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New HBO Film Aims To Reshape Views On Latinos

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You? commentary in just a few minutes. But first, we continue our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, and we want to tell you about the new documentary "The Latino List." It's airing this month on HBO.

The film features 15 prominent Latino Americans who share their stories of struggle and success. For example, here's the Honduran-American actress America Ferrera, who's probably best known for her leading role in the hit comedy series "Ugly Betty." That series earned her an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award. But the road to that point had some interesting twists. Here's a clip from "The Latino List," where she remembered one of her early auditions.


AMERICA FERRERA: The casting director stopped me, and she said: Okay, can you sound more Latina? Can you make your accent sound more Hispanic? I couldn't even believe that, A, she would say that; and B, that I don't know, I couldn't do it. So I just said no. And she's like okay, thank you.

And I walked out, and I thought: I don't think I got that one. I was just more weirdly in-between.

MARTIN: Getting to the heart of these very personal narratives was the work of Maria Hinojosa. She is the Emmy Award-winning journalist who conducted all the interviews for the film, but I'm sure she's familiar to NPR listeners as the host of the public radio program "Latino USA." And Maria Hinojosa joins us now. Welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARIA HINOJOSA: It's great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask, before we get into the heart of this film: Is it connected in some way to "The Black List," which is a project that many people might be familiar with it - a two-part series very similar to this one that aired previously on HBO?

HINOJOSA: Actually three-part series, Michel, believe it or not. And so that was kind of the genesis because there were these powerhouse Latinas in Washington, D.C., who had seen "The Black List" and said wait a second, we can do this for Latinos.

They got together with Timothy Greenfield Sanders, who's the director of "The Black List." And so we are now on Hour One of "The Latino List," and the pressure right now is wait, wait, wait, we want Hour One, Two, Three, Four. There's a real hunger for this kind of material.

MARTIN: Speaking to that point, though, one of the ideas behind "The Black List," which was also co-produced with Ellis Mitchell, that - to reclaim - it was kind of a play on the term "the blacklist," which in its other meaning means kind of a list that excludes. And part of the idea was to redefine that. Is the idea behind "The Latino List" similar, in a way, to sort of reclaim or redefine what it means to be Latino today?

HINOJOSA: We had actually toyed with a different title, and it was going to be "Know Latinos," as in K-N-O-W. But because right now there's a real interesting sentiment in terms of Latinos, like, do you want them in this country or don't you? And that was like no Latinos, and it's like, no, actually know them, understand them.

And so yes, the sense of this film is you need to hear from us. You need to hear from Latinos. You don't actually - you know, with America Ferrera, for example, you know her as Ugly Betty, but you've never really spent much time with her, talking about her life.

You probably didn't know that she was from Central America. Her parents are from Central America. So it was really about putting a face on these many Latinos who are part and parcel, you know, I mean, the largest group of, quote, unquote, the largest minority in the United States. And that's a term I don't like to use, ever.

But that is what we're saying. Understand. And it was also an opportunity for many Latinos to kind of answer that question, that we don't actually ask ourselves very often, which is what is our experience as Latinos in this country? We talk about it all the time, but we don't really ask ourselves that question. And that was where we were trying to get with this documentary.

MARTIN: One of the things that this film does, though, is - you mentioned - offer dimensions of people that - people who you may have seen many times, you know, in the media, in various iterations but never really heard from, speaking for themselves.

And the film offers dimensions of people that I think some people might find surprising. One of the more, I think, surprising interviews was with United States Supreme Court Justice, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of course the first Latina to sit on the high court, and...

HINOJOSA: I think it's so funny that you're laughing as you're talking about it, because exactly, it's like you're laughing about the interview with the Supreme Court justice, and it's like, yeah...


MARTIN: And the reason I'm laughing, for people, is that she - there was this one moment where she talked about something that - this blows up all kinds of stereotypes - because of course I think it is a stereotype that many people have of people of color is of course they all have rhythm, whether they're black or Latino, of course they can dance.

And the justice is saying that she can't, but she felt she needed to. So here's a clip where I'm going to play - that I'm going to play when she talked about what she felt she needed to do to learn to dance. Here it is.



SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I read a book about dancing, book didn't help much. You really have to practice dancing. This guy came to my home, and for six months he worked with me. And then, at an office Christmas party, we put on music and I danced down the hallways of the 2nd Circuit courthouse. The whole courthouse was in a state of shock..

MARTIN: As was I when I heard this story.


MARTIN: You learned so many things from this. You learn first of all, how seriously she takes it. She decides she's going to do something, she puts her mind to it. But tell me about why you wanted to include this particular segment in the film? And also how did you get somebody like Sonia Sotomayor, who has every reason to be very guarded and careful about what she says, to open up in this way?

HINOJOSA: This was probably one of my all-time favorite interviews in my entire career. Because there's nothing like walking into the Supreme Court, which is where we were recording, being with the justice as she's getting her makeup done in her chambers. And all of that, Michel, was actually part of the process of really getting her to just chill. But it was all about, you know, right now Sonia, Supreme Court Justice, Justice, it's really about going back into memory. So go with me. Stay with me.

And Sonia actually is amazing in the sense that she is very much in touch with those kinds of stories. And so we actually start the film with her talking about being a big fan of the Yankees. And again you're like what? You know, what? She's a big fan of the Yankees? And then she goes into this story about learning how to dance salsa. You think she's going to talk about one thing about some kind of political stance or some kind of legal perspective or some kind - no, she's talking about learning to dance salsa. And it was precisely because she, like everyone else in this film, allowed themselves to go deep into that place where there's not a lot of judgment, where there's a lot of vulnerability. I think it's testament to what we were trying to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the new HBO documentary "The Latino List," with public radio host, award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa. She conducted all the interviews for this film.

The film is not all sweetness and light and, you know, Latinos, we're great. It does dig into some issues within the community. And one of those issues is sort of the skin color hierarchy, which people many people will have noticed, okay. And here is Anthony Romero is the executive director of the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, and he's talking about color consciousness.



ANTHONY ROMERO: In Puerto Rico, we have so many complicated race dimensions. And so there's always questions about the color of the skin of children. First question that the old members of the family ask, (Spanish spoken)? How did it come out? Not is it a boy or girl? What color is the skin? (Spanish spoken) Good hair? Bad hair? My mother would complain about my full lips - my bembe - because I have a pretty light skin color but this might be a betrayal of some other things in our blood.

MARTIN: Well, talk about that, if you would.

HINOJOSA: He talked about that...

MARTIN: Why did you feel it was important to talk about that?

HINOJOSA: Oh, because the issue of race among Latinos is a central part of who we are, the conversation around race. Anthony Romero, when you see him, he looks white and that's a really weird term to use, but he has very fair skin color and, of course, his lips are quite large. But the issue of race, the film ends with a very prominent Afro-Latina from Puerto Rico, Marta Moreno Vega, talking precisely about issues of race.

And we can talk about this because we're Latinos in the United States, not that it's not discussed in Latin America. But for Latinos in the United States the conversation about we are all not just one people, we are of many hues. There are more black Afro-Latin Americans in Latin America than there are in the United States. So black and Latin American, black and Latino go hand-in-hand, but it's not something that has often been named. And so we are trying to bring that forward in the story.

But the one story that Anthony Romero didn't talk about, which is beautiful, said that he hadn't talked about publicly, was when he was revealing about his sexual identity and the fact that, you know, his dad was like don't put your hands on your hips, that's not what men do. And a beautiful story that is very intimate again, and we wanted to represent gay Latinos too. They have a voice. Their voices need to be heard. And again, that story had never been told publicly. So we were really attempting to get to that vulnerable place.

MARTIN: So what's been the reaction to the film? It just premiered a couple of days ago. And as we said, it will be airing throughout the month on HBO. What's been the reaction so far?

HINOJOSA: You know, it was a really wonderful thing. We took the team of people who worked on the film, did premieres in LA and Miami and Washington and in New York and watching what was happening in the audience, Michel, was really beautiful. A lot of people were crying. I was crying.


HINOJOSA: I would cry, you know, of course, I have a tie to the film. But people would start crying. And then when they'd walked out they'd be just like I wanted more. Oh my God, I want some more. Why did you have to stop? You know, this notion of more and feeling, I don't know. What I've talked about is that the film was made, we started filming the week after the law in Arizona went into effect - SB 1070 in Arizona. And we filmed up until June of this year, so basically a year and a half of filming in a time when the reality of being Latino in the United States of America is increasingly complex. It is a time when, again, you have these laws that any Latino in this country now knows that at any time they can be stopped anywhere and asked, essentially, where were you born? That's a reality.

And so having a film that is going back and saying, like Eva Longoria saying, look, I've been in this country seven generations. I'm not the first one in my family to go to college. All of that coming together has also been for many Latinos like feeding their soul in a moment when we need to be recognized as being part and parcel of this country. And every part, what I've realized is that we understand the Latinos' struggle.

MARTIN: Well, what about for people who are not Latino who will be watching this film? What do you hope they will draw from it?

INOJOSA: I think that, you know, first of all, all Latinos don't know all about other Latinos because we're so mixed within, you know, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Mexican, Cuban, et cetera...

MARTIN: A point the film makes.

HINOJOSA: Absolutely. And so for non-Latinos it's like wow, yeah, wait - these people are part of my community. Not these people, they are part of who we are but I've never really kind of sat and again, asked somebody that question. Just like in "The Black List." You didn't, you know, it's not like you sit around and ask your, you know, your Latino friend, neighbor, whatever, so what is it like to be a Latino? Tell me about your memories? And this is a chance for all Americans to really say wow, this is who we are too.

My hope with the film is that - and that's why the notion of having camera interviews straight to camera, because you don't see me at all. People are just talking straight to camera looking at my face. The idea is to have you looking into the screen and being able to see yourself in all of these Latinos whether you're not, you're Latino.

MARTIN: Maria Hinojosa is an award-winning journalist. She's host of the public radio program "Latino USA." She interviewed 15 prominent Latino Americans for the new documentary "The Latino List." It's airing throughout this month on HBO, and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Maria, thanks so much for joining us.

HINOJOSA: It was my pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.