CNN's 'Latino in America' Leaves Much to Be Desired

Immigrant Experience, Negative Stereotypes Dominate Soledad O'Brien's Latest Doc

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When I learned that Soledad O'Brien was working on "Latino in America," a two-part documentary series that aired last week on CNN, I was absolutely thrilled about the perspective that a second-generation Latina could bring to the media's depiction of Latino life in the U.S. The feature stories released on the series' companion website prior to the broadcast were thoughtful, taking on subjects like Latino identity and Latino impact on U.S. culture. I was eager to see the growing influence of Latinos in the U.S. through the stories of the "Garcias" -- the title of the first installment, and now the sixth most common last name in the U.S. In short, I expected the series to be a thorough, nuanced and provocative narrative about being Latino in America.

But as each segment unfolded during the Wednesday night premiere, I felt like I was watching a two-part special on immigration presented by Lou Dobbs. A more suitable title would have been, "CNN Presents: Undocumented in America." The documentary focused almost exclusively on the undocumented immigrant experience and its corresponding challenges. While there were a few instances of merit, I was disappointed by the lack of coverage of the successes of many Latinos, biculturalism, second-generation Latinos born in the U.S. and on the overall impact of Latinos on mainstream U.S. culture.

I am compelled to acknowledge some of the merits of the work in the hopes of encouraging a sequel. A brief spotlight on Lorena Garcia, the Venezuelan-born celebrity chef with a weekly segment on Univision's morning show, "Despierta America," demonstrated the entrepreneurial spirit of Latinos in the U.S. During the profile, O'Brien reveals that "Despierta America" has more viewers than all the other major network morning shows combined. Later in the program, Ms. O'Brien's profiles a Dominican-Puerto Rican family living in Charlotte, N.C., and many Central Americans, helping to demonstrate the diversity of the U.S. Latino population. I was pleased to see Ms. O'Brien reaching out to Latino social and public service representatives as well, emphasizing Latinos' involvement in their communities.

Despite these small merits, my overall grade for this documentary is incomplete and unsatisfactory. In fact, most of the recent endeavors by major networks on the subject of Latinos in America have failed. "Latino in America" is incomplete because it ignores major Latino socio-demographic dynamics. It's unsatisfactory because it perpetuates a negative stereotypical depiction of Latinos in the U.S. While our (Latino) community is indeed troubled by many of the challenges Ms. O'Brien explores, it is unacceptable to paint that as the exclusive image of Latinos. Frankly, I expected better from Ms. O'Brien.

CNN's documentary also falls short on the cultural front. Being Latino in the U.S. means juggling your heritage while participating in broader American traditions. It means a U.S. education and a Latino upbringing, loving soccer but embracing American football, taking pride in your heritage but aspiring to "Made in the USA."

Although the immigrant experience is a major aspect of Latino life in the U.S., many other socio-demographic nuances drive our evolution. By the year 2020, U.S.-born Latinos will outnumber foreign-born Latinos. Nearly two-thirds of the Latino population is bilingual. Latino-owned small businesses have more than quintupled since the '80s; today, more than 3 million are generating nearly $400 billion in revenue. Ms. O'Brien explores none of these statistics.

While the Lou Dobbs of the world love to focus on how undocumented immigrants apparently abuse the system, the presence of many foreigners in the U.S. actually has forged whole new industries and economic ecosystems. Today in the U.S. you can find products such as Malbec or Guitig imported from many Latin American countries. The distribution and sale of these items in the U.S. creates jobs, new businesses and investments. Who's telling that story? Lou Dobbs won't, but I dare to dream that Soledad O'Brien might.

In closing, I ask Soledad O'Brien to finish what she started. I truly would like to see CNN greenlight a "Latino in America 2," as they did following viewer response to "Black in America," which first aired in 2008. I hope Ms. O'Brien will cover all the important, untapped topics that can help this country fully understand the U.S. Latino experience and to embrace it as a genuine American experience that will help mold the future of this nation.

Victor Paredes is VP-Associate Director of Account Management at The Vidal Partnership.
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