Stories That Give You Hope

Stories That Give You Hope

By Ruben Navarrette - October 21, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- Coming from a family that is something of a racial and ethnic stew -- her mother is Afro-Cuban, her father Australian with Irish roots -- CNN's Soledad O'Brien can choose to identify herself in any number of ways.

But when O'Brien began knocking on doors in Latino neighborhoods to collect stories for the new documentary, CNN's "Latino in America" (airing Oct. 21 and 22), folks just smiled and welcomed her home.

"I would show up at the door," she told me during a recent interview, "and people would literally say, 'I knew you were one of us. I knew -- that name. I knew you were.'"

Ah yes, the name. The award-winning journalist and Harvard graduate was baptized Maria de la Soledad Teresa O'Brien. Except for the surname, you don't get any more Latina than that.

Yet, she said, the character in the documentary to which she relates most is someone who seems unsure of how to relate to his ethnicity: 17-year-old Brian Garcia, the son of Bill and Betty Garcia. Bill is from Puerto Rico, and Betty is from the Dominican Republic. They moved their family from New York to Charlotte, N.C., for a slower pace. But they worry that Brian -- who is flunking high school Spanish -- is embarrassed by his Latino culture.

Not true, the young man told O'Brien. He's really embarrassed for himself, and his inability to speak better Spanish and better connect with his heritage.

"And you know what?" O'Brien told me, "That's how I feel. ... Brian is embarrassed that he's not Latino enough, and he's not sure what that means. That was really my experience. My Spanish is fair to poor, but it often comes across as worse than it really is because I'm embarrassed to speak it because, when you have a name like Soledad, how do you not speak Spanish?"

For the last few weeks, CNN has been hosting advance screenings in a handful of U.S. cities, and I wondered how the audience reacted -- to O'Brien and her project.

"I think some people are physically disappointed when I don't speak Spanish," she said. "(But) I felt only a really good embrace from people of -- 'OK, we trust you to tell the story.' And, even at the screenings we have, everyone takes great pains to compliment me before they ask the awkward questions."

From what I gather from several individuals who have attended these screenings, some of those questions are more like angry accusations and bitter complaints about what some perceive as a stereotypical portrayal of Latinos.

I didn't see it that way. Some of the stories in the film were edgy, but also true to life. Every character looked familiar.

Besides Bill and Betty, we meet other Garcias -- people from around the country, all with the same name.

Isabel Garcia is a fourth-generation Mexican-American and an immigrants' rights activist in Arizona. Lorena Garcia is a Spanish-language TV chef building her brand and becoming what some call the "Latina Martha Stewart." Cindy Garcia is a teenage mom-to-be struggling to graduate from high school and figure out what she wants from life. Monica Garcia is the board president of the Los Angeles Unified School District and someone trying to decrease the number of dropouts. Pedro Moreno Garcia is a Puerto Rican from New York who is in charge of Hispanic ministries for the Catholic Church in St. Louis, Mo. And Jesse Garcia is a struggling actor in Hollywood who plays gardeners and other stereotypical roles while he waits for his big break.

We see success stories, and something even more impressive -- perseverance. These are tales of everyday people going to extraordinary lengths to make the best of bad situations. When they get knocked down, they get back up.

It's not easy for a journalist to strike a balance between not sugarcoating the truth while also not dwelling on the negative.

"My goal was to be nuanced," O'Brien said. "My goal was to be realistic. And my goal was to show a range of characters and a range of scenarios and a range of different cultures."

Mission accomplished. There's a lot here worth seeing here -- and a lot to feel proud of, both for the Latino community and for a gifted storyteller who, through a labor of love, gives us a closer look at America.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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