February 16, 2010

     By Chiqui Cartagena

Faces of America, a new look at race and immigration in America!

Last week I tuned into the debut of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s new PBS series, Faces of America that traces the roots of a dozen Americans in an effort to answer the questions: What made America? What makes us? I have always been a fan of his work, but frankly I was blown away by the way the show! Not only because it highlights the importance of immigration in America without falling into typical clichés but also because it brings to the forefront  of our consciousness the real conversation that we all need to have about race in this country.

Like he has in the past, Mr. Gates uses the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 well-known celebrities to make the series more interesting for the viewers.  I applaud him this time for carefully selecting a truly diverse, inclusive and representative cross-section of Americans of various races and ethnicities.  In this new PBS series, Dr. Gates seamlessly weaves in and out of people's personal stories, creating a solid narrative about the powerful and positive impact immigration has had on our nation. The story of what makes America today comes across vividly as Dr. Gates  jumps  from Eva Longoria to Yo Yo Ma and Dr. Oz (who knew he was of Turkish descent?) to Stephen Colbert, Malcolm Gladwell and Meryl Streep.

I also applaud Mr. Gates for stepping “out of his box” of focusing on the Black experience and demonstrating, once again, why he is so good at what he does. I think that sometimes Americans are quick to forget where they came from and this series helps us remember that who we are today is truly based on where we came from in the past. And sometimes, it's painful to remember.

For example in the first one-hour episode (of four installments) which aired last Wednesday, Feb. 10th, Dr. Gates brought Kristi Yamaguchi to tears when he showed her a newspaper clipping from the Army Times lauding her grandfather's service (he was the only Asian in his company) during World War II, while her entire family was being held in a internment camp in the Arizona dessert.

Another poignant moment was when Malcolm Gladwell talked about not feeling different because of his mixed race until he first came to United States. “It wasn't until I went to the United States that I realized -- Oh my goodness (race) it's an issue around the world,” he said. “In America, race trumps national origins,” says Dr. Gates, who is of Irish descent but is often only seen by others by the color of his skin.
The series, which airs every Wednesday from 8-9 PM (EST) on PBS through March 3rd, lays the perfect foundation for this year's Census efforts. It's probably no coincidence that the series airs at the same time that millions of households will be getting their Census questionnaires in the mail from February to March in anticipation of Census Day which is April 1.

In case you missed it, the Census Bureau launched its year-long $340 million awareness campaign in January (including TV commercials on the Superbowl, in the upcoming NCAA Final Four championships and the Daytona 500 as well as an 800-stop “Portrait of America Road Tour”) in an effort to count everyone in the country. The good news is that the Census has dropped the long-form so now everyone just needs to answer 10 simple questions to be counted. The bad news is that, fear-mongering by some politicians who wanted to add a question about legal status - which was rejected and is, in fact, illegal - will probably keep some from responding.

For a more civilized and intellectual discourse on the importance of our roots and the positive impact all immigrants have always had and will continue to have, please tune in to Faces of America. If you missed it, you can watch the first episode online CLICK HERE.

About the author: Chiqui Cartagena is the SVP of Multicultural Marketing at Story Worldwide. She is also the author of Latino Boom! Everything You Need to Know about the US Hispanic Market (Random House, 2005)

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