MIAMI – Let’s see, leading Hispanic actors on mainstream TV: There’s Sofia Vergara’s wacky, chess-playing trophy wife on “Modern Family”; the conniving Eva Longoria of “Desperate Housewives”; and supporting actors such as Adam Rodriguez who plays a fingerprint and underwater recovery expert on “CSI Miami.”
After that, the list thins considerably.
Stepping into that space is “The Latino List.” The new documentary by Vanity Fair contributing photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders airs Sept. 28-29 on HBO and HBO Latino and features interviews by award-winning broadcast journalist Maria Hinojosa with some of the nation’s most successful Latinos. Hinojosa has worked at CNN, NPR and PBS, and elsewhere.
Longoria, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, rapper Armando Christian Perez, aka Pitbull, astronaut Jose Hernandez and actress America Ferrera are just a few of the 15 who made the list. The interviews are compelling, funny and raw.
Ferrera, the former star of TV’s “Ugly Betty,” talks about the discrimination she faced both because she is Hispanic and because others felt she isn’t Hispanic enough. Hernandez recalls picking cucumbers as a kid with his migrant worker parents. John Leguizamo remembers the teacher who inspired him to become an actor by telling him he had the “attention span of a sperm.”
Many of the stories touch on the immigrant experience, but themes of family, education and determination will likely resonate far beyond the nation’s Latino community.
The film follows Greenfield-Sanders’ acclaimed 2008 “The Black List,” a series of three documentaries featuring African-American leaders interviewed by journalist Elvis Mitchell. Like “The Black List,” ”The Latino List“ is accompanied by a larger photography exhibit now on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits have graced the walls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The National Portrait Gallery in Washington. His style is refreshingly simple – the list-makers sit or stand alone before a grey background, their faces lit by soft light.
But the film’s minimalism is deceptive. Greenfield-Sanders wanted viewers to feel like the list-makers were speaking directly to them, so he used a special camera rig with a mirror that enabled his subjects to look directly into the camera and see a projected image of Hinojosa – who was sitting on the other side of the studio. She had a similar camera and microphone.
The result enabled the list-makers to have “face-to-face” conversations with her while allowing viewers to feel they are part of the conversation.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever done before, and I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of interviews from gang members to skinheads to CEOs,” Hinojosa said. She believes the camera technique helped create both a safe distance and an intimacy with the list-makers.
“We understand that the Latino experience in this country is profoundly beautiful and deeply moving, and sometimes painful. … I really wanted to create a space for them to remember and touch back to these core memories and values,” she said.
In an exchange not in the film, Hinojosa even found herself asking Sotomayor parenting advice: Should she allow her then 11-year-old daughter to pluck her thick, Frida Kahlo-style eyebrows?
Sotomayor’s advice: Yes, but help the girl develop a strong sense of self in other more fundamental ways.
“Maria Hinojosa is an amazing interviewer and got me to go places I might not have gone on my own,” said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is in the film. “I think it will give non-Latinos a way to better understand who we are, and hopefully give Latinos a sense of pride.”
In his interview, the Cuban-born politician recalled an incident early in his career as mayor of Union City, N.J., when he spoke Spanish at a city council meeting to a woman struggling with English.
When members of the audience complained, Menendez adjourned the meeting and brought the entire room to the city archives to see official ledgers from before the city’s official 1925 incorporation. They were handwritten in German, the language of the area’s large immigrant community at that time.
Hinojosa said the experience was particularly powerful because the filming coincided with the passage of Arizona’s tough immigration laws, although the current political debate over immigration is barely touched upon in the film.
That will likely generate controversy. And while Mexican-Americans make up nearly two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics, the film features a rough balance of Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Ferrera, whose family is Honduran, is the sole representative of Latinos of Central American heritage. Colombian native John Leguizamo is the only South American.
Greenfield-Sanders is aware of the potential criticism but makes no apologies.
He worked with Ingrid Duran, the former CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Institute, to reach an array of political and cultural leaders. He says narrowing the list proved even more challenging than “The Black List.”
“Like ‘The Black List,’ we had to choose a kind of a balance of men and women, and a balance of professions, and then with ‘The Latino List’ we had to find a balance of nationalities, too,” he said.
He hopes the film will spawn sequels.