It took filmmaker John Valadez a year to help produce PBS’s Latino Americans, a groundbreaking chronicle of 500 years of Latino history, experiences and contributions to the United States. Valadez produced “Prejudice and Pride,” which traces the social activism of Chicanos in the 1960s and 1970s.
Valadez screened his documentary at Columbia Journalism School. The event was hosted by Columbia University’s National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The following are excerpts from the Q&A with Valadez.
What did you discover while producing your documentary?
John Valadez: It’s as if Latinos have been written out of the Civil Rights history of this country, as if we had nothing to do with trying to make sure that this country was more equitable, more fair, more inclusive, was more consistent with its highest ideals.
When I started researching this film, one of the first things I did was do a quick Google search. I wanted to get a lay of the land –find the landmark moments of civil rights history. If you Google “civil rights timeline,” you’ll get like, one hundred websites. If you click on the first one, it will have a timeline. It will probably say the modern Civil Rights era begins after WWII.
The first thing you’ll see is Truman desegregates the military in the summer of 1948. And then the next thing you’ll see is Brown v. Board of Education, desegregated schools. And then after that, you’ll probably see the murder of Emmett Till. You’ll see Little Rock, on and on. There are no Latinos. No Cesar Chavez. I go to another timeline, same thing. Go to another one, same thing.
It’s as if we weren’t present. We are segregated out of that history. We’re not part of the national story.
This is the first documentary series of its kind to focus on Latinos. Why hasn’t this been covered sooner?
JV: I think that historians and journalists peruse stories, cover stories, and write stories that they feel are important. And I think that they don’t cover stories if they don’t think those stories are important. And so, if we are not included, it means whomever made those decisions believes that we don’t matter. That we’re not important, that maybe we’re are not really American. Maybe we’re tolerated. But we are not fully a part of the American story. The question that I ask myself is: What am I going to do about it?
I think whenever you have the opportunity to fill a void where there is an empty space, in some ways that’s a gift. To be able to fill the blank spaces, that’s precious. That means there’s a job- to fill that in.
The Latino movement is a huge undertaking. Where do you start?
JV: My assignment was: the Chicano movement, WWII. Go.
That’s the hardest part, is figuring out “What is the story? What’s the beginning, middle and end?” I started thinking about it in terms of this film. My instinct says that the story of Mexican-Americans during the 60s starts out with the campesinos in the fields and then it goes to the cities. They get closer to power and then eventually it ends up with reaching the center stage of power, which would be elected officials and voting.
The one person who I knew had to be in the film was Dolores Huerta, because she’s always been sidelined. It’s always been a male thing, but I thought she is the one female Mexican-American leader who is truly national civil rights figure of historic importance. She stands out in a way that nobody else does.
What makes a great story?
JV:The heart of any great story is a mystery. There is something that doesn’t make sense. That’s an indication that either the story is a complete fraud, or it’s really good.
The world belongs to the bold, the innovative, the ones who will go will go where no one else will go. When all the reporters run here, you run there. You go the opposite and you find the story that everybody has overlooked because they don’t know what you know.