When Latinos Don’t Look at Themselves: Enabling Racialized Language on Spanish-Language US TV

Ever since Latino Rebels formed more than three years ago, we never tended to shy away from raw and honest discussions relating to culture, identity, ethnicity and race. It is what we do, so it was no surprise to see the comments from a June 20 Facebook post go completely insane.  Just another normal day at LR.

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The June 20 post linked to a PRI article called, “Univision’s World Cup Spanish commentary has surprised some Latinos.” The story described how Félix Sánchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (and a good friend of this page), was surprised by how some of Univision’s Spanish-speaking commentators had described certain Costan Rican player by the color of his skin (“moreno“) and his hair style (“greña“). Now, before you lecture me about Spanish regionalisms and connotations (entiendo perfectamente los significados de ambas palabras), Sánchez never said that the terms being used were offensive, just that it was bizarre and disappointing to hear broadcasters on a US-based channel (remember, Univision is a U.S. channel) describe players by their features and not by their names. The argument is a simple one: would you hear someone like NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy describe an NBA player by their racial features on ESPN? Words like “black” are not offensive, but what if someone like Van Gundy said, “that black boy sure can dribble” on TV? Van Gundy would be out of a job in five minutes. (By the way, I am huge Knicks fan, so Van Gundy is no way like that.)

That is was Sánchez said:

Therein lies part of the issue, which is that regardless of the fact that it’s being broadcast in Spanish, it’s still by a US broadcaster that needs to abide by American standards and American sensibilities

Sánchez also said this:

When English language leaning Latinos watch Spanish language programming there’s a culture clash that occurs because the kind of social progress that we live in, in our mainstream world doesn’t always seem to be reflected in programming that is not English language programming.

Nonetheless, many got upset at Sánchez’s comments and it got really ugly (FYI, these are some of the tamer comments):

Those “offended” are seriously disconnected from Latin America and want to force U.S. sensibilities where they don’t fit. They should go back to watching baseball.

The only Latinos complaining about this are Americanized latinos who are so sensitive to everything. Go and watch ESPN. Spanish commentators have been doing the best commentating for many decades. The only reason it’s an issue now is because Americans are suddenly paying attention to fútbol because of the World Cup and are shocked to learn that the rest of the world does not share their own views.

that’s so stupid coming from a guy who can’t speck Spanish… pathetic!!!! I’m pretty sure that the sports caster would be pretty stupid if he try to be racist on national TV. this guy Felix should not watch Spanish TV till he actually learns Spanish ! caso cerrado!!!

I think this proves how unLatino Felix Sanchez is and he makes a living lobbying for us. How sad? It’s endearing language to call someone guey or [email protected]$ calling someone guey doesn’t mean they’re literally an ox jaja

However, others applauded Sánchez:

I’m glad this issue is finally being discussed. It’s been going on forever! And if it takes a non-Spanish speaking Latino who clearly understands Spanish to speak up, why put him down for it??? Words do matter. Just because we have internalized the racism within our own culture, doesn’t mean it’s ok. When discussing Afro-Latinos they tend to refer to them by the color of their skin. It’s not cool. Latinos comes in all colors. We know better, it’s time we as a culture change not only for those that live in the US, but those Latinos that live in our native country.

Sometimes the commentators on Univision are mad racist, just listen to them cover a game between an African team and a European team and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

After seeing the debate blow up on our FB page, I emailed Sánchez some questions. This is what he wrote back to me:

JRV: What is the real issue here?

Sánchez: The issue is about fairness and respect. Why describe soccer players by their last name, but refer to Afro-Latino players by the color of their skin (moreno) and their hair (greñia, problemas de caspa). We criticize English language sportscasters and radio personalities for similar offenses. Famed sportscaster Howard Cosell got in trouble for referring to an African American athlete as a monkey and Don Imus was widely condemned for referring to African American female athletes as having “nappy” hair.

JRV: How has Univision responded to your critique? What do you think will come out of it?

Sánchez: Univision is slaying ESPN in the ratings, the latest figures show that over 42 million viewers have turned into their World Cup programming. Anecdotally, I believe that a large part of those viewers are bilingual and English-leaning Latinos, who want a more authentic viewing experience and therefore turn to Univision, over ESPN and the BBC. Univision responded instantly and the President of Univision Sports personally called me to discuss the matter and to assure me that the matter would be taken seriously. I was also invited post-World Cup to come to Miami to speak with the team broadcasting from Brazil. No further commentary has occurred since I spoke with Univision and I believe they have taken my concern to heart.

Univision has long understood the power of the Latino viewer and they realize if they want to dominate in the viewer ratings war, that they have to show sensitivity to how a U.S. Latino might experience their color commentary. Latino market share is under fierce competition. Univision didn’t become the dominant Spanish language programmer by disrespecting its viewers or taking their concerns into account. That’s what I admire about Univision’s team is that they immediately want to establish an ongoing dialogue to work through the many cross-cultural values and messages that may resonate awkwardly to a U.S. Latino audience.

In contrast, take a look at other issues NHFA has raised with English-language broadcasters and their approach to infinitely more grievous issues. As you know, NHFA, together with every major Latino organization wrote on November 2013 to Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of NBC’s Saturday Night Live seeking a meeting and questioning why in 39 years that the show has been on the air, Lorne Michaels has never hired a Latina cast member. To date Lorne Michaels has never directly responded to us.

There is room on both sides of the English/Spanish language programming for change and growth. So far, Univision is winning.

My own take is very simple: there are certain standards in U.S. programming. On-air public comments are held to a higher standard, no matter the language. And yes, this is still pretty messy when it comes to culture and language (it’s even structured and accepted), but having this debate is critical. To all the detractors, saying that this is just the “way it is” symbolizes why it is such a problem in the first place. Anti-Blackness runs deep in Latin America, and if U.S. Latinos who feel tied to both worlds want to raise that issue with U.S. broadcasters, go for it. That will always be a good thing, and for those who have issue with it, get used to it. This is only the beginning.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  Univisionand The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.

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