The Latino List: 'We Are America'

There is always a great story behind any big project and The Latino List has one, too.

This story sheds light on both the current moment we're living and why this project has historical significance. But first la historia...Ingrid Duran and Catherine Pino first approached me about The Latino List while everyone was celebrating a high moment for Latinos in the United States of America. It was the fall of 2009 at the annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's gala. That night, in a nod to the power of Latino voters who turned out in record numbers to help elect the country's first African-American leader, President Obama was speaking and the newly sworn in Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in attendance. Ingrid and Catherine, D.C.- based Latina powerhouses, who are also an open gay couple - approached me and told me about their dream project. "This is our time," they said. "We are going to make this happen! This is too important for everyone - Latinos and non-Latinos alike. We are going to do this!" Thanks to them and to director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and his team who worked hard to make this dream into a reality.

I have documented the story of Latinos in the U.S. for 30 years. And that night at the gala, I remember feeling like something had shifted. There was poder. A special night with the country's first Latina Supreme Court Justice and here were Latinos commanding their power, coming into their own. I knew something had changed in the Latino ethos that evening when more people were lining up to have their photo taken with Sotomayor than other big name Latino celebrities who were there. Our Latino icons were changing in front of our very eyes. It was an unforgettable, magical moment of being surrounded by potential and hope and fuerza and felicidad. However, when we started filming in April 2010, it was a different time with a very different sentiment among Latinos in this country. The Latino List began filming the very same week Arizona enacted its controversial SB1070 law. While Latinos fall on many different sides of the immigration debate, there was a collective breath-holding going on across many of our communities after the law was signed. After that, two things happened: this expansive project to document and educate our country about Latinos and a new state law that many believe is anti-Latino. I call this confusion, the U.S. mambo, three steps forward, two steps back, which is a series of mixed messages Latinos are constantly getting about who we are in this country. Perhaps the entire year we filmed this project has been a time for many of us to ask the question -Who are we in relation to this country and what is our experience as being Latino in the U.S.?

During our first round of interviews, I saw civil rights leader Raúl Yzaguirre and former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros shed tears over Arizona. I also learned that Hollywood actress Eva Longoria went back to school to get a master's degree in Chicano Studies. Maybe that says it all. While there is sadness, there is also tremendous hope. There is a hunger to know more. As a young Mexican kid growing up in Chicago, I struggled with feeling invisible, but this younger Latino generation feels more visible with the help of characters like Dora the Explorer who is bilingual and brown. But being seen is not enough. Latinos want to be heard and recognized. Latinos are everywhere in this country; we are present and we are intermarrying at a faster pace than other non-white groups. More and more of us are entering the middle class. We're creating a more than one trillion-dollar consumer market and yet hate crimes against Latinos are spiking. It's the U.S. mambo once again. This is not just the story of 1 Latino, but rather the understanding that these individual voices...collectively....represent the real power of Latinos in the history of this country. The following statistic is important if you want to understand not only who Latinos are in this country, but who this country is becoming. Every 60 seconds a Latino turns 18 in the United States. So the hunger to know and understand who we are at this moment in history is real, and frankly, necessary. Latinos need to see themselves and learn from each other. And those who are not Latino need to understand our history, our presence and role in building the next phase of American society.

There were poignant and touching moments in the journey of The Latino List and every single interview was thoughtful and moving. It was a pleasure spending time with notable Latinos and ask them to dive deep into their hearts and tell us their story about being Latino in the U.S. The great American writer Sandra Cisneros told me that her definition of multiculturalism and universal humanity is being able to see yourself in the person most unlike you. And mi gente are always working hard. Whether a farm worker who becomes an astronaut like José Hernández, a leader of a civil rights organization like Janet Murguía at NCLR, or a music icon like Gloria Estefan - we're always willing to work overtime. The mission is not just to make money; the mission - from Chi Chi Rodríguez and John Leguizamo to America Ferrera and Emilio Estefan - is to have opportunities to be visible and to engage. It is a mission for all of us to inspire. Para que nadie se quede atras. The experience of being Latino in this country is filled with passion, con ese deseo tan fuerte de vivir, y decir algo con nuestras vidas. The people we spoke to want to speak to generations to come through their lives, struggles and triumphs in America. With The Latino List we are saying, "Look at you, America. Look at who you are and who you are becoming. We are you. We are America."