HBO’s ‘Latino List’ Shows Complexities of Being Latino in the U.S.
Sep 28, 2011
Director and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the man behind HBO’s series of documentaries “The Black List,” has adapted his signature short oral history interview style to create the “The Latino List.”
“The Latino List” is made up of 16 short interviews that feature successful and prominent Latinos. The film is an “ongoing exploration of who we are, where we come from and what it means to be a Latino in the United States today,” says narrator and interviewer Maria Hinojosa.
The 16 different interviews include a wide range of Latinas and Latinos working in different fields, including: writer Sandra Cisneros; “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrera ; NASA astronaut Jose Moreno Hernandez; ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero; radio host Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo (who’s credited for the enormous turnouts in 2006’s May Day immigration marches); U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; and Yoruba Belief systems scholar and activist Dr. Marta Moreno Vega.
The interviews are all beautiful, both visually and in terms of content. They’re all very simple set ups, with the interviewee in front of the camera with one light that’s slightly too bright as they look directly into the frame. The whole scene gives the viewer the impression that they’re having a one-on-one conversation with the subject.
Of course, some people are better storytellers than others, but every single one of the interviews is touching. America Ferrera talked growing up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley and watching “Full House” and “Fresh Prince in Bel Air.” “I didn’t feel different until someone made an effort to point it out to me,” she said.
Ferrera shares what it was it was like to be a young Latina going into auditions and having to deliver lines after you get the “polite face,” a face that she describes as “yes, we’re gonna sit through this audition but we’re never going to call you back.” (Have you read Why Ugly Betty was a really big deal?)
NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez talked about picking fruits and vegetables from the fields, and how his father admonished him that he’d be doing it the rest of his life unless he studied hard in school.
Piolin, the radio personality behind one of the country’s most popular radio show, talks about crossing the border without papers and feeling a helicopter’s light shinning on his back.
And scholar Dr. Marta Moreno Vega talks about why she stopped worshiping a white God. “I was born Catholic, and my parents claimed to be Catholic, and I understood that if the God and Goddess that I was looking at did not look like me, my mother, my grandmother, my uncle, my father—my children would never feel sacred and we’d never have the power to achieve what we needed to achieve,” Moreno Vega says in her interview.
The documentary isn’t without its flaws. The director did a good job at selecting people from a wide spectrum — those from across Latin America and of varying sexes and professions. But it’s important to note that the majority of subjects are all light skinned. (Important to note, but not surprising because those are the Latinos who get elected for office and selected for television.)
Many of them also tout personal responsibility for their success. Only one subject, Dr. Moreno Vega, made it clear that she faced institutional racism when a principal at her elementary school kept her from taking a test for advanced students. Her story alone is worth turning into the documentary.
The 4-5 minute stories are compelling and they illustrate the complexities of life many Latinos in the U.S. face. These tales are extraordinarily important in an age when Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country and states like Arizona and Alabama are creating anti-Latino laws.
HBO’s “The Latino List” premieres Wednesday, September 28 at 9pm on HBO Latino and Thursday, September 29 at 8pm on HBO.
An accompanying photography exhibit is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. The show includes a few additional figures including my favorite light-skinned Salvadoreña Christy Turlington. (Her mother is a Salvadoran of English descent.)
Lastly if you’re wondering if the director dealt with any Reynas, he did. Only one famous “wise Latina,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor made Greenfield-Sanders and his crew go to her.