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How Latino Americans Have Shaped the U.S. and Fought for Acceptance

September 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
From Spanish settlers to immigration reform, the Hispanic-American experience stretches centuries and predates Plymouth Rock. A new PBS documentary series chronicles those often untold stories. Gwen Ifill talks to NewsHour's own Ray Suarez about his companion book, "Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy that Shaped a Nation."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now back to the U.S. for a significant, but often untold piece of our nation’s history, how Latino Americans have shaped the country.

Our own Ray Suarez has written a book on the topic, and he sat down recently with Gwen Ifill.

Here’s their conversation.

GWEN IFILL: From the first Spanish settlers who arrived in America decades before Plymouth rock or Jamestown, to the 53 million Hispanic Americans living here today, Latinos have helped form what is now the United States in ways we were often never taught in school.

From the Wild West to the civil rights movement to the current fight over comprehensive immigration reform, it has been a five-century journey, one that our own Ray Suarez chronicles in “Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation.”

Ray, it’s funny to have you on the other side of the table.

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RAY SUAREZ: It is strange, but I think we’re going to get through it.

GWEN IFILL: I think it’s worthwhile.

You, as a Puerto Rican, Brooklyn-raised American, knew a lot about your heritage before you started doing this book, but you learned a lot more, didn’t you?

RAY SUAREZ: And that’s the thing that I think is really distilled by this book.

Latinos who read it may go into it thinking, oh, you know, I know about the Alamo. I know about the war between the United States and Mexico. But you will constantly be saying, hey, I didn’t know that, when learning about other national origins, like why and when the Dominicans started to come, details about the Cuban refugee crisis that accompanied the Mariel boatlift.

There’s going to be things you didn’t know before, but also all other Americans will say, this meshes with the American history I already know in all kinds of unexpected ways.

GWEN IFILL: You know, even in the introduction, I referred to Spanish Americans, Latino Americans. It’s a kind of a catch-all, but it doesn’t really catch it all, does it?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I keep coming back in the book to the idea of people who came from what was the Spanish-speaking empire in the Western Hemisphere.

And that catches everybody, and it catches all the different times in American history that they have come for all different reasons. You know, Latinos are a unique group inside this country because they were already here. They weren’t immigrants. And they have been immigrants for a century, both things at the same time.

GWEN IFILL: And they keep coming even today. Some immigrant groups came and then basically stopped.

RAY SUAREZ: Most immigrant groups, there’s a run-up, a big spike in their arrivals, and then a tapering off, historically, the Italians, the Irish, the Polish, the Jews of Eastern Europe. There was a big time of arrival, and then it tapers off to nothing.

Latinos have been coming for every century since the Spaniards came to what is now the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Another thing you write about which we have spent a lot of time at this year, in 2013, of the 50th anniversary of all the events of 1963, talking about the civil rights movement, the March on Washington.

But there was a Hispanic civil rights movement, a very distinctive one, that paralleled the African-American civil rights movement, but which you hear a lot less about.

RAY SUAREZ: Paralleled it, was inspired by the black civil rights movement, cross-pollinated and cross-fertilized with it.

Martin Luther King was in contact with Cesar Chavez during his fight in the fields to establish the United Farm Workers. We forget sometimes just what a ructious time the 1960s were. But it wasn’t just the struggle for full black citizenship and full black civil rights.

You know, Mendez vs. Westminster was a precursor case to Brown vs. the Board of Education that led to the desegregation of schools in the United States. Mexican schools was a phrase that people used easily in the Southwest to talk about the inferior and less-well-financed set of schools that they had for Mexican kids to go to.

GWEN IFILL: You had one illustration in the book of a “No Spanish Speakers, No Mexican Here” signs, which looked exactly to me like the “Colored” vs. “Whites Only” signs in the South.


RAY SUAREZ: And, similarly, there were problems getting served in restaurants. There were problems getting realtors to show you homes that you could afford, but they had decided you weren’t going to live in that neighborhood.

GWEN IFILL: You talked to some folks in want Southwest who talked about how, we didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.

Talk about that.

RAY SUAREZ: You know, people as prominent as the former Senator and Secretary of the Interior Salazar, people as well known as Eva Longoria, their families have been in the United States since long before there was a United States.

There are land grant maps from the Spanish going back to the 17th century that shows how the first big encounter in that part of the world between the Spanish Empire and the American Indian nations of that part of the world was really a huge, huge struggle that shaped that area, but it was long settled by the time Americans — English-speaking Americans started to arrival from back east and changed the political calculus in that part of the world.

GWEN IFILL: And like other immigrants, African-Americans among them, obviously, Hispanic Americans were patriots. They fought for their country even when their country wasn’t fighting for them.

RAY SUAREZ: If there’s one thing I want people to take away from the act of reading this book, it’s to either remember or learn for the first time how much the people I write about loved this country, and all they wanted was to be accepted like anybody else in return.

And they kept that love, kept that affection, and kept that struggle going, even when they were getting nothing but the back of the hand from America. It’s a remarkable story. Instead of becoming alienated and angry and removed and creating a separate society inside the country, they kept fighting for acceptance.

GWEN IFILL: One of the Latino Americans you write in the book is someone I will bet most of our viewers, in fact many Latino Americans, never heard her name, Isabel Gonzalez.

RAY SUAREZ: Isabel Gonzalez is a beautiful story because it illustrates that pushing, pushing for acceptance at a time when Puerto Ricans were of indeterminate nationality. Right after the United States took that island in the Spanish-American War, it wasn’t clear whether they were citizens of the island, but not citizens of the United States, whether they were immigrants if they came to America or people who were moving like somebody moving from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

She arrives at Ellis Island. She arrives at New York Harbor, and they tell her she has to go to Ellis Island like an immigrant. And she says, hey, I’m from Puerto Rico. The American flag flies over San Juan, flies over the government buildings. I’m not an immigrant.

And even after it was established that she could legally move — she married someone who was legally resident, so the case was moot — she fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, famous case, and established the right of Puerto Ricans to be considered people who were part of these United States. In some ways, she’s Puerto Rican immigrant number one by establishing that in law.

Puerto Ricans were not to become citizens until many years later, but her case sets the precedent. We had laws for sacks of coffee and sugarcane and coconuts and bananas and everything else, but we hadn’t really thought about the people. What are we going to do with them? And Isabel Gonzalez solved that problem.

GWEN IFILL: Ray, your book is a real contribution to our understanding of who we as Americans. Thanks so much for writing it.

Once again, the title is “Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation.”


RAY SUAREZ: Good to talk to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray’s book was released in conjunction with a PBS special three-part, six-hour documentary series of the same name. “Latino Americans” chronicles five centuries of history, and it debuts next Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.