Misinformation and Racism on Latino Social Media Continue Unabated (OPINION)

Mar 1, 2022
2:45 PM

Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a conserative talk radio host on the Spanish-language exile station Radio Mambi (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

HOUSTON — After spending much of the last decade contending with extremist deceptions on social media, we’re no witnessing white nationalist rhetoric and ideologies crop up in unlikely places—particularly in the Latino community.

Beginning with seemingly basic lies claiming Joe Biden is a communist, extremist ideas are frequently injected into conversations creating complex narratives that encompass often racist and xenophobic talking points. From South Florida to South Texas, Spanish-language social media misinformation continues to spread unchallenged.

Along the Texas-Mexico border, former President Donald Trump made great gains with Latinos largely because of false narratives perpetuated by the far right. Many of those portrayals were undeniably born of xenophobia and racism. What many in America fail to realize is that the majority of Tejanos are conservative, identify as white, and enjoy their proximity to whiteness.

Following the 2020 election, many have recognized just how politically conservative many Latinos are. In South Texas, the party latched onto key issues for Latinos by showing support for the oil and gas industry, law enforcement, religious freedom, and gun rights. Republicans promoted ideas using many of the same narratives and underhandedness employed to target rural white voters in other parts of the country.

During the same election cycle, Democrats yielded by assuming South Texas Latinos would vote for them. While Tejano Democrats are passionate about many of the issues Republicans target, the Democratic Party ignored them. Like the rural white voter, conservative Latino Democrats are a key voting bloc and the party is likely to continue ceding power if it persists in overlooking such segments and the propaganda targeting them.

Social media companies have largely failed to rein in misinformation targeting Latinos. As someone who monitors and reports what’s going on in extremist circles, I can attest to the fact that the world of Spanish-language conspiracy theories is growing and the misrepresentation of real-world news is becoming increasingly common.

What works on rural white voters also works on conservative Latinos. Whether they’re Republican or Democrat, in South Florida or South Texas. Social media influencers and talk radio hosts are actively working to polarize political beliefs, playing an outsized role in dividing U.S. Latinos.

AM Talk Radio Invades Social Media

Talk radio stations, particularly in South Florida, broadcast their radio shows live on Facebook and via podcast networks using influencer strategies to grow their audiences. Various hosts use their shows and platforms to spread Spanish-language misinformation. From conspiracy theories claiming the last election was stolen from Trump to echoing manufactured stories found on extremist websites and digital media outlets about Black Lives Matter, such public figures have no qualms about being the arbiters of falsehoods.

A common theme is white nationalist rhetoric attacking asylum seekers. While listening to Ninoska Pérez Castellón’s January 18 broadcast on Radio Mambi in Miami, she defended Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ position of trying to close shelters for unaccompanied migrant children. She and a caller’s arguments are centered on a specific DeSantis comment after he publicly declared that comparing the 14,000 unaccompanied (mostly white) Cuban children sent to the U.S. in the early 1960s to migrant children arriving today was “disgusting.”

“There’s a lot of bad analogies that get made in modern political discourse, but to equate what’s going on with the southern border … with Operation Pedro Pan, quite frankly is disgusting,” Gov. DeSantis said during his recent visit to the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora.

Operation Peter Pan (Operación Pedro Pan) was a clandestine exodus of Cuban children ages six to 18 who were voluntarily given up by their parents fearing Castro would terminate parental rights and place children in indoctrination centers. Much like the unaccompanied Cuban children, many children today find themselves in a similar position as they flee repression, crime, and poverty. However, no comparable support system exists today for migrant children as once did for those fleeing Castro’s regime.

In a press conference with Pedro Pan participants at the Archdiocese of Miami Pastoral Center on February 10, Archbishop Thomas Wenski rebuked DeSantis’ comments while standing in front of posters that read in English and Spanish: “Children, Yes! Politics, No!””Another poster showing a reunited immigrant family read: “Am I disgusting?” The event was supported by the American Business Immigration Coalition, its Florida chapter IMPAC Fund, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and the Venezuelan American Alliance.

“This is a new low. Children are children, and no child should be deemed disgusting, especially by a public servant.” Wenski said, adding that opposition to today’s unaccompanied children by a few Pedro Pan participants is “certainly disappointing.”

The governor’s “political theater … his bullying of kids, I think also showed weakness,” Wenski added, before introducing a Honduran family, whose son spent several weeks at a Catholic Charities facility upon his arrival to the U.S.

In her defense of DeSantis’ executive order disallowing the renewal of licenses for federally funded organizations that help migrant children, Ninoska, as she is referred to on her show, has used alarming language once relegated to the far corners of the internet. She has suggested that Joe Biden’s “open borders” allow migrant children to come to Florida without the state’s knowledge. From there, and with barely a pause, she quickly jumps to how drugs coming through the border end up in our children’s schools—suggesting a connection between drug trafficking and asylum seekers.

By proposing immigrant smugglers are the main source of drugs entering the country, and not addressing that the majority of narcotics entering the U.S. come through official points of entry via cargo ships, trains, and trucks, Ninoska and others frame narratives suggesting drugs such as fentanyl come through the border on the backs asylum seekers.

Inflammatory Rhetoric

Ninoska ended her segment about smugglers by saying: “Don’t talk to me about parents who can’t find their children or children who can’t find their parents. If you are looking for your children and they take you to where the children are, you will find them or vice versa.”

Again, leaving out key details and jumping from one topic to the other allows such figures to create a narrative that proposes all border issues are interconnected with crime in the U.S.

Radio hosts and social media influencers such as Alex Otaola regularly talk about the many horrors that asylum seekers must deal with to present a narrative of caring. This isn’t to say that they don’t care. We’re all human after all. However, we don’t solve problems by using statistics to further political agendas and fuel culture wars. We do so by addressing the decades of policy that created the environment for such atrocities to occur.

But we also can’t ignore the social impacts of Spanish-language white nationalist extremism disguised as simple conservatism. Along with Ninoska and Otaola, many other Spanish-language influencers and radio hosts promote various harmful false narratives. Many of those views are blatantly racist in nature, using stereotypes that have existed since racist politicians, scientists, and the KKK introduced them.

Recently, in a Facebook Live video, Otaola referred to an incident where a brawl broke out at a Golden Corral. Despite the fact that the incident began between a Latino male and a white male, he presented about 10 seconds of the video and provided commentary.

“The Blacks who blindly voted for Biden, here they are fighting because the Golden Corral ran out of steak,” he told his thousands of viewers. “Imagine if they ran out of fried chicken.”

For some white Cubans, anti-Black racism seemingly comes too easy.

Otaola did what other conservative extremist influencers and radio hosts do. The key details that frame every story are ignored. Then, like a page stolen from the Breitbart “How to Manufacture Outrage” playbook, they provide completely manufactured scripts to promote and further culture wars about seemingly trivial issues. Extremism in the Latino community may be lagging behind the rest of the country, but it’s catching up fast.

In Texas, Republican political ads are broadcasting their lack of moderation. They’re intently focused on “finishing the wall” and racist dog whistles such as “crush the woke mob“—as if they’re not talking about the majority of the country. Normalizing language that refers to migrant children as “disgusting” or that speaks of “crushing” fellow fellow Americans is antithetical to the “American Dream.”

Clapping Back

It may seem extremist conservative arguments are so far-fetched that no one would believe them. But if we’ve learned anything about politics over the past two decades, it’s that people will believe anything—and if we’re talking about the last few years, even more so. In order to properly address the mountain of disinformation that is becoming more prevalent in Spanish-language media, we need to tackle it head-on.

Many of the arguments made by far-right commentators discussed here are being used across the board. The Republican Party’s embrace of extremism is front and center. Aside from white rural America, their target audience includes white-adjacent conservative Latinos like those in South Texas and South Florida. Republicans are laser-focused and their platform is scary to non-white groups and other marginalized communities.

Media organizations must share in the obligation to rebuff views once relegated to the fringes of society with the truth. Claims of asylum seekers and drug traffickers being one and the same must be discredited by adding much-needed nuance to the conversation. Doing that is as simple as talking about the damage being done by the implementation of Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

Title 42 allows the U.S. to close the border to migrants due to public health concerns. The coronavirus pandemic is such an emergency, according to first the Trump and now the Biden administration.

Both Title 42 and “Remain in Mexico” have had dire effects on immigrants left on the streets in Mexico. From the initial implementation of Trump’s MPP policy to February 19, 2021, the advocacy group Human Rights First documented 1,544 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and violent assault against MPP participants.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency that monitors migration, says at least 650 migrants died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021—an all-time high since the U.S. government began reporting U.S.-Mexico border deaths in 1998. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths in 2021, up from 254 deaths in 2020 and 300 deaths in 2019. The IOM has also noted that “all figures remain undercounts.”

Additionally, 5,755 people died while migrating from Central America and the Caribbean. The exploitation of migrants legally seeking safe haven in the U.S. should in no way be politicized or used as ammunition against one half of the country. Instead, we should focus on the myriad policies that force migrants to make treacherous journeys and begin entertaining more humane efforts akin to Operación Pedro Pan and allowing for legal asylum as required by law.

Blatant Hypocrisy

While conservative Latinos argue that, as Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez told the Miami Herald, “Operation Pedro Pan was a short-term legal exodus that was federally approved and funded and Catholic Church-administered,” what they’re expressing is a privilege only afforded to certain Hispanics from certain countries. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of Cuban children in the 1960s were white.

Racism, xenophobia, and anti-Blackness thrive in Latino communities in large part because of the rhetoric we hear from influencers and talk radio hosts. While mainstream media lacks Latino voices, what Latino media lacks is Afro-Latino representation and a broader diversity of immigrant voices. Listening to predominantly white Latinos on AM radio and social media express racism and xenophobia in Spanish is like having Richard Spencer on the air every day.

Using rebuttals that largely echo Fox News and more extremist views, they flood the airwaves with Spanish-language versions of the same xenophobia and racism found on Tucker Carlson’s show (among other palces). Claiming DeSantis didn’t say what he said about migrant children is what many AM talk radio hosts did during the Trump presidency and continue doing today.

While white Latinos dominate the airwaves with bigotry, they do a disservice to the vast diversity of Latinos by fostering hate and division within the Latino community. Whether xenophobia or anti-Black racism, what they stand for is division and maintaining dominion over others they deem unworthy. They promote a white supremacist viewpoint that is wholly unacceptable.

White Cubans supporting this rhetoric without calling it out are as complicit as those who drive these bigoted conversations. It’s no different than decrying socialism while benefitting from housing programs such as Section 8, or immigrants or the children of demonizing asylum seekers, or screaming about police oppression in Cuba while remaining silent in the face of the state-sponsored police violence against Black people in the United States.

It’s blatant hypocrisy.


Arturo Domínquez is a first-generation Cuban American father of three young men, an anti-racist, journalist, and publisher of The Antagonist Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about the issues covered here, follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here and here.