In 1944, when Americans were fighting for the Pacific island of Saipan, a feisty young Mexican-American Marine named Guy Gabaldon ventured on his own behind Japanese lines, defying the orders of his commander. With a few phrases of Japanese he had learned as a boy in Los Angeles, Gabaldon coaxed enemy soldiers from caves where they were hiding, making them believe a regiment was close behind.
In one day, Gabaldon single-handedly captured more than 800 Japanese fighters, a U.S. military record. Yet when Hollywood made a movie about his exploits after the war, Gabaldon, who is short with dark hair, was played by a tall, blond actor. His Latino identity was never mentioned.
That omission, and many others in which Hispanic people have been casually excluded or purposefully expunged from the record of U.S. history, has begun to be addressed in “Latino Americans,” a series of six one-hour documentaries that PBS is broadcasting on three Tuesday nights. The first part aired this week.
Its producers took on no small task. They set out to weave into one story line the saga of Spanish-speaking people on the American continent from their arrival to the present, starting with the Spanish admiral who laid claim to St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565 — more than four decades before the English founded a fort at Jamestown, Va.
The documentaries bring together for the first time for national television the disparate experiences of Latinos with different national origins, from the Mexican-Americans whose ancestors inhabited the Southwest before the United States were united; to the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans who flocked to the East Coast during the past century; to the Central and South Americans who spread across the country in recent decades.
For PBS the series also repairs a historical record of its own. Latinos were outraged that none of their veterans were included in the 14-hour series about World War II made in 2007 by the documentarian Ken Burns. Hispanic groups successfully pressured Burns to re-edit some episodes to add several Latinos. They also demanded more shows by and about Latinos on PBS stations.
“PBS is redeeming itself,” said Lisa Navarrete, a top leader at NCLR, also known as the National Council of La Raza, one of the groups that led the criticism of Burns’ series. “There is an idea out there that we are all recent arrivals. These documentaries go a long way to showing people that we are not new. We have a lot of history in this country.”
Jeff Bieber, an executive producer of the series, said he was watching the acrimonious debate over illegal immigration that was gathering fervor when he first conceived the series five years ago. Bieber, a vice president at WETA, the PBS flagship station in Washington, said he wanted to provide context about Latinos that would “change the national conversation” around immigration.
A delicate decision for Bieber was the selection of a series producer. Initially some advocates worried that his choice, Adriana Bosch, a filmmaker born in Cuba, might not comprehend the experience of Mexican-Americans. As it turned out, Bosch had never been wedded to one Latino region. She grew up in New Jersey and California and worked for decades as a filmmaker in Boston.
She brought in more Hispanic producers, from a different national origins. The project they undertook was vast.
“We wanted to tell the whole story,” Bosch said. “But it was a very tall order, constructing one narrative that captured the different threads. There are many groups, they have parallel histories, and some intersect and some don’t.”
After the recession hit in 2008, a series originally planned for eight hours was reduced by tight funds to six. The result is a panorama, which can sometimes be dizzying, as the action sprints from San Francisco to San Antonio to Santo Domingo.
There is the story of Juan Seguín, a Mexican who fought with the hapless defenders of the Alamo in 1836 (and was sent out as a courier before it fell) and went on to become mayor of San Antonio. But settlers from the East were pushing Mexicans off their Texas land, and Seguín became one of them, forced to live out his life on the run as “a foreigner in my native land.”
The broadcast of the new series has turned out to be timely. Latinos, the country’s largest minority, are closer than ever to having a shared national identity. Different groups have been unified in their rejection of the caustic rhetoric of some politicians in the immigration debate. Last year, Latinos demonstrated new electoral clout when their votes helped re-elect President Barack Obama.
PBS hopes to tap in to that dynamic. Since January, advance screenings of “Latino Americans” have been held with panel discussions and fiestas, primarily with Hispanic organizations. The series’ website has invited Hispanic viewers, in both English and Spanish, to submit their own videos recalling family traditions and lore.