How Thick is Your Latino Skin?

Negative media stories, distorted media images

By Fernando Oaxaca
Published on LatinoLA: February 4, 2003

How Thick is Your Latino Skin?

Though not necessarily comparable in their individual subjects, several current media stories remind us of the continuing struggle of the growing Latino community to deal with unfairness or distortion of its public image as seen by the greater American society. Some of the negative images are self-imposed through news reports of aberrant behavior by Latinos, most of them elected officials. Biased, unthinking or ignorant media bears responsibility for most of the balance of the problem?.if there is a problem.

In South Gate, a suburb of Los Angeles, a number of Latino office-holders, including a sitting mayor, City Council members and city treasurer Albert Robles (pictured), are featured dramatically on the news pages of the Los Angeles Times. Though officially fired by the voters a week ago in a recall election, they appear again this week in a prominent Times story. These alleged miscreants are seemingly going for one last bite of the corruption apple, according to the Times, apparently playing fast and loose with contracts for favorites and possibly depleting the City treasury to the point of bankruptcy?just before cleaning out their desks.

For weeks, the Times has given splashy coverage to this story, including generously sized photos of the "accused," while providing far less space, without photos, to similarly questionable behavior of non-Latino individuals and business groups in and around Los Angeles. The difference is that in the non-Latino cases, the activity promised to be far more lucrative for its perpetrators and affected contracts from the City of Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Los Angeles Unified School District, all with deeper and more complex pockets, difficult to probe and investigate.

Miles away, in Santa Ana, California, the press reports that two school board members, one of them the subject of a recall election on February 3, have now been accused by a locally respected Latino, the Santa Ana Superintendent of Schools, of alleged improper influence and "meddling" in multi-million dollar contract awards to friends and campaign donors for the construction of desperately needed school facilities. The Orange County Register, beyond today?s story, has also covered for months the allegations against one of the two Board members that he had thwarted implementation of new bilingual education regulations, now California law since Proposition 227 was passed. This allegation ostensibly led to his recall election.

Before being elected to the school board, this same individual, Nativo Lopez, had been head of an organization, Hermandad Mexicana (Mexican Brotherhood), which was accused a few years ago by the losing congressional candidate, "B-1 Bomber" Bob Dornan, of using its federally funded staff to falsify credentials that allowed illegal and legal aliens to vote for his opponent, Loretta Sanchez. Sometime later, this Latino group was investigated for allegedly defrauding the government of around $4,000,000, earmarked for citizenship development and training contracts.

Staying on the fair-Latino-image subject and moving east, the St. Petersburg, Florida Times on February 2 has a story about the negative reactions of a seemingly rigged Latino "panel of experts" to the new NBC series "Kingpin", a look-alike of HBO?s "The Sopranos" (evaluating only the first hour). "Kingpin" is about a Latino family heavily involved in crime, drugs and general TV mayhem. A high quality production, the show?s setting is on the U.S.-Mexico border around El Paso, Texas.

The "panel" put together by the Times included a LULAC executive, a Latino TV anchor and similarly prominent Latino "activists" from the St. Petersburg area. The complaints about NBC?s offering included the almost expected accusation by panel members of "negative stereotyping" of Latinos and presenting an image that could be "damaging to our children." Some called the show trite and "done before," implying its disrespect for the Hispanic community.

The only truly positive "Kingpin" comment printed by the Times in western Florida was from a young Latina who said that at least, and at last, "we" were on a major network in prime time. Eddie Olmos, J. LO, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, Enrique Iglesias, George Lopez, Martin Sheen, Cristina Aguilera, Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia, Cameron Diaz, etc. etc?? guys just don?t make it in St. Petersburg!

The fundamental questions that arise from the above stories of possible damage to the Latino image are: (1) Does anybody really and truly care about how Latinos are viewed by the total society, as presented by the media? (2) Is there an agenda of putting down Latinos, bordering on "racism," in the dominant media, or is there rampant ignorance in that same media about Latino sensitivities? (3) Do writers about Latino behavior feel unconstrained since they expect apathy from Latinos when negative stories about them emerge, as compared to fearing rapid cries of "Racism" from blacks in similar instances? And finally, (4) Why is criticism or condemnation so rare from prominent Latino legislators or Latino-targeted media when made aware of Latino elected officials, or others who handle public monies, behaving unlawfully or violating the public trust?

The answers to these questions will probably represent a spectrum of opinion, depending on the respondent?s maturity and comfort with being a dues-paying American of Hispanic origin. The other variable would be his or her AQ, a person?s "Activist Quotient," which ranges from (1), total apathy, to a raging (10), equivalent to figuratively requiring restraint to prevent the committing of violence on those who would denigrate Hispanics. Rate your friends and it is likely that Latinos would probably average around a (3) on reacting to stories that "damage" the Latino community image.

The bottom line is that the Latino community cannot expect to continue to grow in numbers, expanding its political importance and prominent involvement in the professional and business world, without eventually being treated like everybody else by the media and society at large. An excessively thin Latino skin would only indicate an insecurity about having the requisite talent, capacity and aggressiveness to progress in the world of 2003.

In another sense, the apparent reluctance of most Latino elected officials to condemn egregious behavior by their peers and similarly employed individuals?...does not serve the community well. In time, their free pass to dishonest folks becomes obvious and damages the perception of Latinos by the rest of the public. Conversely, when all media is fair and avoids an excessive focus on the negative in Latino behavior and does not hesitate to portray honestly the public transgressions of our officials, we will know we "have arrived."

And when a dishonest or biased movie or television series appears, it should be revealed for what it is? its creators or distributors. To whine about negative images coming from television is not nearly as effective as pushing the "off" button on the TV remote or letting the show?s sponsors know of your discontent. (PS: I liked "Kingpin.") Advising your movie theater operator or manager that you and your significant other or your family will not buy $10 tickets to the latest anti-Latino schlock piece is far more effective than being quoted in the press about what racists the movie-makers are!

My personal "AQ" is about a 5 3/4?loud but not obnoxious??..but then, that?s part of what I do! What's yours?

About Fernando Oaxaca:
Mr. Oaxaca reads voraciously, watches entirely too much television and has not been inside a real movie theater in years. He can be reached at

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