Latinos in America

I would like to open by stating unequivocally that I believe CNN's heart is in the proverbial right place in their attempts to document the lives of Latinos living in the U.S. I say this, however, while acknowledging that the advertisements leading up to the debut this week might easily lead us to a starkly different conclusion. The commercials essentially played on fears of a Hispanic reconquista by featuring the visibly Latino actor, Edward James Olmos, saying something to the extent that "people in the U.S. should be ready, Hispanics are here and we're not going away," while also featuring voice-overs which talk about how it's no longer about "keeping up with the Joneses, but rather keeping up with the Garcias." In other words, if you take CNN at their word, the Joneses have been replaced by the Garcias. This is precisely the fear which xenophobes like the Minutemen, Joe Arpaio and the tea-baggers exploit to gain leverage for their conservative ideologies. So flawed advertisements notwithstanding, I'm willing to take Soledad O'Brian's word about CNN seeing the importance of demystifying Latin@s to the rest of the U.S. Unfortunately, CNN's commitment to a hollow, toothless notion of "balance" ends up devolving, what by all rights could have been an in-depth portrait of the issues, obstacles and inspirations of the U.S.'s largest minority, into a fairly standard and unenlightening fulfillment of mythologies and stereotypes of both Latinos and the United States itself. In the end, CNN's commitment to balance in the form of equal representation of both sides with little context or social theory was troubling instead of enlightening and pedantic rather than productive. For the sake of clarity let me offer a few examples:

I applaud O'Brian's efforts to differentiate between Latin@ groups. The documentary features short shots of the many faces of Latin@s in the U.S. We see people who are dark-skinned and light-skinned, some who have accents and some who don't. This variation goes some way to ameliorate the notion that all Latin@s are "Mexican," a dynamic I will address below. I also believe that the rhetorical use of the name "Garcia" was helpful in that segment one (which aired on October 21) featured stories about different people with the surname Garcia. Since these many Garcia's came from various places of origin including foreign born Dominicans, Mexicans and Nuyoricans, the implicit argument was that not all Latin@s are Mexicans. The problem is that this dynamic, the grouping of disparate and often wildly different social groups under a single grouping, has a name, it is called homogenization and its effects on Latin@ communities has been severe. In part one of the documentary, the two teenage Garcia boys, both of whom completely disidentify with their Latino heritage, talk about what it's like to be Hispanic in the South. The eldest one says that most of his friends are either white or black and that when he says that he is Hispanic, everyone assumes that he is Mexican. He follows this up by saying "I don't like that." Part two features two different Puerto Ricans named Carlos one who lives in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania and one in Orlando, Florida. Both Carlos specifically mention the ways in which white residents use the term Mexican in a derogatory fashion in order to belittle them. O'Brian offers no commentary or clarification to a theme which comes up three different times. Why is the homogenization of Latin@s under the term "Mexican" so damaging?

For starters it ignores that fact that their resistance to being called "Mexican" is all about the process of homogenization and, more precisely, of the fact that Mexicans in this country have been stereotyped in hugely degrading ways. According to the larger U.S. population, to be "Mexican" is to be "illegal;" it is to be associated with illicit drug smuggling, gang violence and dead-end landscaping jobs. When the Garcia boy says, "I don't like that," what he is saying is that I don't want to be Hispanic because, in this day and age, that means being associated with negative stereotypes. It also doesn't do anything to highlight the pervading racism throughout the U.S. which has come to understand the term Mexican as implicitly derogatory thus effectively erasing the huge contributions which Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have made to the United States. CNN doesn't mention any of this and their silence does a profound disservice to the Garcia family and to any other Latin@ families who might see in the Garcia family a reflection of their own struggle to maintain Latin@ heritage between generations.

The Garcia boys' parents place the blame for their sons' cultural alienation squarely on themselves. They mention two pressing regrets when faced with the reality that neither of their two sons has any interest at all in associating or claiming their rich Latin@ heritage. They regret having moved out of Washington Heights in New York, and they regret not having done more to raise their sons bilingually. Both of those regrets are certainly valid and, as a father fighting to raise four bilingual children, I empathize completely with the struggle. However, what CNN fails to point out is the way in which the struggle to maintain both culture and language across generations is a societal fact of life in the U.S. And the reason that it is tough, all over, to raise Spanish-speaking bilingual kids and to raise kids who are proud of their Latin@ heritage is because the U.S. has, in many ways, been a tough place to be Latin@. The U.S. has been a place that has demanded that we make a choice between being Latin@ and being American. It also means that the struggle between generations for keeping language and culture alive is also tied to a significant and powerful social dynamic which also has a name: internalized racism. Second and third generation Latin@s struggle with seeing the value of their heritage because, in large part, they have internalized the racism with which our society has greeted large sectors of our Latin@ populations.

Instead of naming these social dynamics, instead of introducing them as realities which are directly germane to the topic at hand and which help to explain why Latin@s are struggling with these issues, CNN opted for balance in the form of silence. For every Latina actress who believes they are typecast, let's bring out one who is light-skinned and has never played the role of a maid. For every Garcia boy who feels alienated by his heritage let's bring out an uncle who has embraced it. And finally, instead of being truthful about who we as a nation have been in regards to the presence of fifty million Latin@s, let's trot out the tired rhetoric of the U.S. as a land of opportunity. Make no mistake; however, I do believe that the U.S. is a land of opportunity just not for everybody and not in the same way. When former Senator Mel Martinez tours the Boystown detention center where he stayed as a young Cuban refugee, O'Brian's voice over mentions that Cubans like him were greeted with open arms. CNN fails to mention that this welcome mat included free English classes and increased access to home and business loans. What, we might ask, might the fate have been of all the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans who came then, and continue to come now, if we were to welcome them in the same way?

Many have cheered CNN for presenting Latin@s "as they are." These same people (you can read their comments on Latino in America's facebook page) feel an overwhelming sense of pride at having a documentary dedicated to their lives and their people. Many of them are grateful for a program in which they saw themselves and their life experiences accurately reflected. Some, however, have expressed their frustration at representations of Latin@s which fully confirm the stereotypes already deeply in place about us, that we are high school drop-outs, that we are here illegally, that we run in gangs, and that we impregnate our teenage girlfriends. Where, I can't help but wonder, were the positive role models, the Latino success stories that have nothing to do with gangs and guns, drugs and drop-outs? Where were the professors of Latin@ Studies like Juan Gonzalez, Juan Flores or Paula Moya who could have explained these realities and shed light on our shared responsibility? Where were the doctors and the lawyers, the writers and the activists? CNN's mistake was not that they presented the realities of social ills which plague many Latin@ communties; Latin@ communities do struggle and will continue to struggle against these issues. Rather, CNN's sad mistake was to have categorically refused to take the risk of explaining these ills by placing them in a social context which has played an outsized role in creating them in the first place. I believe in and admire CNN's quest for balance. The truth though is that if we genuinely want to be balanced, and if we sincerely want to learn about Latin@s and about the nation which they, and we, inhabit, we need to embrace our mistakes and our failings. We need to name them and talk about them. We need to ascribe to them the true measure of their reality and import so that we can face them, own them, and ultimately, change them.