US mainstream media either ignores Latinos entirely or relegates them to symbols of immigration.
Despite recent attempts to bring national attention to the concerns of the Hispanic community, America’s Latinos remain largely invisible. As the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency drew to a close, Hispanics took stock of their perceived place under the new administration. Hector Sánchez Barba, chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), wrote of the “devastating impact” that Trump’s nativist rhetoric and immigration policies have had on the Latino community. Political analyst Victoria DeFrancesco Soto echoed Sánchez Barba in affirming that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ principal accomplishment thus far has been instilling fear within minority communities through criminal measures that implicitly target blacks and Latinos.
The National Council of La Raza asked Latinos to describe in a single word how Trump’s first 100 days in office have made them feel, and among the 1,400 respondents the most commonly used words were “disgusted,” “scared,” and “disappointed.” Many critical voices rose up from the Latino community in response to the administration’s first 100 days. These voices, however, will go unheard, and not just by the White House.
The longstanding dearth of Hispanic representation in mainstream news media, TV and film suggests that almost no one has exposure to Latino opinions and concerns via news outlets and entertainment mediums. Media Matters’ analyses of minority representation in television news programs have repeatedly found that 75% or more of all commentators invited to Sunday morning political talk shows are white, while Latinos, who now make up over 17% of the US population, account for only 4% of guests. Even on Election Day, when the so-called “sleeping giant” was expected to have a determining voice in choosing the next president, cable news shows featured almost no Latino commentators.
What’s more, when Hispanics do appear on mainstream news, their role is invariably restricted to discussing immigration. While it is important for the media to engage Latinos in immigration debates, this propensity for editorial tokenism effectively prevents Hispanics from publicly discussing other topics that dominate today’s news headlines, such as health care, the economy and jobs. These latter issues, which concern all persons in the US regardless of race, class and gender, could provide a vehicle for forging empathy and cultural understanding.
As the 2012 National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) study of media stereotypes revealed, increased interaction with or knowledge of Hispanics is related to more positive opinions of Latinos. By seeing more Hispanics speak intelligently about the day’s most polemical issues, non-Hispanic whites could more easily identify Latinos as what we are – Americans who share their concerns and want this country to flourish. Instead, mainstream media either ignores Latinos entirely or relegates them to symbols of immigration. This continued association of Hispanics and immigration no doubt contributes to the NHMC’s finding that one-third of study respondents assumed that the majority of Latinos were undocumented immigrants.
Similar patterns of underrepresentation and stereotyping in TV and film exacerbate the invisibility of genuine Hispanic voices in US society and contribute to non-Hispanics’ limited, often negative views of the Latino community. Less than 6% of the characters we see in TV and film are Hispanic, and the vast majority of these characters play one of a very restricted number of roles, namely criminal/gang member, gardener/landscaper or maid/housekeeper.
Together with the pigeonholing of Hispanics in mainstream news media, these unimaginative storyboard and casting practices hamper Latino efforts to have an authoritative presence in political and social dialogue on a national scale. Given the power of the media to shape public opinion, continually seeing Latinos perpetrating crimes on TV makes it easy for viewers to be misled by political fear-mongering into believing that most Hispanics are violent criminals. Generalizations such as these feed into efforts on the part of the far-right media to normalize xenophobic rhetoric and become particularly troubling at a time when instances of hate crimes and discrimination are on the rise.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
Political mobilization is fundamental in increasing Latino power and influence. It is crucial that we call our elected officials, march, demonstrate, petition. These actions are necessary, but not sufficient. We must also fight for greater diversity of representation in news and popular media. As consumers of media, Hispanics represent a powerful force. We go to the movies with greater frequency than non-Hispanics and currently subscribe to streaming video services at a greater rate. Moreover, we prefer, trust and watch English-language TV programming more than Spanish-language alternatives. The mainstream media need to place similar trust in us and acknowledge our multiplicity of backgrounds, opinions and expertise.
To achieve this end, we ought to be intentional in the decisions we make regarding the programs and films we watch and help promote via our comments in the workplace and on social media. Our choices must demonstrate that one-dimensional, hackneyed reincarnations of Pablo Escobar and sporadic, token Hispanic presence on news shows do a great disservice to our community. The Hispanic population cannot be defined by a single issue, opinion or ideology. It is therefore time that news programs feature a greater range of Latino perspectives and that writers create fictional characters who face problems as uniquely Latino as universally relatable – characters like One Day at a Time protagonist Penelope Alvarez, a Cuban-American army veteran afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. As Justina Machado, the actress who plays Penelope, has affirmed, it is important to “change the narrative and let people see us in a different way.”
Changing the media landscape won’t be easy, but notable initiatives are underway. I spoke with Julio Ricardo Varela, co-host of the podcast In the Thick, about the question of Hispanic representation. Varela, who recently led a series of panels at DePaul University that featured prominent Latinos from the worlds of journalism, business and entertainment – including DeFrancesco Soto and Machado – affirmed that the problem of underrepresentation has worsened since last year’s election.
Whereas news shows invited Hispanic guests to speak about immigration with regularity during the election cycle, even these limited efforts to engage the Latino community have ebbed significantly post-election. The result, says Varela, is a continuing pattern of unduly “painting [Latinos] with a broad brush.” In order to increase the community’s visibility, Varela hoped to use the panels at DePaul as a catalyst for further public conversations with Hispanics that tackle issues beyond simply immigration and showcase diversity of Latino opinion in the face of media generalizations. Events like these are an important step in (re)inserting Hispanics into the mainstream.
What is our best response to the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency? Making our voices heard, not just in the White House, but in every home.
Bryan Betancur is an assistant professor of Spanish at Furman University. His research focuses on Spanish theater of the early modern period. As a Colombian-American, he is also interested in questions of bilingualism, Latino identity and the place of Hispanics in US politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece first appeared in Fair ObserverFiled under: National Politics