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Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with 'Latino Americans'

My two boys have a limited knowledge of Latino history. I talk about our family history all the time, but I'm their mom and they can only listen to me so much. As Hispanic Heritage Month arrives I'm going to make sure they get a deeper understanding of what it means to be Latino by watching the PBS special "Latino Americans."

The three-part, six-hour documentary about Latino history in the United States, which premieres September 17 and is narrated by actor Benjamin Bratt, spans more than 500 years of history and includes 100 interviews. He was at a Television Critics Association lunch recently talking about the show along with legendary actress Rita Moreno, journalist and author Ray Suarez, and "Latino Americans" producer Adriana Bosch.

The Latino story is one that hasn't been told in this way before, Bratt said. He had a similar experience to mine where he didn't grow up learning Spanish. He's Peruvian and was told to assimilate and forget who he was and where his family came from. Now, his children are learning to feel pride about who they are and where they come from. "It's a time to be proud and celebrate our history," Bratt said.

Rita Moreno, who is 82, said she has seen so much change in America since she first won an Oscar for her performance in "Westside Story." She said she's seeing young people embracing their history and is heartened when young girls come to her books signings. She's touched that they know who they are and said, "I've seen a sea change."

The show is the first documentary of its kind that traces Latino History back from the 16th Century to the Wild West, to the Spanish American War and the civil rights movement. It's full of moving stories and personal histories, including interviews with civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Victor Villaseñor, and music mogul Gloria Estefan.

What's interesting about the series is how it encompasses the entire Latino story. From Mexicans in California to Cubans in Florida to Puerto Ricans in New York—and how they don't populate only those states anymore. There are Latinos everywhere and we will number 132 million by 2050 and be 30 percent of the population according to Census estimates.

Now, Latino kids are growing up with Latino friends who are not just from one place, Ray Suarez said. For example, Cubans are no longer the majority Latino group in Florida. He said that his daughter's friends or their parents are from all over Latin America. America is changing and it's time for our Latino history to be part of American history. The show will help with that.

"It's going to change the way we see ourselves and the way we see others," said Suarez, who wrote the companion book for the series.

My boys, who are 8 and 9, watched part of a screener of the show with me recently. They especially found the parts about early California interesting, which is where we live. I hope when we sit down together to watch the entire show that they grasp how our American story fits into the big picture. My husband's family comes from Germany, England, and Scotland and mine from Spain and Mexico. I want them to understand that they are American, but they are more than that. They are a mix of cultures and history and family, and that all parts of their story deserve to be told.

The documentary premieres on PBS at 8 p.m. ET on September 17. Check your local PBS listings for more air times or pbs.org for more information.

Watch a preview of the documentary below:

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