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'The Latino List' shines a light on culture's sense of 'in-betweenness'

Ed Morales / For the Star-Ledger
Sep 29, 2011

With his shock of untamed wavy black hair, white shirt covering a black "wife-beater" undershirt and silver neck chain, comedian/actor John Leguizamo sums up being Latino in this way:

"The Spanish came, and they were like dudes who were really horny, and they didn't bring women like the English did, and they saw all those Indian honeys ... and then they brought in African slaves into the mix."

Leguizamo's deconstruction of Latino identity is one of the highlights of "The Latino List," a documentary directed by portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, premiered last night on HBO Latino and tonight at 8 on HBO. His trademark comedic sarcasm neatly summarizes the mixed-race, multicultural narrative adopted by Latin American nations like Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Puerto Rico to foster pride in a population whose majority simply isn't "white." But that essential notion about Latino reality only occasionally makes it into Greenfield-Sanders' third film about people of color in America.

The first two were "The Black List" collaborations with film critic Elvis Mitchell, that aired in 2008 and 2009. The formula was simple but effective: Assemble a list of prominent African-Americans in politics, entertainment and the arts, and make a film based on the art of portraiture. The viewer gets an inside glimpse of how photographers make their subjects comfortable by establishing an intimacy by using informal interview techniques.

Greenfield-Sanders, whose own parents were blacklisted civil rights activists in the South in the 1950s, had personal experience with the idea, but Mitchell codified it.

"My friend Toni Morrison got me interested in portraying underappreciated black talent," said Greenfield-Sanders. "So I got together with Elvis and he said, 'Let's call it "The Black List," because that's such a negative term and we can make it a good thing to be on.' "

While Mitchell's thematic suggestion played out strongly in the "Black List" films, which featured subjects like Al Sharpton, Chris Rock, and Morrison, it's not so much present in "The Latino List." Rather than continue Mitchell's theme of revelation through confrontation, the website for "Latino List" says the documentary "offers a unique glimpse into the vibrant and burgeoning culture of Hispanic America."

Being 'weirdly in-between'

The difference between the documentaries may point out a crucial difference between African-American and Latino identity. It seems evident that African-Americans have less of a problem viewing themselves as a unified political and cultural force.

"I grew up in Miami, so for me, Latino was Cuban," said Greenfield-Sanders. "I came to Columbia University in New York and then it became Puerto Rican, and then I went to California to film school, and Latino was Mexican. I think it was very helpful making the film because we were all conscious that this was not singular, it wasn't monolithic."

In fact, a report issued by the Pew Hispanic Center in late 2009 found that only 34 percent of Latinos felt that they had a shared culture with other Latino groups, preferring the idea that there were more differences than commonalities among them. In our area, anecdotally, I sense an agreement with this idea, that we are Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Colombians, Mexicans first, then Latino.

But two factors seem to make identification with a broader Latino culture inevitable, and perhaps more important than we are willing to acknowledge. One is that identifying as Latino is a crucial add-on in the reshaping of our home-country identity in America, giving Latinos a cultural and political base analogous to that of African-Americans. The other is that marketers and their media partners prefer to categorize us that way to maximize profits.

The feel and execution of "The Latino List" is certainly as elegant as its predecessors, but the content veers back and forth between the sense of corazón (heart) and pride in hard work that is instilled by our close-knit families, and explaining how confusing it is to deal with our Americanization and the subsequent erosion of our Spanish skill set.

This reality is emblematized by the interview with America Ferrera, who describes growing up in the San Fernando Valley as a different kind of Valley Girl. "I was weirdly in-between," she muses, "I didn't feel different until someone made an effort to point it out to me." The solution to this dilemma, for Ferrara, is also the key the success of "Ugly Betty": It was a show about a family that just happened to be Latino.

Crossing over

This strategy is employed by many minorities who don't want to be tainted by the negative publicity campaign against affirmative action. Making "Latino" a primary part of your identity implies that you are avoiding being judged by "mainstream" standards and that you may have been granted your professional position to fill a quota. Pay no attention to that Latino behind the curtain, says the Latino wizard.

Still, many of us prefer to use the "in-betweenness" or "hybridity" of Latino identity as a selling point, a source of strength. Gloria and Emilio Estefan -- whose already ubiquitous presence in the infotainment world makes them an uninspired choice -- locate their success in overcoming naysayers who said they were "too American for the Latins and too Latin for the Americans." Fellow Cuban-American Pitbull, whose current reign of Latin pop supremacy is ample evidence of his crossover success, revels in being a bilingual blue-eyed rapper prospecting for gold in Dirty South rap circles. "Too Latin for hip-hop, too hip-hop for Latin," he smirks.

Despite this ambivalence, PBS and NPR reporter María Hinojosa's skillful off-camera interviewing does evoke several strong emotional moments. The controlled indignation of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as he tells of his constituents being surprised at how well he speaks English becomes a catharsis in his story about his mother -- a seamstress who eventually fell to Alzheimer's disease -- who pushed him to do homework every night, even though she didn't understand it.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor waxes eloquent on the importance of her neighbors in the Bronx housing project she grew up in, and the way she bonded with her father while watching Yankees games. Then, in the film's most "magical realist" moment, she describes salsa dancing across the corridors of the Second Circuit court -- she had finally come home to her Latina identity.

Sotomayor's unabashed use of Spanish was striking, especially since very few other subjects -- besides novelist Sandra Cisneros, who said she was a "chingona" waiting for her "chingón," as if everyone knew what that was -- opted to speak it. (Rough translation: a badass gal waiting for her badass guy, in Mexican slang). Educator/activist Marta Moreno Vega, whose work is focused on Afro-Latinos, was the most defiant of the interviewees, calling out anti-black attitudes that exist among Latinos, insisting: "Our color is perfect. We don't have to compare ourselves to anyone."

'Like a family'

But while some will revel in Pitbull's apparently unprecedented revelation that his mother was a stripper who reversed a tube-tying operation to give birth to him ("I was a survivor from day one," he says without blinking), the star of Latino List is ACLU director Anthony Romero.

Romero begins his testimony by describing the way Puerto Rican (and, by extension, many Latino) families analyzed his looks (lips, nose) at birth to see how "white" he could claim to be. Growing up as a Catholic considering the priesthood, he realized he was gay. His father noticed the way he put his hands on his waist and pointed out that "real men" don't do that.

After calling out rising anti-immigration sentiments as the xenophobic backlash that it is, he returns to a story about his family. He is in a hospital and his father is terminally ill. His father looks at him and says, "You still have your hands on your waist," and Romero immediately drops them to his side.

"And he said to me, 'Nunca pare de pensar que eres un gran hombre' -- I never stopped thinking that you were a great man," said Romero, describing their final reconciliation.

It seems as if Romero was indirectly saying that no matter what our considerable internal differences, and the way we confront the outside world, Latinos are like a family, that in the end finds a way to love itself.

Ed Morales, a frequent Star-Ledger music contributor, is author of "Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in America" (St. Martin's Griffin).

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