written by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Pia Guerrero
As the daughter of a Mexican father and American mother I grew up searching for people who were just like me. My parents met and lived in Mexico City where I was born. When they got divorced I was a little over a year old and my mom moved my older sister and me to Los Angeles, leaving my dad and family behind. When I was about five, my dad came to visit us and take us to Disneyland. I hid under my bed. I didn’t want the strange man to take me away.
Soon after, I began spending my summers in Mexico City visiting my family. On my first visit, I started off barely saying a word at all, let alone in Spanish. By the end of the summer, my thoughts, dreams and chatter were all in Spanish. After the initial adjustment I grew to love Mexico. But no matter how many times we visited, I never got used to the huge disparities in wealth that we just didn’t have in my quiet little L.A. neighborhood. I couldn’t believe how many extremely poor people there were begging in the busy Mexico City streets. Most shocking was that most of them were women with dirty faces, often holding their nursing babies. At busy intersections and stoplights little kids no more than 6 years old sold Chiclets gum to the stopped cars. My dad always bought gum or gave out change, which further reinforced how privileged we were. I looked in the eyes of these kids and couldn’t believe that despite being the same age how different, and how lucky, I was. I thanked God daily on these trips, for I knew it was pure luck that I wasn’t born under such circumstances.
Around ten years old, I asked why these people were so poor. My dad explained that many factors played into it, including government corruption, greed and lack of education. Back home my mom’s neighborhood was a mix of families, WWII vets, and bohemian artists. It was the early eighties and the only Spanish speakers were neighborhood gardeners and housekeepers, who were part of a flood of immigrants from Central America fleeing bloody civil wars, extreme poverty, and oppression. Due to ignorance and L.A.’s proximity to Mexico, all these folks were called Mexicans. They were invisible, without history, culture or respect.
My childhood was marked with shame. Being Mexican meant you were dirty, stupid and lazy. Again I was struck by my luck, for the darker you were the worse it got. I looked to TV for some reflection of my dual identity and found nothing beyond Sesame Street. Latinos were completely absent from TV and movies until the late 80s. In 1986 the local NBC station brought on Linda Alvarez, the first Latina to anchor a weekday English-language TV station. By the early 90s as the U.S. political focus turned to the Middle East, the stigma of being Mexican slowly lessened, and more and more Latinos became visible on TV, not just on news programs, but on hit shows like L.A. Law. By then Jimmy Smits was a household name and a heartthrob. As Latinos became recognized for their buying power a slow and steady shift began. Every so often you could see Latino families featured in commercials buying washers at Sears and eating Big Macs at Macdonald’s. In the mid-90s Latina magazine launched. Latinas were among the largest consumers of cosmetics in the U.S., and the magazine hoped to serve those women and profit off of them. The emergence of singers like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin popularized Latin culture and style. But, like today it showed just one facet of the culture and certainly didn’t resemble anything I experienced during my summers in Mexico City.
Hearusnow.org, a project of the publisher of Consumer Reports, addresses the portrayal of Latinos in the media:
Latinos have made gains on prime time television; however, the characters Latinos play are too often domestic workers or criminals. According to Dr. Clara Rodriguez at Fordham University, this lack of diversity in film and TV depiction is harmful. “You should be able to have all types of movies depicting all types of characters,” said Rodriguez during her testimony before Congress. “The problems come when the representation of a particular group is too narrow, one-dimensional and stereotypical.”
The lack of Latino role models is particularly hard felt in children’s programming. According to a study by Children Now, the family hour, where most children are watching, is the least ethnically diverse. Because of their increasing numbers, rising political power, and growing economic viability, it seems highly likely a show targeted to Latino children would be a financial success. This theory is exactly what Nickelodeon decided to test and what made their hit show, Dora the Explorer, such a huge phenomenon.
Latinos are the largest minority in the United States. But our numbers, while once seen as a commercial goldmine and political opportunity, have become a huge threat. Media representation that could demystify and shed light on the many complex cultures of Latinos and Hispanics doesn’t exist. Terrorism and the collapse of our labor market gave a platform in the media for fear mongers like Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck who have created a new level of racism against immigrants. Now shows about drug cartels, lawless kidnappers and gangs dominate coverage and portrayals in the media. Misperceptions about immigrants continue, as they are often shown as shifty illegal “aliens” whose sole purpose is to breed US citizens, traffic drugs, steal jobs, and drain our social services. But what about the folks whose stories and struggles are never heard? And what about their children?
In actuality, according to a Frontera NorteSur News Report published in October of 2009, the immigration crisis began,
(In) 1982, when Mexico’s ruling PRI party began instituting what later became known as a neo-liberal, or free market, economic policy.
In line with the project popularized by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, as well as the International Monetary Fund, state subsidies and supports for farmers were steadily eliminated, pressuring small growers off the land and into the migrant stream stirred up by the North American Free Trade Agreement and (NAFTA) and Mexico’s 1994-95 economic crisis.
Racism and class separation in Mexico run rampant among Mexicans where skin color dictates one’s economic and social standing. It is estimated that between 50 to 65% of citizens live in poverty in Mexico. Of that number close to 20% live in abject poverty. Any hope of upward mobility is impossible. The only chance of a better life can be found on the other side of the border. Once here, Mexican workers, like many immigrants send much of the money they earn back home to support their families. Mexico’s government is happy exporting it’s working poor in exchange for their remittances. For example, in 2005 Mexico received $18.1 billion in remittances from the US. According to Vicente Fox, Mexico’s president at the time, remittances were Mexico’s biggest source of foreign income. Bigger than oil, tourism or foreign investment.
The ethnocentrism and cultural ignorance of the most educated, progressive households in California are staggering. Gardners and housekeepers who have immigrated here from Mexico are faceless, just like the Central Americans I encountered growing up. What many fail to acknowledge is that given a choice, the immigrants that are here would rather stay in their home countries with their families. Instead they face violence, isolation, uncertainty and death in a desperate attempt to improve their livelihoods.
Nearly forty years after moving here myself, I’m sad to say not much has changed in the profile of Latinos. Since the media serves little purpose in shedding positive light on the millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the US, the onus is on us to engage with others and understand their stories. For example, a number of the folks coming from Mexico speak Spanish, not English as their second language. Mexico has over 200 different indigenous languages and dialects including Mayan, Zapotec, and Nahatl. Along with these languages come thousands of years of tradition, history and culture. The more we know, the more we can combat racism and raise children who understand and respect others and their importance in the world.
Pia Guerrero is a writer and non-profit consultant. She is also a youth development and media literacy educator specializing in identity, race and representation in the media. She is the editor and co-founder of Adiosbarbie.com—a website and blog whose mission is to promote healthy body image and self-image for people of all races, cultures and sizes.