Copyright (c) 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 10/03/97 Section: Opinion Page: B7
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Not for public circulation. For classroom use only.

The Rich Tapestry of Hispanic America Is Virtually Invisible on Commercial TV


I recently had the good fortune of being honored with a film festival bearing my name. The Paul Espinosa Film Festival wasn't held in the south of France, and no Hollywood bigwigs attended -- if they did, they didn't identify themselves.

Presented in the Porter Troupe Art Gallery in San Diego, the festival showcased 10 films that I have produced over 15 years for public television dealing with different facets of the Mexican-American experience. One film (The Lemon Grove Incident) dramatized the nation's first successful legal challenge to school segregation, a little-known case involving Mexican-American children in 1930. Another (... and the earth did not swallow him) examined one traumatic year in the life of a Mexican-American boy and his family, who migrated north every year to pick crops in the Midwest. A third (The Hunt for Pancho Villa) profiled Villa's infamous raid on a small New Mexican town in 1916 and the so-called "punitive" expedition sent to capture him.

These films were as well received at the festival -- we actually had to turn away folks -- as they had been during their original PBS broadcasts. Diverse audiences -- Latino, black, white, and Asian -- responded enthusiastically to a wide range of depictions of Hispanic life in America -- from Guillermo Gomez-Pena's wonderful portrayal of a Mexican-American father concerned about his child's education to the fearful testimony of undocumented immigrants worrying daily about being apprehended by the Immigration and Naturalization Service; from the colorful exploits of an 86-year-old veteran of the Mexican Revolution to the earnest reflections of a 12-year-old about the nature of God and the devil.

Unfortunately, life as depicted in these films, the rich tapestry of Hispanic America, isn't finding a regular home on television, especially commercial, English-language television. For Hispanics, TV is the vast wasteland that Newton N. Minow, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, predicted. With a few notable exceptions -- Jimmy Smits's layered performances on "NYPD Blue," Liz Torres's antics on the now-defunct "John Larroquette Show" -- you have to watch a lot of television to find Hispanic characters.

Sure, a few show up from week to week as drug pushers, pimps, maids, gardeners, and Latin-American drug lords. But the absence of textured Hispanic characters is remarkable, particularly when you consider the size of the Hispanic population in the United States. Currently numbering over 28 million people -- the majority of whom are of Mexican origin -- Hispanics will become the nation's largest ethnic group by 2005. (If they made up a separate nation, it would be the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.)

A study done last year by the Center for Media and Public Affairs for the National Council of La Raza was aptly titled "Don't Blink: Hispanics in Television Entertainment." The study reported that representation of Hispanics on television had actually decreased during the last 30 years. Although they constitute about 10 per cent of the country's population, Hispanics accounted for only about 2 per cent of all characters depicted in the 139 prime-time series studied.

How is it that the entertainment industry, located in a city whose official name is Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula, manages either to exclude or to represent poorly such a large segment of the population?

This situation invites comparisons with the depiction of African Americans on commercial television. These days, there is no paucity of black characters and programs -- although some of the depictions are so demeaning as to make one wonder whether it is better to be invisible than to be caricatured. Nevertheless, African Americans clearly have made significant progress in television in the past 20 years. Why have Hispanics not been able to achieve the same high visibility that African Americans have, both on television and in other forms of popular culture?

My own theory is that when Americans think of race and ethnicity -- a subject that most of us would rather not think of at all -- we can't get beyond the bipolar model of black and white. Maybe there is something archetypal about this model; the reality is that nearly all national discussions around the issue of race have been dominated by this black-white divide. It is doubly ironic that the black-white model is so pervasive in California, where Hispanics far outnumber African Americans and where so much television is actually produced. While it is no doubt true that Hispanics have not pressed the entertainment industry as hard or as energetically as African Americans have, it is also true that the industry, like much of the rest of white America, often has responded to African-American demands with a sense of historical guilt, which has not characterized its relationship to other ethnic groups.

Despite the fact that, demographically, we are experiencing a dramatic shift in the racial make-up of our population, national consciousness hasn't yet caught up with the great diversity of race in America. Perhaps we can hardly expect television, by any measure a medium that follows rather than leads, to act any differently.

But why should we care at all if Hispanics are not presented on television? What does it matter if some people, young or old, rarely see themselves represented there?

I believe it matters deeply -- both for the larger society and for the Hispanic community itself. So much of what the public knows or thinks it knows about Hispanics comes directly from television, the principal symbolic system of our times. This is particularly true for those viewers who have limited contact with real-life Hispanics. Even a casual viewer realizes that the world of Hispanics depicted on television is a bleak and dangerous place. Too often, they are portrayed only as criminal, violent, or otherwise-dysfunctional individuals whom the public should fear.

Although the "Don't Blink" study found that this situation was slowly changing, roles portraying criminals were still 50 per cent more likely to be filled by Hispanics than by whites. Given the way Hispanics are portrayed on television, it is no accident that recent political campaigns in California have gone out of their way to use negative images of Hispanics to make easy points with the public -- to create a not-so-subtle relationship between economic problems and crime, and the growing presence of Hispanics.

The long-term impact on the Hispanic community of being misrepresented or not represented at all on television cannot be known with any certainty, because no reliable studies have been done on this topic. Nevertheless, it does not take a rocket scientist to verify how important symbols are to all of us. It may be an exaggeration to suggest that the soaring high-school dropout rate for Hispanics is related to their viewing of television, where they encounter a symbolic world with no place for them. Yet if their future looks anything like our current television universe, it should come as no surprise that they do not want to pursue learning and living in a world in which they don't exist or in which they are relegated to the bottom of society.

We don't really know what happens when a significant group in our society consistently perceives that no one in the larger world hears its stories, no one knows its heroes, no one paints its pictures, no one sings its songs. But surely the damage to the human soul wounds us all.

Let me offer a few modest suggestions about the role that educators can play in addressing this problem. First, they can help their students -- and, really, all of us -- to analyze the nature of the problem. What, exactly, are the impacts on the Hispanic community of being ignored or misrepresented? And why are Hispanics so poorly represented? The answers to those questions are diverse, from poor decision making at top corporate levels to a lack of recognition that different stories need telling.

Educators at both the high-school and college levels need to help their students think critically about the construction and presentation of televised images, especially images of race and ethnicity. Most of today's students have been heavy consumers of television for their entire lives, but they may not have developed the analytical tools that allow them to evaluate how television does its work. The possibilities for critical analysis of television are endless. Students could do comparative analyses of how television and print cover the same stories in their own communities; or, around election time, they could deconstruct political advertisements to see how they work.

Faculty members in communications and fine-arts departments can help by committing themselves to develop more Hispanic producers, writers, directors, and actors to become part of the next generation in television. Part of this task is to nurture the imagination of students, to keep alive the creative impulses of young Hispanics who may feel disheartened by what they see around them.

Furthermore, students need to gain an understanding of the larger socio-economic system within which television operates, and they need suggestions about ways to challenge entrenched attitudes. Over the last 20 years, I have seen a remarkable number of highly talented, creative Hispanics working in various jobs in film and television leave the business after hitting the "glass ceiling." Although increasing numbers of Hispanics have managed to break into the business, many discover that key decision-making positions are simply not open to them.

By educating our students about how and why Hispanics are misrepresented or made invisible by the media, educators can begin showing them where and how change can occur. Students also need to be made aware of the complexity of the process of change. It will require building coalitions both inside and outside the industry to force television and other media to confront the mechanisms of their own institutional racism.

Aside from their direct responsibilities to students, educators often have the chance to interact with professionals working for newspapers, television, radio, or other media. They need to use these encounters to enlighten key decision makers about the importance of improving representation of Hispanics on television.

Over the course of the 10-week festival showcasing my work, I was surprised and delighted by the response. Students and parents, professionals and lay people, young and old, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, the viewers clearly were interested in learning more about the Hispanic experience in America. The festival developed a loyal following of folks who returned, week after week, for the screenings and the lively discussions that followed.

Although the current television landscape is disheartening, I have hopes that we are turning a corner, about to enter an era in which Hispanics will begin to be seen in all their rich diversity. If we cannot close the gap between that world and the present television universe, all of us will be poorer for it, and in the long run, suffer the consequences of stories left untold.

Paul Espinosa is an independent producer in San Diego. He is currently working on a PBS series on the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848.

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