‘Labor of love’: Pitt alum talks Afro-Latino history, culture on PBS show


Image courtesy of Kim Haas

Kim Haas, a Pitt 1990 alumna, is the host of “Afro-Latino Travels with Kim Haas,” which first aired on PBS last fall.

By Natalie Frank, Senior Staff Writer

For Kim Haas, manifesting passion into reality didn’t happen overnight — it took 10 years.

Haas’s long-time dream of creating a show centered around Afro-Latino culture came true with her new PBS series, “Afro-Latino Travels with Kim Haas.” She said the show is inspired by the lack of media representation of African descendants in Latin America.

“My inspiration was through watching Spanish language television, like Telemundo Univision,  and not seeing anyone who looked like me, ever,” Haas, a Pitt 1990 alumna, said. “But travelling to these same countries, to Cuba, to Columbia, to Venezuela, to the Dominican Republic, to Puerto Rico, and seeing a whole lot of people who looked like me.”

Haas’s show first premiered on PBS last fall, but so far only the first two episodes of the travel series have aired. The first two-part special takes place in San José and Limón, Costa Rica, and celebrates the history and culture of African descendents in Costa Rica.

On the show, Haas travels to Latin American countries and interviews locals — immersing herself in the area’s culture through food, dance, art and community. Haas said many investors in the show were unfamiliar with the term “Afro-Latino” which made getting monetary support difficult.

“First of all, in many cases, people didn’t know what I was talking about, particularly in the U.S.” Haas said. “It was like ‘Afro-what?’ and then I’d have to explain ‘people from Latin America who are Black,’ and it just didn’t go anywhere.”

Haas credits Pitt with exposing her to Afro-Latino culture during her undergraduate studies in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, where she majored in Spanish language and literature. Haas said she recalls a paper she completed for a Black history class which taught her about the lack of Afro-Latino representation on television.

“I did a paper on kind of contrasting slavery and between Brazil and Cuba and so I’m learning about all this, traveling to these countries,” Haas said. “And then I’m watching television, and it’s as if they don’t exist.”

Despite these disparities in media, Haas knew the importance Afro-Latinos have in Latin America and wanted to showcase that through her media talents. Haas said in her travels, she learned about Latin America’s rich history from locals who introduced her to their families and their stories, which are often overlooked in history.

“We’re missing a huge portion of the population when we don’t share Afro-Latino stories and history and culture and how much they contributed to the vibrancy of Latin America,” Haas said. “That’s what was important to me was sharing these stories, the people that I’m meeting on my trips, the people I’m learning about, and giving them honor and letting them know they are valued and important because you just don’t see them on television.”

Haas said filming the show brought many memorable moments, including when the film crew’s drone cameras got stuck in a tree and the fire department had to retrieve it. She also remembered that even though the crew filmed entirely during the rainy season in Costa Rica, it didn’t rain until the last day of filming.

“We were really fortunate, it only rained one day and the last day, and I said ‘Somebody was looking out for me, somebody was saying give this girl sunny days, she’s been working so hard on this,’” Haas said. “So I feel really blessed we had perfect weather and so that’s something I will always remember.”

Haas said another one of her favorite moments while filming the show was watching a local dancer perform in San José. She said the “graceful” and “inspiring” performance of Afro-Latino culture nearly brought her to tears.

“I was just on the verge of crying because I thought about how well she represents herself,” Haas said. “I think Afro-Latina women, and I think about Black women who’ve been told they couldn’t dance — they couldn’t be ballerinas — and she got ballet training, and how hopefully we dispel some of those myths.”

Haas’s current passion for Spanish language and Latin American culture started earlier in her life. She said she chose to transfer to Pitt her sophomore year after seeing Pitt’s long list of language courses. She said she was able to combine her love of the Spanish language and media and communications both at Pitt and on the travel series.

“That’s what was really important to me, I knew junior year I wanted to live in Spain, and so I was able to do that because of going to Pitt,” Haas said. “And so that was fundamental for me it was very important having those experiences.”

Wendy Vance, a long-time friend of Haas, said she’s seen the show several times now, loves it and has been sharing the show with her friends and family. Vance, who went to both high school and Pitt with Haas, said she’s proud of how well the show has reflected Haas’s passions that she has known since they were teenagers.

“I just really thought it was amazing,” Vance said. “I already knew Kim’s passion but to actually see it on the screen so to speak was just really amazing, really impactful for me.”

Jessica Schoenbaechler, the series director of the show, said she and Haas couldn’t go through with the show in the beginning due to funding issues. But 10 years later, Haas reached out to her to ask her to officially direct their “long-term labor of love.”

“One day she called me out, seemingly out of the blue, and said ‘Want to go to Costa Rica and direct the show?’” Schoenbaechler said. “And I said ‘Absolutely.’”

Schoenbaechler said filming this show was one of her first experiences directing. She added that Haas’s persistence and fighting for the show for so long is what really got it off the ground.

“It really blew my mind that she had kept working as hard as she did and for so long and was able to bring it to life,” Schoenbaechler said. “And I absolutely jumped at the opportunity and I was so honored that she had even remembered me and was allowing me to be a part of it.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Haas and her team have stopped filming. Haas said she hopes the crew can start travelling and filming again whenever “things get better.”

“I obviously don’t want to put anybody’s health and safety at risk, either the crew or wherever we go,” Haas said. “So I feel a certain responsibility for that.”

Haas said despite the challenges the pandemic has provided, she has still been able to continue the conversation around Afro-Latino history through education. Haas said her show has been used in curriculum at both the collegiate and high school level.

“I love that teachers are being creative and thinking of ways to include Spanish or Afro-Latino history as part of their curriculum,” Haas said. “That is fabulous and hopefully students will kind of start out knowing this part of the history instead of maybe later on in life.”

Despite the drawn out timeline, Schoenbaechler said she’s learned a lot about Afro-Latino history from just the two episodes and is proud of where the show is going.

“We parted ways for a while, but we both kept pushing our own careers and she kept pushing the travelog and eventually we were able to come back together and create something that I am incredibly proud of,” Jessica said.

Haas said she’s learned so much just from her series’ first two episodes and keeps learning the more she explores. Haas said the show will continue to engage her own passions and celebrate Afro-Latino’s contributions to Latin American culture — ensuring they never feel “invisible” again.

“I love going to countries and researching and meeting all these artists and dancers and chefs and cooks, in particular, Afro-Latinos because I keep learning,” Haas said. “I keep seeing how much Afro-Latinos have influenced Latin American culture and history, and I think just touch what so many people love about Latin America.”