Marchers at a Black and Brown Unity rally in Chicago, June 2020. Photo by Mateo Zapata/Courtesy of Quiet Pictures.

Honor Hispanic Heritage Month with Eight Unique Documentaries

September 09, 2020 by Independent Lens in Lists

By Lola Méndez

Hispanic Heritage Month has been honored annually in the United States since 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson first launched it as Hispanic Heritage Week. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the celebration to last the four weeks from September 15th to October 15th. Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates the histories, cultures, and contributions of Latinx people whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central, and South America.

To celebrate the occasion, we’ve gathered eight must-see documentaries to help understand gain a better understanding of Latinx culture in the United States. These are films that strongly, in their own ways, address the role of Latinx people in shaping American culture, politics, and economics. 

Paper Children (2020)

This YouTube Originals documentary was produced and directed by Alexandra Codina, whose film Monica & David for HBO was nominated for an Emmy. The film showcases a Honduran family’s experience of immigrating to the U.S. and raises awareness about the mistreatment of unaccompanied children by the U.S. government.

Annually, thousands of Latin American children flee violence to seek asylum in the U.S. This subject is deeply personal for Codina, whose father was part of a mass exodus of 13,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba in 1962, known as “Operation Pedro Pan.”

Latino Vote: Dispatches from the Battleground (2020) 

Bernardo Ruiz’s immersive documentary aims to encourage the Latinx community to hit the voting booths. The two-time Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker and producer (Harvest Season, The Graduates) followed Latinx community organizers and voters in swing states Nevada, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Latinx voters are expected to be the largest non-white voting group in the 2020 presidential election.

The film airs October 6th on PBS‘s VOCES as a part of the network’s election special programming.

poster art for Latino Vote with a mask and "vote" over a woman's face

Dear Homeland (2020) 

Claudia Escobar’s lyrical film follows the heartfelt story of Diana Gameros, an immigrant musician from Juarez, Mexico who is undocumented in the States. Gameros overstayed a tourist visa in the U.S. when she was young, attended school, and now cannot return to her homeland. She shares her pain and glory through her political lyrics. In one of her evocative songs, “Ligerita,” which means lightweight, she croons: “aliviando mis pesares (alleviating my sorrow).”

Harvest of Empire (2012)

Wendy Thompson-Marquez’s feature-length documentary — which won the Imagen Award for Best Documentary Film — captures the plight of how U.S. intervention in Latin America resulted in Latinos immigrating to the U.S. and is based on the book by award-winning journalist Juan González. The film analyzes how U.S. economic and military interests sparked waves of migration from the region. 

Covering U.S. territorial expansion, control of Puerto Rico, the Cuban embargo, and other military operations across Latin America the film sheds light on the truth regarding the events that led many to flee their homelands in search of refuge in the States.

¡Palante, Siempre Palante! The Young Lords (1996)

Iris Morales’ award-winning documentary which aired on PBS’s POV, depicts how Latinx communities fought for economic and social justice during the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and the women’s equality movement. The Young Lords were a militant youth group that demanded equality, access, and empowerment for Puerto Ricans and other Latinx groups from Chicago to New York City. 

Morales utilized archival footage, interviews, and photos to showcase the activities, philosophy, dismantling, and legacy of The Young Lords, the torturous end of the organization, and its inspiring legacy.

See also: The Young Lords as one of the three groups featured in The First Rainbow Coalition.

Mala Mala (2014)

Directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles captured the lives of nine trans women in San Juan, Puerto Rico from the streets and clubs in this powerful documentary The film follows the transition journey of each person and how they’re all involved in the fight for equality to foster a greater understanding of the trans community. The subjects open up to share their experiences and the strength of embracing their truest selves.

The Hand That Feeds (2014)

Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick joined forces to produce this documentary set in an Upper East Side café in Manhattan, New York. The undocumented immigrant workers who operate the café are tired of unfair wages, poor work conditions, and abusive management. 

They band together to fight the exploitation but find limited resources due to their undocumented status until they garner the interest of New Yorkers and Occupy Wall Street protestors. 

The Latino List (2011)

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary features 16 prominent people from the Latinx community in the U.S. who discuss what it’s like to be Latinx in the States. Eva Longoria, America Ferrera, John Leguizamo, and more unveil the challenges they’ve faced, their family’s immigration stories, the bigotry they endure, and more. These Latinx power-houses also express meaningful messages of Latinx pride, self-acceptance, and perseverance.

Lola Méndez is an Uruguayan-American freelance journalist. She writes about sustainability, travel, culture, and wellness for many print and digital publications such as CNN Travel, Lonely Planet, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, and Refinery29, in addition to her responsible travel blog, You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

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