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Flap over documentary creating opportunities for Latino filmmakers

NEW YORK - Call it a guilt trip or a cultural awakening, but some Latino filmmakers feel that the controversy over Ken Burns' upcoming World War II documentary has unexpectedly opened doors for their work at PBS.

The maker of 'Brown Is the New Green: George Lopez and the American Dream,' which will air Sept. 12, said he believed PBS was anxious to air his film before Burns' because 'they had egg on their face.'

The Lopez film is one of five Latino projects that PBS is airing in the weeks before the start of Burns' 'The War' on Sept. 23. Advocates were angered that the Burns epic did not feature the contributions of Latino soldiers, and their protest this spring forced PBS' best-known documentarian to add such material to the film.

The public broadcasting service in August distributed 'The Borinqueneers,' a documentary about the primarily Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment in the Korean War. This month, PBS is airing a film about World War II veteran Hector P. Garcia, who fought for better treatment of Mexican-Americans; and separate 'American Masters' segments on painter Diego Rivera and the artist Orozco.

Include the Sept. 8 edition of the concert series 'Austin City Limits' featuring Los Lonely Boys, and that makes it six.

'Now is the time,' said Hector Galan, a veteran filmmaker who earned the contract to produce new material for Burns' film. 'I think we should seize the moment when it is there. The timing is great.'

PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan said it was unfair to credit the Burns controversy for all of this activity, and noted that PBS already airs more Latino-oriented programming than other mainstream networks. But she did note that the episode caused PBS to work harder to reach out to this rapidly growing part of the population.

The Lopez film talks about how corporate efforts to profit from the Latino market shapes the perception of it. The notion of a Latino or Hispanic people was created by the U.S. government, the film says. The people it defines had simply identified themselves from their nation of origin, like Mexican-Americans.

Lopez talks about his efforts to integrate his work into American society, and how far people have come from the dimwitted comic caricature 'Jose Jimenez' in the 1960s.

To a certain degree, 'Brown Is the New Green' feels like a primer on Latino society for older white Americans - a big part of PBS' audience.

The documentary was already in the works for PBS before issues were raised about 'The War,' said Phillip Rodriguez, the filmmaker. Another one of his projects, about Latino influence on politics, was just green-lit by PBS and he's trying to get backing for two more.

'I'm glad for the opportunity for an audience and I'm glad for an opportunity to educate Americans about an increasingly important segment of society,' Rodriguez said. 'I guess somebody had to get in their face to take this group seriously.'

Another filmmaker, Mario Barrera, has been working for four years compiling an oral history of Latino World War II soldiers. Since the Burns issue surfaced, the Los Angeles PBS station KCET-TV has agreed to air his documentary, he said.

Barrera said he had hoped to convince more stations to sign up. But since the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is offering individual PBS stations grants for companion pieces to 'The War,' many are choosing to make their own.

'I think the individual PBS stations are more interested in the money,' he said.

PBS' Sloan, who said the grants range between $1,000 and $10,000, are given to help the individual stations create content unique to their markets.

She noted that PBS was praised three years ago for the series 'American Family: Journey of Dreams,' which focused on a Latino family. PBS is also close to hiring a diversity director, a position that was approved two years ago, who will highlight programming efforts of interest to different ethnic groups.

'We certainly have paid very special attention to Latino audiences, in part because we feel PBS hasn't been sufficiently recognized for the effort we have put in,' she said. 'It's made us redouble our efforts.'

Both Galan and filmmaker Paul Espinosa said it has often been a struggle in the past to get PBS' attention for films about their community. Espinosa has a 25-year relationship with PBS, for whom he made a series in the 1990s about the U.S.-Mexican War.

He's currently making a film about a 19th Century figure from New Mexico, Padre Martinez, and believes PBS would be a logical destination.

'There's the potential that (the Burns controversy) will have a positive effect,' Espinosa said. 'I think it's caused a lot of soul-searching on the part of a lot of decision-makers.'

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a University of Texas professor who spearheaded the drive to change Burns' film, said she hoped the new attention paid to these projects would not be short-term.

'It's not about political correctness,' she said. 'It's about historical inclusion.'

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