Rodner Figueroa’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ Moment Proves Spanish-Speaking Media No Longer Segregrated

I do wonder that if former Univision host Rodner Figueroa had said what he said on Spanish-language television 10 years ago, he would still be part of the Univision family today, for the very reason that Spanish-language media didn’t have as much of a mainstream national or digital reach as it does now. Maybe a suspension and a public apology, but I don’t think the network would have fired him so swiftly like it did this week. For the record and in the interest of full disclosure (our “Rebel Report” show is part of Univision’s Flama online channel), as much as it is always sad to see someone lose his or her job, I applaud the decisive action Univision took in dismissing Figueroa. I don’t know Figueroa personally, but in the end, as much as being outspoken is of value these days, when someone clearly crosses the line, people need to speak out.

The Venezuelan-born host claims his “Planet of the Apes” comments were misinterpreted, yet anyone who has seen the video and the reaction it got (Rodner, TMZ picked you up) has already begun to question Figueroa’s poorly thought-out public relations strategy. Not only did Figueroa toss out the “Planet of the Apes” comment, he kind of stuck with his comment even when his colleagues tried to give him an out.

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Before continuing, I don’t need to be reminded that Univision and Spanish-language TV in general —both here in the United States and in Latin America— have had a shoddy history of racism, colorism, sexism and every other -ism so structurally engrained in the culture. Just because that’s they way it has been doesn’t mean it needs to be that way moving forward. As if Figueroa’s comments are perfectly acceptable because that’s how we Latin Americans roll and that we should all just lighten up a bit. He didn’t mean it. He’s not racist. We talk like that all the time. Yet that’s the problem, people: we have enabled such racialized language for so long, it has become accepted.

Growing up as a child of the Univision Generation (Channel 41!), one’s initial cultural sensibilities begin to mix more and more as you begin to be exposed U.S. mainstream media sensibilities. In other words, people from the U.S. bilingual-bicultural world of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s as well as younger people from the last 10-15 years have been living in a “mashed up” environment for so long now. Univision has always been part of our world, but we don’t watch the channel as much as our abuelos did.

That is why many who never thought that Univision would act on Figueroa’s comments so quickly were pleasantly surprised when they read this statement: “[Wednesday] during our entertainment program ‘El Gordo y La Flaca’ Rodner Figueroa made comments regarding First Lady Michelle Obama that were completely reprehensible and in no way reflect Univision’s values or views. As a result, Mr. Figueroa was immediately terminated.”

I agree: Figueroa’s words, in the context of where we are right now as a U.S. society in 2015, were shocking, offensive and beyond inappropriate.

So as Univision enters a new era (and a new buyer?), there is still a call by many who grew up with the network that it should continue to shed more of its history and begin to move forward since it is realizing that its viewership’s sensibilities is also changing. This week’s actions against Figueroa would suggest that the network is taking its new role as a major media player seriously.

What has happened in the hours following that Univision statement says a lot. Not only Univision’s decision, but also how the U.S. English-language digital media pounced on the story. A few examples (besides TMZ): CNN, the AP, HuffPost, Politico, NBC News Buzzfeed and Mashable. Sure it involved the First Lady, but here you have English-language outlets reporting about what someone on U.S. television said in Spanish. That type of coverage rarely happens, unless Laura Ingaraham is involved. It is safe to predict that this trend will continue.

That alone should tell you that yes, a network like Univision has reached the mainstream when it comes to the U.S. media landscape. It is not longer the Spanish-language network segregated in the corner. It is now a network that will be followed and scrutinized, just like we scrutinize other networks. Figueroa’s comments led to serious consequences, and Univision knew that.

And they knew it pretty quickly.

Even though Figueroa still has his small group of defenders, it goes back to my initial point of Latin American sensibilities that Figueroa’s comments were not that problematic. He is a celebrity, and this is all a manufactured controversy:

And, oh yeah, this is all Obama’s fault.

As actual comments from Latino Rebels community page would tell us, you must go after Empress Obama and the fact that her office, at least according to Figueroa, had complained about the comments.

I agree!! It’s not the apes [sic] fault she looks like them. They did nothing to deserve to be treated in such a manner. (besides she looks more like the grinch)

Look it Homebois, if you want to find out who lords over you, find out who it is forbidden to criticize.

Of course, Figueroa will have his supporters, but you would think that after getting over the shock of what Univision did (and, as with any private company, Univision is entitled to terminate a relationship, especially if there’s a code of conduct clause, which is standard), the people handling Figueroa’s response to all this would have taken a pause and thought this out some more. The letter released yesterday in Spanish (and translated by Latino Rebels into English) is a deflection of reality.

Figueroa tends to not own his words. Instead does this:

  • Blame it on makeup artist Paolo Ballestero. (Figueroa claims that he was speaking out against Ballestero’s characterization of the First Lady. If that were true, he did a poor job on-air explaining that. After saying what he said, he admitted that it was “true.”)
  • Suggest Michelle Obama’s office got him fired. (That didn’t happen, according to The Washing Post.)
  • Accuse Univision executives of smearing him without being given the chance to defending himself.
  • Say he voted twice for Barack Obama.
  • Bring up the fact that he is biracial, openly gay and knows discrimination.
  • Include some apology non-apology somewhere.

Never does the letter really address the core issue, which is this: Why did you say those words in the fist place and why did you double down it on when you had a chance to correct yourself? 

Imagine if Figueroa had written and personally delivered this to the White House: Dear Madam First Lady, What I said was reprehensible and stupid. It was wrong. I am deeply deeply sorry. This is my teachable moment and I will learn from this mistake.

That’s it. No more. No less. Own the words and grow from it. As much as it may pain Figueroa to admit, this is not the time to dig the hole any deeper. It is time for humility, contriteness, sincere remorse and promises of learning from it all. Whoever is running the crisis response for Figueroa needs to figure it out as quickly as Univision dismissed him.

I do agree with Figueroa that humans are humans and mistakes will always be made. Yet, it happened and it was wrong. If there is any time in Figueroa’s career where he should listen more and talk less, this is that moment.

As one of his colleagues said:

That is the conversation that should he happening. Here’s hoping that it continues and we begin to see topics of identity, culture, race, gender and ethnicity getting more attention on Spanish-language media. And yes, we need to have to these discussions in as open and respectful of a way as possible, or else, nothing will change.

As for the U.S. Latino community, we must continue to challenge they way it has been. Channels like Univision are no longer separate from the U.S. consciousness. They are now an integral part of the new “mashed-up America” where certain norms apply.

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Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, 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 several outlets, including MSNBCCBSNPR,  Univision and The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream and is currently the Digital Media Director for Futuro Media Group.

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