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Your Story Belongs in Latino-American History

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The spotlight shines brightly on Latino history. Two national projects I'm familiar with are about to take center stage, and both open their doors widely to public involvement. And why not? Although U.S. Latino history remains marginal, the enormous growth of Latinos can no longer be ignored. Nonetheless, opportunities to interact are not often offered to Latino communities. So when government sources and major television networks invite us to partner with them to expand the nation's story, it gives us a good chance to have our say, to include Latino perspectives in America's story for it has long been absented from the collective national consciousness.

One opportunity comes from the National Park Service. The American Latinos and the Making of the United States: A Theme Study, is an online and print publication of the National Park System Advisory Board and the American Latino Scholars Expert Panel. The Theme Study highlights more than 500 years of richly layered, complicated histories of U.S. Latino struggle and survival, adversity, triumph, and perseverance. Revealing the contradictions, change and continuities that broaden the nation's story, the collected essays are solidly based on historical research.

From big-picture events like the expansionist wars of 1848 and 1898, Manifest Destiny, the need for labor in the fields and factories, and immigration, the essays delve easily into individual achievements. Admiral David Farragut comes to mind, urging Union vessels into battle by shouting, "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead," as does the 19th century Puerto Rican immigrant, Arturo Schomburg, amassing his extensive book collection about the African American experience. More recent stories include that of Dr. Jorge Prieto, founder of a string of public family practice clinics throughout Chicago's working class neighborhoods.

Where ordinary Latinos perform extraordinary deeds, the Theme Study captures the imagination. But many of the people and events mentioned in the Theme Study will remain on the printed page unless we identify the sites where these histories took place. After all, national landmarks and historic sites are the places that preserve America's story.

The National Park Service is committed to highlighting the Latino experience. Guided by the Theme Study in classrooms, cultural institutions, or community settings, NPS encourages the public to search for and identify trails, neighborhoods, and national landmarks for connections to the American Latino past.

Another opportunity comes from the networks of the Public Broadcasting System. Their major documentary series, Latino Americans, is led by award-winning series producer Adriana Bosch and narrated by the actor Benjamin Bratt. Like the Theme Study, it covers similar ground but through a vastly different lens. Unique film footage, images, literary quotes, voice overs, music and historical re-enactments offer the viewer a virtual harvest of untold histories. From over one hundred Latino commentaries, the producers weave together the work of scholars who've documented the historical record, and public figures like the first Puerto Rican Congressman, Herman Badillo, Dominican novelist, Julia Alvarez, or Gloria Estefan, whose talents revolutionized America's popular Latin music.

While a host of stellar personalities unravel Latinidad, the larger story of conquest, expansion, survival, incorporation, and coalescence takes center stage. How have 53 million Latinos managed to shape this nation over five hundred years, and what obstacles did they face in doing so? How have Latinos formed community in spite of their diversity? What forces forge a Latino identity among millions of Americans who represent different generations, citizens and non-citizens? How do you account for different rural and urban experiences, regional, cultural and linguistic variations? In all, a fascinating history emerges from such debatable issues and dilemmas. Captured in the six hour documentary, the stories are fleshed out as well in the companion book to the series by PBS National Correspondent, Ray Suarez.

More than any other media project in recent memory, Latino Americans makes a monumental effort to engage public discourse. Viewers are urged to share their experiences, traditions and identity formation by submitting personal video stories, joining Twitter conversations, or attending screening and discussion events. Educators can also avail themselves of an interactive timeline and multi-media curricular modules designed for students and relevant to Common Core and National Social Studies Standards.

Clearly, a great deal of thought and planning has gone into engaging the public. Latino History is American History, and it may just be the Latino Americans documentary series that will demonstrate that axiom once and for all. But it will be up to us to keep Latinos in America's story through our involvement.

pbs.org/latinoamericans