María de la Soledad Teresa O'Brien never felt limited by her multi-cultural background. With an Afro-Cuban mom and an Irish dad, O'Brien didn't struggle with her identity. Instead, she put it to good use. As one of the faces of CNN, O'Brien has already shared with us her perspective on being Black in America, and now she's tackling what it means to be Latino in this country.
The Latino population is on it's way to "majority minority" status here in the United States and has a long history of positive contribution to the country. But many are scared of the changing face of America and have used xenophobia alongside the hot button topic of immigration to paint our community in a negative way. As O'Brien says, "The immigrant story is not an inaccurate story, it’s just not the only story," and in Latino in America she takes the time to delve deep into our community and share our struggles, both unique and universal. Here's what O'Brien had to say about growing up in an all White suburb in Long Island, Sonia Sotomayor's appointment and Lou Dobbs.
Latino in America airs on Oct. 21 & 22 at 9PM on CNN and the book is on sale in stores now.
Be sure to check out our video at the end of the interview to find out how Soledad juggles being a wife and mom to four (yup, four!) small children with her exciting career as an international journalist!
Did you struggle growing up as a Black, Latina woman? How did you avoid being labeled?
I guess I was really good at resisting being put in a box of definitions because my mother was the same way. My parents just wouldn’t allow it. And we were in an environment where no one even got what your box was. I wasn’t being raised in a Black community, I wasn’t being raised in a Latino community, and I wasn’t being raised in an Irish community. I was being raised very much as an outsider, like, “You’re something else. And there are like five other kids who kind of look like you, that weird something else.” So, it wasn’t that hard. I didn’t struggle with it a lot.
If anything, I tried to figure out, like when people say, “Latino culture. How does it play in your life?” I don’t know. And part of the interesting thing in doing this documentary, and the book too, has been exploring that and trying to figure out—cause I grew up in an all white neighborhood, I didn’t realize that having black beans and rice for Christmas dinner was a cultural thing. And having a connection to family, that I always thought was very individual—here’s a mixed race family in all White Long Island, we’re gonna be tight—that’s also cultural. So that was an interesting exploration, but it wasn’t hard to avoid being put in a box. What box, you know? Look at these crazy freckles I have!
Now that the travel restrictions have been loosened, would you ever want to take a trip to Cuba with your mother, who was obviously a really strong influence on you?
Wouldn’t that be the longest trip of my life! You know, I go a lot because I’m a journalist so I get to go. She’s gone a couple of times and after her last time came back and said, “Never again.” Partly because all of her brothers and sisters are dead—my mother is about to be 80-years old—and also, I think, it’s just changed so much. It’s a very difficult trip for her. I think she has a lot of baggage from her experience coming to America, leaving her family behind, making it when everyone else in my family really lives in poverty in Cuba. It’s hard, just because of the flip of a coin, pretty much, you know. “You should be the one to study English so you go.” [Pointing finger] She made it clear she would never want to go back.
I would love to speak Spanish well enough so I could do first person interviews in Cuba one day with my relatives, to match up the history that I’ve heard with the history that they’ve heard. That would be really interesting to do.
You mention in your book Latino in America that at one point in your career looking multiethnic went from being a negative to a positive. Can you explain what you meant?
Well, I think on a couple of fronts it was really helpful. Partly, you got to sit in on conversations that people had about you, and they didn’t realize that they were really talking about you. And that’s always a really helpful thing to figure out what people are actually thinking about you and people like you. So that was interesting. And also, I think there was a point when I had an interesting name and stuck out from the crowd. I remember there was one boss once who was hiring me and he said, “I just want a network full of people with strange names.” And I’m like, “Huh…OK!" Cause I really need a job.
Some people point to the election of President Obama and the appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as proof that “race doesn’t matter” any more. What do you think?
See, I would say that because of Barack Obama and because of Sonia Sotomayor it’s an indication that race does matter! People will say we’re “post-racial.” But what does that even mean? You’re not Latino anymore? She’s not Black anymore? What does that even mean? That’s ridiculous! It was really interesting to be part of this big dinner where Sonia Sotomayor was the invited guest cause she’s a rock star. I said to her, “Did you have any idea that this was going to be the reaction?” She is the embodiment of a lot of hopes and dreams and opportunity all coming to fruition in this really smart, interesting woman who was surrounded by, I’d say, 12 bodyguards, while she was trying to eat dinner. People would pop in to the seat next to her and hand me a camera and be like, “Can you take a picture of me and the justice?” And I was like, “OK!” I think that's an indication that race does matter, that ethnicity does matter. That says it all. It does matter.
I give speeches a lot and someone will stand up invariably and say, “I’d really love to get to the point where we have made progress in America and we don’t see color,” and it’s always somebody White, because Blacks and Latinos don’t think of seeing color as a bad thing. Seeing color, seeing ethnicity is not a bad thing. Appreciating it is a wonderful thing, so progress is not in not seeing color; I think that would be negative progress.
What was the most moving story you covered filming Latino in America?
Oh gosh, I think the hardest thing has been covering the story of Cindy Garcia, who we love. She is really struggling. She is a young woman trying to graduate from high school. In a lot of ways the commitment to family is something that’s bringing her down because “family first” means she helps her mom translate, she helps at doctor’s appointments, she helps babysit her brother, she helps babysit her niece. This is a girl who is literally in class 12 hours a day trying to make up the coursework because she pretty much didn’t go to school in ninth grade. And she’s beautiful, and she’s bright and she is the hardest working person I have ever met in my life. She’s not struggling to graduate because she’s lazy and didn’t do the work. She’s working so hard, but everything is conspiring against her.
And Cindy Garcia is representative of a lot of kids in Los Angeles who need to have their personal act together and have a school system that supports them, which is not happening. I mean, 71 percent of the kids in her school drop out. Seventy-one percent! They don’t even staff the school because they know they’re going to drop out. It’s crazy! The bigger implication whether you’re Latino or you’re Black or you’re White or you’re whatever is that we can’t have teenagers—American teenagers, who have the rights to all things that all Americans have—fail, to not graduate from high school. So, you know it’s really been very challenging to follow her because she’s just great.
What do you think is the most challenging issue the Latino community in the United States is facing right now?
Education, I think, is the most challenging issue that the minority community in America faces. Education, hands down. It’s really difficult; it’s a big problem. I think that’s really the main problem because from that springs everything else. That is the next civil right. If you can keep people down because they are not being educated and they're not being informed and they don’t know their rights then you can create an underclass that’s here, but has no real ability to leverage their rights. I think a lot of people recognize it as a problem and now it’s just a matter of saying, “Well, how do we fix it?”
Have you felt any of the backlash towards Lou Dobbs/CNN and his coverage of immigration while promoting Latino in America?
Occasionally at screenings I get asked a question or two about Lou Dobbs, but you know, in my mind, going into this documentary it was the same as every documentary I’ve done. It’s me. It’s my voice I’m fully 100% responsible for the content of it. That makes it great for me, because I feel like my voice is really what you see and then sometimes its scary cause it’s my responsibility to make sure that these things turn out well.
I think that, outside of the fact that we both went to Harvard, Lou Dobbs and I don’t have a whole heck of a lot in common. I don’t look to anyone else who works at this company who’s not on my production team to be informed by anything. That’s just how we do it.