Writer Rubén Martínez digs into the ori­gins of Latin Amer­i­can iden­tity in a PBS doc­u­men­tary.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - BY REED JOHN­SON

>>> As he stood be­side the or­nate tomb in Seville’s mas­sive cathe­dral in south­ern Spain, Rubén Martínez didn’t know whether to curse or bless the man whose bones lie there.

“It’s kind of like that clas­sic mes­tizo dilemma,” Martínez said, us­ing the tra­di­tional term de­not­ing peo­ple of mixed Euro­pean and in­dige­nous Amer­i­can an­ces­try. “He’s my dad. I’m a bas­tard kid. I hate him, I love him.”

Not ev­ery Amer­i­can har­bors such com­plex, pas­sion­ate feel­ings for Christo­pher Colum­bus: intrepid ex­plorer, op­por­tunis­tic slave trader, prob­lem­atic New World pro­gen­i­tor.

But Martínez, an Emmy Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist, author, mu­si­cian and lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor at Loy­ola Mary­mount Uni­ver­sity, who was raised in Los An­ge­les as the son of Sal­vado­ran-Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, be­lieves those con­flicted emo­tions are part of what it means to be the off­spring of dif­fer­ent, some­times war­ring cul­tures. In short, to be Latin Amer­i­can. Martínez and filmmaker Carl Byker dig deep into the ori­gins of Latin Amer­i­can iden­tity, and the so­ci­eties [See Martínez, D8]

it shaped, in “When Worlds Col­lide,” a 90-minute doc­u­men­tary that will pre­miere at 9 p.m. Mon­day on PBS chan­nels across the coun­try, in­clud­ing KCET in Los An­ge­les.

A rich, re­vi­sion­ist look at the dra­matic en­counter be­tween Spain’s col­o­niz­ers and the Western Hemi­sphere’s in­dige­nous peo­ples, as well as the African slaves brought to work in the New World, “When Worlds Col­lide” ex­plores how con­tact changed those civ­i­liza­tions for­ever, both for bet­ter and worse.

“Peo­ple think of it as the Con­quest,” said Byker, an Echo Park res­i­dent whose pre­vi­ous films in­clude “An­drew Jack­son: Good, Evil and the Pres­i­dency.”

“That’s been the con­querors’ spin. What’s re­ally gone on is that there’s been an on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion be­tween the two sides, and it’s still go­ing on.”

For Martínez, the pro­gram’s host and co-writer with Byker, mak­ing “When Worlds Col­lide” was a mov­ing, of­ten sur­pris­ing jour­ney of per­sonal as well as his­tor­i­cal dis­cov­ery.

‘Déjà vu mo­ments’

As a child vis­it­ing relatives in San Sal­vador, he said, he’d been ex­posed to the Old World’s ar­chi­tec­tural and other lega­cies, and al­ways felt “at home” in that en­vi­ron­ment. But as a his­to­rian and writer-re­searcher who has spent many years liv­ing and work­ing in Mex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­ica, he’s keenly aware that im­pe­rial Spain’s sump­tu­ous façade was built with the bru­tally ex­ploited la­bor of in­dige­nous Amer­i­cans and black slaves.

Vis­it­ing Spain for the first time to shoot “When Worlds Col­lide” brought those thoughts and feel­ings to the sur­face. “I just kept hav­ing these déjà vu mo­ments of recog­ni­tion,” Martínez said dur­ing an in­ter­view last week at An­tigua Cof­fee House in Cy­press Park, not far from his home.

The doc­u­men­tary opens at Echo Park Lake, near down­town Los An­ge­les, with a track­ing shot of Martínez push­ing his fra­ter­nal twin daugh­ters in a stroller. As he walks, he won­ders aloud how to de­scribe his chil­dren’s eth­nic­ity, given his own her­itage and that of his Mex­i­can-Na­tive Amer­i­can-Greek wife.

Martínez, who grew up in Sil­ver Lake and grad­u­ated from John Mar­shall High School, said that for most Latin Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos the con­cept of mes­ti­zaje

— the blend­ing of two or more cul­tures to pro­duce a third — is so fun­da­men­tal a part of iden­tity as to be “like breath­ing.” But he ex­pects the term will be un­fa­mil­iar to many non-Latino view­ers tun­ing in to the pro­gram in places such as Ne­braska.

From to­day’s Echo Park, “When Worlds Col­lide” moves swiftly across time and space to con­sider how

mes­ti­zaje re­shaped ev­ery­thing from re­li­gious be­liefs and ar­chi­tec­tural styles to skin tones and culi­nary tastes both in Spain and its over­seas territories.

Vis­it­ing such lo­cales as a mar­ket in the heav­ily in­dige­nous south­ern Mex­i­can state of Oax­aca, the fab­u­lously lu­cra­tive Cerro de Po­tosí sil­ver mine in Bo­livia

and the an­cient In­can city of Machu Pic­chu in the Peru­vian An­des, Martínez chats with lo­cals while re­count­ing a com­plex his­tor­i­cal ex­change in au­thor­i­ta­tive, jar­gon-free lan­guage.

The film then crosses the At­lantic to Ro­man Catholic Spain, which in the 1490s was ad­vanc­ing in an­other bit­ter strug­gle be­tween con­tentious cul­tures: the ex­pul­sion of the Is­lamic Moors from the Ibe­rian Penin­sula.

Pow­er­ful leit­mo­tif

USC as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of his­tory María Elena Martínez (no re­la­tion to Rubén), who served as the doc­u­men­tary’s prin­ci­pal aca­demic con­sul­tant, said the film­mak­ers’ use of mes­ti­zaje was a pow­er­ful leit­mo­tif.

While she has cau­tioned in her writ­ings that con­cepts of eth­nic “mix­ing” can be as mis­lead­ingly dan­ger­ous as those of eth­nic “pu­rity,” Martínez said that mes­ti­zaje can help ex­pand cul­tural di­a­logue in the United States be­yond the “bi­nary black and white” eth­nic terms that are “so dom­i­nant.”

Just as sig­nif­i­cant, Rubén Martínez said, the idea of 16th cen­tury cul­tural mix­ing re­minds us that those ex­changes con­tinue now, es­pe­cially in places like his home­town.

“What per­cent­age of in­dige­nous lan­guages sur­vived up un­til to­day? A great many were lost,” he said. “But if you go to a Oax­a­can mar­ket­place — hell, go to El Mer­cado on 1st Street, take the Gold Line — and a lot of in­dige­nous lan­guages are be­ing spo­ken.”

Mariah Tauger

TRUTH SEEKER: For Rubén Martínez, mak­ing “When Worlds Col­lide” was an of­ten sur­pris­ing jour­ney of per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal dis­cov­ery.

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