ortiz, a daughter of Puerto Rican parents, who set out to rediscover the Caribbean island that was her birthright, a land, as she states in the film, that is “culturally united, but politically divided.” The documentary utilizes a mix of on-camera and voiceover narration, first-person point of view footage, archival footage, folkloric music, interviews, and images to condense more than 400 years of Puerto Rican history into a digestible film for American viewers, with Ortiz’s family’s migration story from Puerto Rico to the United States mainland as the guiding thread. Mi Puerto Rico is a sincere, moving, and well-thought-out documentary filled with curiosity and pedagogical potential. The documentary explores key moments that redefined Puerto Rican identity and cultures, including the Spanish invasion of Borikén, the name given to the island by the indigenous Taíno people, Spanish colonialism, the Spanish-American War, the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, and the establishment of a U.S. naval station on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques during World War II. Mainly, Mi Puerto Rico looks at the island’s political status and its meaning for Puerto Ricans. Although the documentary presents many Puerto Ricans expressing divergent views of what they consider the ideal political relationship between the island and the U.S., Ortiz states in the film, “One thing that everyone can agree on is that the preservation of language, culture, and history is crucial to our survival and dignity.” The idea that Puerto Rican identity must be preserved, regardless of its political status, remains undisputed. Mi Puerto Rico, in effect, is the story of two visions of home in conversation with each other.
This ninety-minute documentary, directed by Ortiz’s partner, Sharon Simon, and produced by their company Ortiz/Simon Productions, was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the National Latino Communications Center. In an interview with AAPB, Ortiz explained that making the documentary took nine years, during which she encountered multiple obstacles. The filmmakers originally designed the program as a three-part series, with one-hour sections that focused on Puerto Rican history, culture, and the political relationship with the U.S. The format was changed to that of a single program, however, due to lack of funding for the longer series. During the scheduling of the program, Ortiz faced opposition to devoting ninety minutes to a documentary on Puerto Rican history, but she fought for the opportunity to show her film on public television, and eventually it was broadcast in full. She confessed in the interview, however, that she wished she could have filmed the documentary as the three-part series that it was initially designed to be. She believed the film could have benefited from a more in-depth look at one of the nation’s oldest territories, stating, “To understand the politics of a country, you must understand its history – so many years under Spanish rule, to then be given over to the U.S. as a spoil of war, so many cultural nuances.”175 After seeing the documentary on PBS, one viewer wrote appreciatively, “For many, Mi Puerto Rico will serve as a springboard for the rediscovery, and in some cases, discovery of our heritage and culture.”176
Featured program: NET Journal: "The World of Piri Thomas" (National Educational Television, February 19, 1968)
Juan Pedro “Piri” Thomas was a Black Puerto Rican-Cuban writer and poet best known for his memoir Down These Mean Streets, which documents his youth growing up in an atmosphere of violence and drugs in New York City’s Spanish Harlem. Thomas’s life was tumultuous. As a kid, he was surrounded by poverty, crime, machismo, and discrimination. Arrested for attempted armed robbery, Thomas served seven years in prison from 1950 to 1956.177 Afterward, he turned his life around, started writing about the experiences of his youth, and worked in prison and drug rehabilitation programs in New York. In his poetic narrative Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967, Thomas gives voice to the often-marginalized Afro-Latino community.178 Filled with raw emotion, Down These Mean Streets takes the reader on Thomas’s journey through the streets of New York and eventually out of the barrio and into a new life.
Thomas wrote and narrated The World of Piri Thomas, an hour-long documentary that aired on NET Journal on February 19, 1968, less than a year after the publication of his memoir. The documentary, with special sequences directed by Gordon Parks, takes viewers on a personal tour of Spanish Harlem, home at that time to more than two-thirds of the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. mainland.
Featured program: Essay: Livin' La Vida Loca (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, August 23, 1999)
“The greatest influence from Latino culture on American life, the area in which Latinos most intermingled with, borrowed from, and transformed popular expression, has been in music,” Juan Gonzalez has written.179 Ricky Martin’s energetic performances in English and Spanish, combining Latin rhythms with American pop rock, have earned him the moniker of the “Millennial Elvis.”180 Commentators have credited him with having “launched a cultural phenomenon that became known as the Latin Wave.”181 This Golden Age of Latin music introduced a large number of Latino singers like Marc Anthony and Cristina Aguilera into the American mainstream, “spearheading a transformation in U.S. culture and music.”182
Enrique Martín Morales, better known by his stage name “Ricky Martin,” is a Puerto Rican-born pop star, songwriter, actor, and humanitarian. He started his career in the 1980s at age 12 with the popular Puerto Rican teen band Menudo, touring throughout Latin America and recording for the Latino market, then left the group at 17. In his solo career, Martin became a household name in the Latino community with albums like Ricky Martin (1991), Me Amaras (1993), and A Medio Vivir (1995). His hit single “La Copa de la Vida” [The Cup of Life] became the official anthem for the FIFA World Cup of 1998, which took place in France and marked a turning point of his career, starting him on the path of global superstardom.183 Leila Cobo, who covered Latin music for Billboard, remarked that his performance of the song during the 1999 Grammy Awards was “a big deal because . . . they hate to have Latin acts perform in Spanish at their Grammys. They think that ratings drop the minute you put another language in.”184 Martin’s subsequent album in English, Ricky Martin, featuring his hit “Living La Vida Loca,” debuted later that year at No.1 on the Billboard charts and sold more than 22 million copies worldwide, strengthening his position as a bilingual and bi-cultural pop sensation. On August 23, 1999, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer aired an essay by Anne Taylor Fleming on Martin’s career, the importance of his Latino background to his success, and the recent infusion of Latin music into mainstream American culture.
Politics and Government
Featured program: Confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as U.S. Supreme Court Justice (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, August 6, 2009)
In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor, daughter of Puerto Rican parents, became the first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice in American history. She was President Obama’s choice to replace Justice David H. Souter due to her impressive judicial record and, in Obama’s words, her “extraordinary journey” from modest beginnings growing up in a South Bronx housing project to becoming an associate justice on the highest court in America.185 As an undergraduate at Princeton, Sotomayor had written a thesis on Puerto Rican history. As an activist, she co-founded the school’s Latino Student Organization, became co-chairwoman of the Puerto Rican student group Acción Puertorriqueña and a member of the Third World Center’s governing board, and participated in a complaint by Puerto Rican and Chicano students to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare against the university’s “institutional pattern of discrimination.”186 In 1980, she joined the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, serving until 1992 when she became a federal judge.187 She has said of her work that she “strive[s] never to forget the real-world consequences of [her] decisions on individuals, businesses, and government,” demonstrating the capacity for empathy that became an asset during her nomination.188
On August 6, 2009, the day that the U.S. Senate confirmed Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court by a vote of 68 to 31, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer devoted their lead story to the historic vote and its meaning for the Latino community and the American people as a whole. “It’s a dream come true,” stated Ramona Romero, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. “It’s a reaffirmation that we Latinos can be recognized as contributing members of our society and that there are no limits to what we can achieve.” Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, echoed Romero, calling the confirmation vote “a wonderful thing … a monumental historic occasion” and noting that “her personal story and her life accomplishments would be a great example to not just young Hispanics growing up, but all Americans. This is a great American story.” Romero further stated:
Hispanics are . . . the fastest growing and largest minority in the country, so the picture matters. It’s important for Hispanic children and it’s important for all people in this country for the picture of the Supreme Court to reflect the broad scope, the rich mosaic that we are as a people.
Theater, Television, and Film
Featured program: Rita Moreno (PBS NewsHour, October 1, 2013)
Rosa Dolores Alverío, known by her stage name of “Rita Moreno,” is a Puerto Rican actress, writer, singer, and dancer. She moved to New York with her mother at a young age, and appeared in her first role on Broadway at age 13. She became the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1961 film adaption of American musical theater classic, West Side Story. In 1972, she earned a Grammy award for the soundtrack of the public television children’s show The Electric Company. In 1975, she won a Tony award for Best Featured Actress in the Broadway show The Ritz. In the late 1970s, she won two Emmy awards for her appearances in The Muppet Show (1977) and The Rockford Files (1978).189 In 1977, Moreno became the first Latina to achieve the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). In 2018, after winning the Peabody Career Achievement Award, she became the first Latina to earn the PEGOT.190 She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 by President Bush and the National Medal of the Arts in 2010 by President Obama.
On October 1, 2013, the PBS NewsHour dedicated a segment to Moreno’s career during the press tour for her autobiography Rita Moreno: A Memoir. She spoke about how difficult it had been to break into the industry as a member of a minority group, remarking that she often had been cast as an “all-purpose” ethnic and locked into roles meant to oversexualize the figure of the Latina woman. She stated that while times have changed for the better, there remains room for improvement. “I don’t think that a lot of people think of us as contributors to the culture of this country,” she stated during the interview.
In an interview conducted in 2000 by the Television Academy, Moreno noted that Latinos, in particular, have appreciated her efforts to open doors of opportunities in the entertainment world: “The Latino community calls me la pionera because I was there first. . . . I’m the one who suffered the slings and arrows. It’s gotten a whole lot better.”191 Her acceptance speech of the Commonwealth’s Club Medallion in 2006, an award given to individuals who have “positively shaped our era,” offers an extended and revealing personal account of her career and her point of view regarding Hispanics in Hollywood.
Identity and Political Status
Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth, or a “free associated state,” of the U.S. While Puerto Ricans are American citizens, the commonwealth has its own government, flag, national anthem, and constitution. Although the island has a certain level of autonomy, the U.S. Congress reserves the constitutional right to legislate directly concerning the local affairs of Puerto Rico.
Political parties in the island are organized according to ideology concerning Puerto Rico’s political status with respect to the United States. The three main political parties are the Partido Nuevo Progresista [New Progressive Party], which favors U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico; the Partido Popular Democrático [Popular Democratic Party], which supports the existing “free association” status; and the Partido Independentista [Independent Party], which advocates for Puerto Rico to become an independent nation.
In 1977, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report aired two half-hour episodes concerning Puerto Rico’s political status. The “Puerto Rican Statehood” episode was broadcast on January 3, a few days after President Ford, in the words of host Robert MacNeil, had “loosed a small bombshell” by issuing a statement proposing statehood for Puerto Rico. The program included interviews with Jaime Benitez, the outgoing Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner and the commonwealth’s non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, who opposed statehood, and a clip from an interview conducted in June 1976 with his replacement, Balthazar Corrada del Rio, who favored statehood. The “Puerto Rican Independence” episode was broadcast on August 15, the day that a U.N. Committee on Decolonization had met concerning the status of the island and 11 days after an independence-for-Puerto Rico terrorist group had claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in New York City that killed one person. Governor Carlos Romero Barceló, a member of the statehood party, expressed his views in an interview recorded two weeks earlier, while Juan Mari Bras, Secretary-General of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, argued for independence.
Some political leaders, including Mari Bras, and members of the public have characterized the relationship between the U.S. and the island as colonial. When asked in his interview if the present status is colonial, Romero Barceló stated there are “colonial vestiges” in the relationship. While Puerto Ricans are “full-fledged citizens in every sense of the word,” he related, they could not vote in federal elections and had no senators or voting representatives.
Puerto Rico’s status has been a volatile topic for decades due of a series of economic crises, as discussed in both MacNeil-Lehrer programs. Corrada del Rio expressed the view that “autonomy for Puerto Rico comparable to that of the states of the Union and greater participation in Washington” would help “develop our economy through internal stimulation of agriculture, tourism, industry, commerce, [and] manufacturing; and at the same time have full share and participation in all federal programs, which now we do not have.” Benitez believed that independence or statehood would lead to a worsened economic situation than with the current commonwealth status. Romero Barceló considered Puerto Rico to be better off economically than independent countries in the Caribbean, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, because of “the desire of the people of Puerto Rico to improve themselves and to better themselves” and the lives of their children, and the federal funds they received under commonwealth status to build infrastructure. He considered commonwealth status as transitional, however, and stated that if the U.S. ever would deny statehood to Puerto Rico, he would be in favor of independence, because “how could I wish or expect to remain being a citizen of a nation where my fellow citizens do not accept me as equal?” The status of Puerto Rico has remained a contentious topic of debate in the years since these programs aired.
People of Salvadoran descent comprise the third-largest Hispanic community in the United States, with a population of approximately 2,500,000 in 2021.192 Most Salvadoran immigrants arrived during one of the most devastating and violent times in El Salvador’s history, the civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s. Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador endured a period of warfare between the revolutionary Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNL) and government forces. The FMNL, aligned with other revolutionary and democratic groups opposed to the oligarchic military regime that ruled the country, fought a guerilla war against the U.S.-backed junta until a UN-mediated peace accord was reached as the Cold War was ending and the FMLN had shifted “from a Marxist-Leninist insurgency into a democratic socialist movement.”193 More than 75,000 people lost their lives during the conflict, about one in 56 Salvadorans.194
The civil war caused a massive wave of Salvadoran immigration to the United States. Old and young, singles and entire families, guerillas and military deserters alike, they wanted an escape from the constant violence that was claiming the lives of many innocent people. The civil war, considered “one of the most devastating conflicts in modern Latin American history,” ended in 1992. In return for putting down their arms, the FMNL agreed to a compromise that established a National Civilian Police to replace “the grossly repressive security forces of the past” and facilitated the creation a of liberal democracy in El Salvador.195
In 1991, the U.S. Congress granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Salvadoran nationals who had emigrated to the U.S. to escape the conflict. Since then, more than 200,000 Salvadorans have benefited from TPS who came to the U.S. during the civil war and following later major earthquakes. TPS does not grant permanent legal status to migrants, however.196
Salvadoran people have struggled and lost many loved ones, but they are resilient. The U.S. media, including public broadcasting, covered the civil war and the subsequent Salvadoran elections. The MacNeil/Lehrer Report aired a series of panel discussions on the crisis. The broadcast of February 19, 1982, for example, featured a critical self-analysis of U.S. media coverage of El Salvador.
Featured program: Salvadoran Refugees (Nighttimes Magazine, Twin Cities Public Television, April 15, 1983)
On April 15, 1983, Twin Cities Public Television in Minnesota devoted a full episode of Nighttimes Magazine to the sanctuary movement of churches in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the U.S. that protected refugees from Central America, who had not been granted asylum by the federal government. Tens of thousands of people had applied for political asylum the previous year, yet the number of admissions was less than 100. The episode, featuring interviews with asylum seekers, volunteers, and immigration experts, documents a journey of undocumented Salvadorans traveling to churches across the country on what was known as an “underground railroad,” a name derived from the network that had been created prior to the Civil War by abolitionists to protect enslaved people escaping from the South. A pastor of a Lutheran church in Washington, DC, addressed the act of protecting undocumented Salvadorans from deportation in defiance of U.S. policy: “Americans and Salvadorans standing together hand in hand in solidarity. In this, we do a holy thing. Beyond the sanctity of this place is the holiness of this act.” The episode also documents the protest movement to demand President Reagan to stop the U.S. government’s involvement in the Salvadoran civil war.
Featured program: "A Safe Haven for Writers in Danger" (PBS NewsHour, September 30, 2010)
On September 30, 2010, the PBS NewsHour aired a segment on the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, an organization that provides a safe haven for writers facing life-threatening situations. Writers in the program come from countries where speech that is critical of the government could be punished by imprisonment or even death. The organization offered selected writers two years of living in Pittsburgh with their expenses covered, a $30,000 annual stipend, and a chance to work on their craft. Horacio Castellanos Moya, a Salvadoran journalist and novelist, has benefited from the program. He fled El Salvador in 1997 after receiving death threats due to the publication of his novel El asco [The Revulsion], a satire on the post-civil war politics of the country.
Regarding the reason that the government targeted his novel, Castellanos Moya stated: “I didn’t say anything new. It was the tone, being sarcastic . . . I think that was the point. Not the information itself.” His work revolves around the experience of living in Central America. When asked why he continues to revisit this period of his life, he answered: “I have wounds. Those wounds are there. If I don’t get rid of all that, the wound will be open.” Writing for him, he stated, is a tool for healing. In 2014, Castellanos Moya won the Premio Iberoamericano de Narrativa Manuel Rojas, awarded by the Council of Culture and the Arts of the Government of Chile.197
Politics and Government
Featured program: "U.S. Policies and Gang Violence in El Salvador" (PBS NewsHour Weekend, November 8, 2014)
The signature segment of PBS NewsHour Weekend for November 8, 2014, presented the “untold story” behind a surge of tens of thousands of people fleeing gang violence in El Salvador the previous summer and attempting to find refuge in the U.S. The segment linked the exodus in 2014 to the 1980s civil war in El Salvador and a change in U.S. criminal justice legislation that had occurred in 1996. In the 1980s, thousands of Salvadorans left El Salvador fleeing the brutal civil war that took the lives of more than 75,000 people.198 Many settled in downtown Los Angeles, where they experienced poverty, crime, and violence. Some of the immigrants, like an El Salvador gang member who was interviewed in this program, joined L.A. street gangs, such as Barrio 18 [18th Street Gang] and MS 13, to survive and get protection. Ultimately, some of these immigrants served time in prison. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 made deportation possible for criminals serving a prison sentence of only one year, a change from the previous five-year minimum.199 As a result, the government deported a large number of Salvadoran gang members back to El Salvador. Once there, they began mass recruiting young locals to join their gangs by promising wealth and street cred, or by threatening their lives. The Salvadoran government maintains that the U.S. did not inform them of the criminal history of the new arrivals. Violence in El Salvador skyrocketed after the enactment of the 1996 immigration law, and an estimated one in four Salvadorans have thought about leaving the country. The segment includes interviews with gang members, Salvadorans planning to flee to the U.S., and former police crime analysts from El Salvador and Orange County, CA.
Immigrants have been coming to the U.S. from Cuba since before its independence in 1902. Cuban immigration to the U.S. increased significantly during the years 1886-1918 due to the opening of cigar factories in the Tampa area. Numbers of immigrants dropped during the 1920s and 1930s with the decline of the Tampa cigar industry, the growth of the Cuban economy during the 1920s, and the onslaught of the Great Depression, but after World War II, rates of immigration increased again, especially during the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959).200 After the Castro regime openly turned to socialism and established an alliance with the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of people, especially from Cuba’s upper socioeconomic sectors, left the island by the early 1970s, and percentages of migrants from lower socioeconomic sectors increased after that. More than 800,000 Cubans came to the U.S. between January 1, 1959, and October 31, 1980, with the majority receiving special status as de facto or officially sanctioned refugees. U.S.–Cuba relations during this period was “marked by continuous mutual hostility and distrust, only partially relieved by normalization initiatives undertaken by the Ford and Carter administrations,” according to a study by John Scanlan and Gilburt Loescher, consultants to the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.201
Public broadcasting covered these uncertain times. On the February 15, 1960, episode of the series Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady and guests from the U.S. and Latin America, including New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Puerto Rican Governor Luis Muñoz Marin, offered a variety of opinions and perspectives on Castro and his policies. Two years later, with a clearer idea of Castro’s socialist and anti-capitalist ideology and policies, the show focused on the threat of communist bloc subversion in the western hemisphere in an episode that featured U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson, Brazilian Ambassador to the U.S., Roberto Campos, and two journalists specializing in Latin American affairs. Other programs in AAPB on shifting U.S.–Cuba relations during the 1960s and 1970s include a debate on whether the U.S. should lift its trade embargo against Cuba, broadcast on The Advocates on February 15, 1970; a MacNeil/Lehrer Report from February 21, 1977, on prospects for friendship between the two nations at the beginning of the Carter presidency; a Say Brother episode broadcast May 12, 1978, that allowed a variety of Cuban exiles to voice their opinions about Cuba and included segments filmed during a trip to Cuba in October 1977; and a MacNeil/Lehrer Report from May 17, 1982, on the toughening of U.S. travel policy toward Cuba under the Reagan administration.
Throughout the period that included the Cuban Missile Crisis, the American embargo, and the Mariel boatlift, the U.S. allowed Cuban exiles to enter the country as refugees without having to go through some of the hurdles that other immigrants had to endure. The Mariel boatlift alone brought an estimated 125,000 Cubans into the U.S.202 During the Balsero crisis of 1994, more than 35,000 Cubans left the island in homemade rafts for the U.S. Many were intercepted and detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay for up to two years before receiving U.S. visas.203 The U.S. instituted a “wet foot/dry foot” policy at that time that allowed Cuban migrants who reached the U.S. to obtain legal permanent status, while those who were intercepted at sea, would be sent back to Cuba or to a third country. That policy ended on January 12, 2017.204 In 2021, there were an estimated 2,400,000 people of Cuban descent living in America.205 They brought with them the rhythms and cultural traditions of their Caribbean island and formed close-knit communities in places like Miami, Florida.
Featured program: "Florida Matters" (WUSF, March 2009)
In March 2009, the weekly newsmagazine Florida Matters devoted a program to Cuban Americans living in the Tampa region and their ties to the homeland at a time when long-standing positions regarding the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba were being reconsidered due to changes in the leadership of the two nations. The program begins in Ybor City in downtown Tampa, where in the 1880s, Cuban citizens had traveled to work in the area’s cigar factories. The program includes interviews with Cuban exiles who came to Florida after Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 and their descendants.
President Obama had recently signed a bill easing restrictions put in place after 9/11 that had limited the ability of Cuban Americans to visit or send financial support to family members on the island. Exiles, including an attorney and a newspaper editor, stated in the program that with Fidel Castro no longer the president, they were willing to reconsider the U.S. embargo against Cuba that they once had supported. Roberto Quiros, a construction worker and mechanic in a tire shop, recalled how he left Cuba in 1994 on a raft to follow his dreams in America: “I came over in a raft… [Was I] afraid? A couple of times, but once you make that choice, once you make the decision, there is no turning back.” When asked why he decided to make the deadly journey to the U.S., he answered, “This is the greatest country in the world. . . . It gives an individual, as an individual, the opportunity to succeed.” The episode also pays a visit to descendants of Cuban exiles. Marilyn Garateix, a journalist, remembers her experience growing up with the shadow of Fidel Castro looming over her parents. “I have never met the man, but he was a never-ending presence in my family,” she stated.
Featured program: "Carlos Eire - Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy" (Focus 580, WILL Illinois Public Media, March 26, 2004)
Carlos Eire, a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, was one of the more than 14,000 Cuban children airlifted from Havana to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962 in Operation Pedro Pan.206 After members of his family were arrested and tortured by the Castro regime, and children were being taken from Cuban parents to labor in the countryside, Eire’s parents arranged for him and his older brother to go to the U.S. in the airlift, expecting to follow in a few months. Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, it took three and a half years before Eire reunited with his mother, and he never saw his father again. Eire discussed his memoir of the period, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy (2003), on Focus 580, a call-in show from WILL, Illinois Public Radio. The memoir, a narrative of growing up during the Cuban Revolution and the first years of the Castro regime, earned him the National Book Award in 2003 for non-fiction. His second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, on the exile experience, was published in 2010. Cuba has banned all of Eire’s books, and he has been deemed an enemy of the state.207
Featured program: Gloria and Emilio Estefan (PBS NewsHour, May 3, 2019)
Gloria Estefan, considered one of the most influential Latin artists of all time, came to the United States as a young child from Cuba in 1959 to escape Fidel Castro’s regime.208 In 1975, she met fellow Cuban exile Emilio Estefan, a musician and music producer of the band “The Miami Latin Boys.” They shared a passion for music, fell in love, and became a couple in marriage and business. When Gloria joined the band, they changed its name to the “Miami Sound Machine” and set out to revolutionize the American music market with their blend of American music and Cuban rhythms. Their idea to do a Conga song in English was a smashing success to the surprise of record executives who had believed the combination to be “too Cuban for Americans and too American for Cubans.” In 1985, they released the song “Conga” in English, and it made Billboard’s Dance, R&B, and Hot 100 charts.209 Billboard described the song as something that “wasn’t straight-up pop nor was it straight-up Cuban music. It was an irresistible hybrid that eclipsed all the cotton-candy pop tunes of the era (and it was in English).”210The Estefans became international superstars.
Throughout her extensive career, Gloria Estefan has received multiple Grammy awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an American Music Award for Lifetime Achievement, and multiple Billboard Awards. In 2015, as President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Estefans, he stated, “Together, their fusion sound has sold more than 100 million records. And as proud Cuban Americans, they’ve promoted their cultural heritage and inspired fans all over the world.”211
In March 2019, the Estefans were the recipients of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.212 Two months later on the evening of broadcast of the ceremony over PBS, they discussed their extensive career together. In recounting her childhood, Gloria noted that her father, formerly a police officer under the Batista regime, served a two-year sentence in Cuba as a political prisoner for participating in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. “For those two years,” she stated, “I started playing guitar and singing. . . . So music was my catharsis.” Acknowledging that they “still have an immigrant mentality,” Gloria explained it as “that kind of thing where you’re always thinking, ‘This can go away, this can go away, you have to be safe, you have to be careful.’” Emilio commented, “I think in this country that people take things for granted, and one of the things that we don’t take for granted is freedom. We came to this country not looking for maybe a better opportunity, we were looking for freedom.”
Featured program: "Notes from the Mambo Inn: The Story of Mario Bauzá" (La Plaza, WGBH, 1991)
In 1991, La Plaza, a television series produced by WGBH in Boston that focused on topics of interest for the Latino community in the U.S., aired an episode that traced the musical career of Mario Bauzá, a Cuban musician who helped create Afro-Cuban jazz. For more information on La Plaza, see the "Latino Public Television History" section of this exhibit. The program features interviews with Bauzá and several of his associates, including Dizzy Gillespie, who brought Afro-Cuban influences into his own music as a result of his association with Bauzá. The program also features musical performances of Bauzá and his students.
Mario Bauzá was a musical prodigy. At the age of 16, he was already an oboist and a clarinetist with the Havana Symphony. When he visited New York in 1927 for a recording date with a Cuban band, Bauzá was impressed with Harlem as a Black center of entertainment and learned to play the saxophone after hearing famed musician Frankie Trumbauer. Dissatisfied with the prejudice that Black musicians experienced in the white-dominated Cuban jazz scene, Bauzá moved to New York in 1930, where he discovered his love for the trumpet and switched to that instrument. Bauzá played with some of the greatest bands at the time, including those of Black leaders Noble Sissle, Cab Calloway, and Chick Webb.213 Forming Machito and His Afro-Cubans with his brother-in-law, Frank “Machito” Grillo, whom he had invited to New York, Bauzá and the band found a home for the newly-created Afro-Cuban style in New York jazz clubs, and the music’s popularity soared due to radio broadcasts and record sales.214
Bauzá was proud of his Afro-Cuban heritage, stating in the episode: “Afro-Cuban is the music that I represent. I am Afro-Cuban myself. My ancestors are from Africa. . . . It’s nothing to be ashamed about.” Mario Bauzá passed away on July 11, 1993.
Politics and Government
Featured program: "An Invitation from Cuba" (Say Brother, WGBH, 1979)
In November 1978, as possibilities for the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba were increasing, a delegation of Cuban exiles from the U.S. and a few other countries, known as the Committee of 75, traveled to Havana at Fidel Castro’s invitation to engage in dialogue with Castro and Cuban officials. After the meeting, Castro agreed to release more than 3,000 political prisoners and allow Cuban exiles to visit their families.215 Say Brother, a public affairs television program produced by WGBH in Boston by and for the African American community, featured a debate between three members of the Boston Cuban community who were in favor of the dialogue and three who opposed. The hour-long program gave an in-depth look at the different opinions on the matter in a well-moderated, but vigorous debate. More than 100,000 Cuban Americans visited Cuba in 1979, most of whom brought gifts to relatives and friends. During a period of recession in Cuba with shortages of consumer goods, many Cubans, seeing the relative prosperity of the visiting Americans, decided to claim political asylum in order to emigrate to the U.S., leading soon after to the Mariel boatlift and increased tensions between the two nations.216
Featured Program: “Junot Díaz” (New York Voices, Thirteen WNET, New York, New York, April 22, 2008)
In 2011, WNET news anchor Rafael Pi Roman interviewed Dominican American writer Junot Díaz about Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Roman asked Díaz what inspired him to write the novel as well as about his creative process. Speaking candidly about the challenges of creative writing, Díaz acknowledged the pivotal roles of compassion and humanity in shaping characters that will resonate with readers. Fictive writing, for Díaz, should approximate elements of the human experience. For example, in Oscar Wao, Díaz introduces the reader to the eponymous character through networks of gossip and rumor facilitated by the other characters in the novel. This decision ensures that readers always have a more holistic picture of who Oscar Wao is than each individual character in the novel.
Featured program: “Roots Musicians” (Línea Abierta, Radio Bilingüe, June 29, 2009)
This roundtable features two Latin American folk musicians, both women, who spoke about their experiences participating in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Each musician was interviewed by the roundtable’s host, awarding-winning journalist Chelis López. Each participant spoke about their musical careers and their hopes for the future. Additionally, each spoke about the Latin American musicians who had influenced them; in fact, most of these musicians were from these participants’ home countries. The first musician, Lidia María López (popularly known as La India Canela), is an accordion player who was born in the Dominican Republic’s Santiago province. La India Canela has gained international acclaim as a gifted performer of meringue, a form of music that has African, indigenous, and European influences and is very popular in the Dominican Republic. The second, Ana Veydo, is a Colombian singer and dancer, who also spoke at length about her sources of musical inspiration as well as the misogyny, among other topics, many Latin American women musicians continue to face even to this day.
Politics and Government
Featured program: “Councilwoman” (Línea Abierta; Radio Bilingüe, September 2, 2019)
During this Labor Day special interview, Carmen Castillo, a hotel housekeeper of Dominican descent, recounts her remarkable life’s journey that included becoming a councilwoman in Providence, Rhode Island. Castillo vigorously campaigned on the “Fight for $15,” a reference to the proposed raising of the state’s minimum wage. She mentioned that she wanted to demonstrate that even “una sirvienta puede tener cerebro” [“even a maid can have a brain”] and that “lo que no se arriesga, no gana” [what isn’t risked isn’t won”]. Castillo’s poignant account illustrates how a Latina immigrant helped improve the life of her community, as well as her own, through determination, hard work, and oratory.
Traditions and Culture
Featured program: “Eating with Gratitude: Jacka Mobile” (Línea Abierta; Radio Bilingüe, November 23, 2017)
Two Afroindigenous women from the Dominican Republic speak candidly about their experiences starting Woke Foods, the first vegetarian Dominican restaurant in New York City. These women hoped to inspire other Dominicans and Dominican Americans to enjoy native dishes while avoiding less healthful ingredients. These Dominican women spoke about their commitment to promoting this culinary information in the face of the ubiquitous fast-food industry.
The AAPB collection includes a diverse range of programs featuring these and other Latino communities in the U.S. The 1960s Hispanic Community series from WRVR-FM covers life in New York City from Puerto Rican and other Hispanic perspectives. More than 175 programs from 1979 to 2009 of the weekly radio series Espejos de Aztlan from KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico are available online. Five KUHT (Houston Public Television) programs from 1989 of the series New Visions, Nuevas Visiones, produced and hosted by Betti Maldonado, delve into the artistic, political, and social life of Latino communities in the Houston area.
Other relevant programs in the AAPB collection include:
Latino Voices (National Federation of Community Broadcasters, n.d.)
Puerto Rico: Workshop for the Americas (WIPR, 1961)
Puerto Rican Commonwealth Status: What Does It Mean? (WGBH-FM, ca. 1963)
Commentary on Mexican-Americans (Commonwealth Club of California, 1969)
Interface: Miami Si, Cuba No (WETA, 1975)
Interface: Puerto Rico Libre (WETA, 1975)
Woman: Puerto Rican Women’s Federation (WNED, 1975)
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report: Latino Power (WNET and WETA, 1978)
Say Brother: Puerto Rico (WGBH, 1978)
La Chicana (KUNM, 1982)
Interview with Poet Luis Rodriguez (KUNM, 1991)
Interview with Poet Marina Rivera (KUNM, 1991)
Sanchez: A Priest in San Miguel (KUNM, 1991)
Línea Abierta: Latin-Americans or Afro-Latinos? (Radio Bilingüe, 1997)
Focus 580: Latinos in America Today (WILL Illinois Public Media, ca. 1999)
On the Same Page: Sandra Cisneros: House on Mango Street (Arkansas Educational TV Network, 2004)
El Latino (Arkansas Educational TV Network, 2003)
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: The New Face of Baseball (MacNeil/Lehrer Productions & WETA in association with Thirteen/WNET, 2003)
Focus 580: Hispanic Voter Project (WILL Illinois Public Media, 2004)
Latino Environmental Groups (KPCC, 2007)
PBS NewsHour Weekend: Final broadcast of Sábado Gigante (NewsHour Productions, 2015)
PBS NewsHour Weekend: Puerto Rico in Crisis (NewsHour Productions, 2018)