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There is always a great story behind any big project

By Maria Hinojosa on 09/13/2011 @ 12:57 PM

There is always a great story behind any big project and The Latino List has one, too. But this story sheds light on both the current moment we are living and why this project, in my view, has historical significance. But first la historia...

Ingrid Duran and Catherine Pino first approached me about The Latino List while everyone was celebrating a high moment for Latinos in the United States of America. It was the fall of 2009 at the annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s gala in Washington, D.C. The gala has become one of those “it” places to be for smart, up-and coming and established Latinos, from university students and social workers to Senators and CEO’s. That night, in a nod to the power of Latino voters who turned out and helped elect the country’s first African-American leader, President Barack Obama was showing up to speak, and the newly sworn in Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in attendance. Ingrid and Catherine, D.C.-based, Latina powerhouses from Los Angeles and New Mexico, who are also an out gay couple, approached me and told me about their dream project.

“This is our time,” they said, and both smiled and hugged me. “We are going to make this happen! This is too important for everyone—Latinos and non-Latinos alike. We are going to do this!” and here it is—thanks to them and to the wonderful Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and his team and Susan Gonzales, among many others who worked hard to make this dream into a reality.

But back to that night at the gala. I have been a journalist who, among many things, has documented the story of Latinos in this country for 30 years. And that night in 2009, I remember feeling like something had shifted. There was poder at that gala. Latinos and Latinas commanding their power, coming into their own, a special night with the country’s first Latina Supreme Court Justice. That was the kind of thing people thought should happen but never would a Puerto Rican woman speaking not just for Latinos but for all Americans. I knew something had changed in the Latino ethos that evening when more people were lining up to have their photo taken with Sotomayor than with J. Lo, who was also there. Our Latino icons were changing in front of our very eyes. It was an unforgettable, magical moment of being surrounded by potential and hope and fuerza and felicidad. Now, fast forward to when we actually started filming this project in the spring of 2010. It was a different time with a very different sentiment among Latinos in this country. The celebratory mood of Latinos moving into real power was now faced with a huge challenge.

From the leaps and bounds of swing votes helping to elect a Black President, many Latinos now felt we might have to hide. The Latino List began filming the very same week that Arizona enacted its controversial SB1070 law. While Latinos fall on many different sides of the immigration debate, there was a collective breath-holding going on across many Latino communities after that law was signed. Those two things happened at the same time: This expansive project to document and educate our country about Latinos, and a new state law that many believe is specifically anti-Latino. I call this confusion “The U.S. Mambo”-three steps forward, two steps back-the series of mixed messages Latinos are constantly getting about who we are in this country. Attraction and revulsion. Praise and pity. Visible and invisible. Powerful and powerless. Stay or just go away. Perhaps the entire year we have filmed this project, from 2010 to 2011, has been a time for many of us to ask the question -to ourselves, to each other, to others-“Who are we in relation to this country? If we have been here for generations, for decades or just for years, who are we Latinos in the United States?”

During our first round of interviews, I saw civil rights leader Raúl Yzaguirre and former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros shed tears over Arizona. I also learned that Hollywood actress Eva Longoria had gone back to school to get a master’s degree in Chicano Studies. Maybe that says it all. There is sadness but there is also tremendous hope. And there is a hunger to know more. As a young Mexican kid growing up in Chicago, I struggled with feeling invisible. But this younger Latino generation knows that they are visible now-even Dora the Explorer is bilingual and brown. But being seen is not enough now. Latinos want to be heard and recognized. See me. See me because I already am you. Latinos are everywhere in this country now. From Arkansas to Maine to Alaska and Alabama, we are present and we are intermarrying at a faster pace than other non-white groups. More and more of us are entering the middle class. We’re creating a more than one trillion-dollar consumer market. And yet hate crimes against Latinos are spiking. It’s the U.S. mambo once again.

The power of this portrait of Latinos in the United States at the turn of the century is that it’s not just the portrait of one individual, but rather of a sector of the United States of America that now represents the only demographic group that is growing. It’s important to repeat that statistic because it is really the only one that matters if you want to understand, not who Latinos are in this country, but rather who this country is becoming. So here it is again. The Latino demographic is the only one in the United States growing exponentially. Another important statistic: every 60 seconds a Latino turns 18 in the United States. So the hunger to know and understand who we are at this moment in history is real, and frankly, necessary. Latinos need to see themselves and learn from each other. And those who are not Latino need to understand our history and our presence and modern day role in building the next phase of American society. There were poignant and touching moments in the journey of The Latino List and every single one of the interviews was deep and moving. My joy (even as a hard-nosed investigative journalist) was to spend time with these notable Latinos and ask them to relax and to dive deep into their hearts and tell us their story about being Latino in the United States. I asked them to look at you and me right in the eye and talk, sin pelos en la lengua. I think it is important that the people I interviewed for The Latino List spoke directly to the camera because then you can literally see yourself in the person right in front of you. The great American writer Sandra Cisneros told me that her definition of multiculturalism (and universal humanity) is being able to see yourself in the person most unlike you, to look into the eyes of the person who is most unlike you and see yourself. So, yes, it was emotional. Mi gente is always working so hard-whether as a farm worker who then becomes an astronaut like José Hernández, or a leader of a civil rights organization like Janet Murguía at the National Council of La Raza, or being a music icon like Gloria Estefan-and every single one of them is working overtime. The mission is not just to make money, the mission-from Chi Chi Rodríguez to John Leguizamo to America Ferrera to Emilio Estefan- is to give back to Latinos by being visible, and engaged. They are “representing.” Yes, it is a mission for all of us to inspire. Para que nadie se quede atras. The experience of being Latino in this country is filled with passion, con ese deseo tan fuerte de vivir, y decir algo con nuestras vidas. The people we spoke to want to say something with their lives, with their Latino lives in America. With The Latino List we are saying, “Look at yourselves, America. Look at who you are and who you are becoming. We are you. We are America.”

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> a really cool quote from a nice person
a really cool quote from a nice person

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