Rocks Off is on the phone with perhaps one of the great photographers of this era, critically acclaimed and award-winning photojournalist Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. His brainchild, The Black List - a collection of intimate, up-close photos of the great black leaders and personalities of our time - came to life on HBO a few years ago when the photo subjects told heartfelt stories about the struggles and triumphs of being black in America.
The Black List portrait exhibition premiered in July 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Wu-Tang Clan mastermind/producer RZA, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Russell Simmons and Slash from Guns N' Roses were all part of the first or second volumes of The Black List in the portrait and film versions.
It occurred to us after our chat that as much as we grew up alongside blacks and in black communities, and as much as we are immersed in the hip-hop pioneered and dominated by black artists, as a contributing writer to this music blog, we still learned something - many things - about being black in America.
We heard from that community's leaders, who stepped out of their seemingly untouchable personas and became just people for a minute, through an outpouring of simple yet powerful, personal stories that left imprints on our psyche when thinking about the black community.
"My God, what something like this could do for my community," we thought to ourselves.
"Community" as in Latinos in America, an ethnicity of ethnicities whose letters we cringe to spell out in our writings to mainstream audiences. In the media, Latino has become synonymous with "illegals," "drug violence," "job taking," etc.
With Hispanic Heritage Month in full swing, we find an irony in being asked to be proud of something that's endured so much hate. That doesn't stop us from being proud, but it's an important point.
That's what kind of makes this story so compelling. Greenfield-Sanders is telling us that it was almost two years ago - when the political environment over immigration was equally, if not more, heated - that Washington, D.C. issues-advocacy gurus Ingrid Duran and Catherine Pino, approached him about creating something special to try and counteract the negative attention around Latinos in America.
They wanted to create their own list. The Latino List.
"It was during that whole immigration issue in Arizona," says Pino about when the idea of The Latino List really began to gain steam, amidst the push by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to pass SB 1040. "We wanted to find a way to portray Latinos' American patriotism in this country."
Duran and Pino, who run their own firm, D&P Creative Strategies, and started their own production company, Brown Beauty Productions, along with Facebook executive Susan Gonzales, would look to Pitbull and Emilio, Gloria Estefan and many other influential Latinos to help convey that patriotism.
Despite being known as Mr. Worldwide, Pitbull was not familiar to Pino or Duran at first, they admit, but his appeal to the younger generation was important. Perhaps his upbringing is even more important when trying to convey the fascinating complexities of being Latino in the United States.
"[His story] is about how he started performing when he was five years old," says Duran. "His dad would take him to the bars in Little Havana and stand him up on the bar as he sang songs and recited poems that would stir the crowd and make them go crazy."
"In general, his story is about being a Latino rap artist, who has a white complexion and blue eyes and how that played out," Duran adds. "Performing in the South, it played to his advantage. People would ask, 'who is this?' There was confusion on who he was. He wasn't black and he didn't look Latino, or what people would consider Latino."
But he is Latino. If Pitbull is the second coming of the Miami Sound Machine, his mainstream success as an artist whose Spanish heritage is at the center of his music - hip-hop lyrics over upbeat salsa and merengue rhythms - is strongly reminiscent of the success of the original Miami Sound Machine headed up by Gloria and Emilio Estefan.
If Pitbull is Mr. Worldwide, then Gloria is Queen Worldwide. In 1985, she became one of the first Latin-American artists to break into the mainstream with music steeped in the melodies and rhythms of Miami's Cuban community. Estefan was applauded by all of America, and is now considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, crossover performers of all time, selling 100 million albums worldwide.
Rocks Off spoke to Maria Hinojosa, one of two interviewers tapped to draw out the compelling stories out of The Latino List's star-studded cast, at length about her time interviewing the Estefans. Hinojosa is, of course, the host of NPR's Latino USA and the woman remembered for stumping Hillary Clinton in her tracks when she asked then-presidential hopeful if elected president, would she stop using the term "illegal alien."
"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,'" Hinojosa recently wrote in a Huffington Post piece.
Keep it up, Maria. Maybe Latino will start being synonymous with something much more positive.
Hinojosa pointed out that there aren't many Latino power couples in America. She's right. And as much as we automatically pair the Estefans together in our minds, Rocks Off never thought of them as a power couple, per se. Perhaps that is because, as Hinojosa points out, they are unaware of their own influence, and therefore don't exude the ego. She says Emilio gleams with pride - becomes almost giddy - when he talks about the conversation he had with President Barack Obama in the Estefans' home kitchen during a fundraiser. She points out the distressed look Emilio gives at the thought of having to lay off someone at one of their companies in this struggling economy.
It's not something celebrity power couples have to be proud of, or think about or care about, but they do, Hinojosa stressed.
"There was a patriotic theme that ran across all the interviews," says Duran. "When Emilio comes back from travel he kisses the ground because this was the country that allowed them to succeed. As a Latino, his most precious identity is being an American. It's in everyone's interview."
It's evident in our conversation with Greenfield-Sanders, despite having so many other things to hang his hat on, he believes The Latino List is one of his proudest moments and that the result of the collaboration with Duran, Pino and Gonzales will have a lasting impression on societal views of Latinos. Maybe even more.
"I was driving home last night talking to a doctor who watched the film and he told me that this is going to have an effect on the politics of this country," Greenfield-Sanders says. "I think it is exceptional. These films, they all stand. The quality of them will last a long time, not in the way that they are precious, but in the way that they are exceptional. They were done right."
"There were no compromises," he adds. "They were true to a vision that in the end works. One little variant and we would have been off the road. We steered the car very carefully down this road and the road was one of trying to tell stories that would be meaningful, that would last. You look at these films in 10 years and they will be timeless."
As far as Duran and Pino go, "Seven and a half years ago, we decided that we wanted to change the world and have an impact on the issues we care about," Pino says. "One was the importance of getting out positive images of the Latino world."
They can certainly mark one off The List.
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The Latino List airs on HBO tonight at 8 p.m.
Email Rolando Rodriguez at rolandorodriguezjr22 (at) gmail (dot) com.