CNN's O'Brien is extraordinary in Latino documentary
"Latino in America"
By David Zurawik | Baltimore Sun, October 18, 2009
One of the great joys of TV journalism is seeing first-rate correspondents matched up with subject matter that they are passionate about. Think of the late Ed Bradley sitting down to interview a pop culture pioneer whom he admired like Lena Horne, or NBC's Richard Engel in the line of fire covering a war.
CNN's Soledad O'Brien achieves that kind of stature with "Latino in America," a four-hour, two-night documentary series on the experiences of the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority, beginning Wednesday night at 9.
Some might argue that the 43-year-old journalist had already arrived in that elite company with "Black in America" in 2008 and "Black in America 2" this year. But while I think her work was first-rate in those shows, there is something extraordinary about O'Brien's performance and presence in the new Latino documentary.
She is in total command of the subject matter and seems so finely tuned to the nuances of assimilation, multiculturalism and changing notions of identity that you can't help but trust her after just a few minutes of watching. And she forges that same kind of bond with the people she is interviewing and reporting on in the film, getting sullen-looking teenage boys to confess their ethnic insecurities and clinically depressed adolescent girls to talk openly about the pain they feel in being caught between two cultures.
Conversations about race and identity do not come easily in this country, and members of the media do not achieve the kind of rapport O'Brien does by hot-dogging in for on-camera interviews after all the documentary grunt work has been done by producers and other reporters.
"I traveled for a lot of this year six days a week to do this documentary, which is really hard," O'Brien says. "I mean, I love to travel. It's one of the things I love about being a journalist. But six days a week is an insane travel schedule. A lot of the travel was to the West Coast, and I was doing three red-eyes a week."
But there was no other way to get beneath the safe and superficial way the media and minority members often talk about race when the cameras are on except to put in the time to build credibility and trust.
"I don't know how else to do these kind of stories unless you're personally there and totally engaged," says O'Brien who describes her own identity as "black and Cuban, Australian and Irish."
"How do you do a conversation about race?" she asks rhetorically. "It's not a court case. You don't jump in, read the transcript of the trial, and we're all caught up. It's about getting people to sit down and talk very honestly about perceptions and things that are so intangible."
The first two hours of the documentary find O'Brien chronicling the journeys of people named Garcia, now the eighth most popular surname in the United States - ahead of Wilson and Taylor, and gaining on the most popular, Smith.
The stories O'Brien tracks range from that of Lorena Garcia, a star TV chef on Univision looking for a crossover audience, to Bill and Betty Garcia, a professional baby boomer couple who moved from a Dominican neighborhood in New York City to Charlotte, N.C., decades ago, and are now wondering about the price they paid in loss of roots identity for mainstream success and assimilation. She's from the Dominican Republic, and he's Puerto Rican, and one of their teenage sons just flunked high school Spanish.
Perhaps, the most compelling saga is that of Cindy Garcia, a high school senior of Guatemalan descent who is struggling to graduate from high school in the underfunded Los Angeles public school district while working long hours in her single mother's clothing store.
No spoilers here, but just when you think you know where Cindy's life is headed, it suddenly swings in another direction - as only true life can. And O'Brien is there every step of the way, listening to and deftly questioning the girl as she tries to make sense of the place where her dreams and reality collide.
"I think that especially because of my background in a way I have a lot of personal interest, but also a lot of credibility in these questions about race and ethnicity and identity. You know, I relate to a lot of the stories in this documentary personally," says O'Brien, whose black, Cuban-born mother was brought to Baltimore as a girl in 1947 by the Oblate Sisters who ran a mission in Cuba.
Her father, who did his undergraduate studies in his native Australia, came to Baltimore in the late 1950s to earn a doctorate in engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.
"I sat down with the boys in the Bill and Betty Garcia story and I said to one of them, 'You know, your mom thinks you're embarrassed by her [ethnicity],' " O'Brien recalled. "And he said, 'No, you don't get it. I'm embarrassed that I don't speak Spanish well enough. I'm embarrassed of me.' "
O'Brien, herself a mother of four, says she had the same kind of issues related to her mother that the teenage Garcia boy did with his.
"You know what, I'm embarrassed of me that I don't speak Spanish well enough," says the veteran CNN correspondent and anchor. "And here I am talking to a 16-year-old boy, and he and I are saying exactly the same thing. We are both this sort of first-generation, born-in-this-country, don't-speak-the-language, trying-to-figure-out-what-it-means-to-be-Latino among parents who see themselves as very Latino in a community that's not really sure what you are because you kind of look different and they don't know what that means."
If that sounds complicated, that's because American identity has become so in these multicultural times. And in the end, thanks in large part to O'Brien's own fearlessness, the triumph of "Latino in America" is that it honestly faces, engages and ultimately embraces that complexity in its contradictions, energy and glory.
"Latino in America" airs at 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday on CNN.