By Matthew Stieglitz
As I peruse the Latino landscape in this country, I can’t help but come to back the same thought: Soledad O’Brien let me down. As many of you will recall, last year Soledad filmed Latino in America, the Latino version of Black in America. Refusing to miss the program, I got my popcorn ready Terrell Owens-style and prepared for what I thought was going to be an insightful view on Latino contributions to the US. Not only was I disappointed by what I watched, I was angry. Stereotypes prevailed the entire program, and our lone example of Latino entrepreneurial success was a chef no one outside of the Univision faithful have heard of. While this all needs to be mentioned, it leaves a great deal to be desired. My anger ultimately subsided, but that doesn’t mean this piece should go unwritten.
Where Latino in America failed is in what I so badly wanted: inspiration. Soledad had the opportunity to do what so few of us can: use her credibility and popularity to both document and highlight the plight of the Latino. This means addressing the negative and the positive. While she found a variety of meritorious topics to touch on, she struck out looking when it came to uplifting this community and advancing an image of Latinos that does not involve pregnant teens, loss of culture, and illegal immigration. None of our accomplishments in business and politics were highlighted, and the program failed in its ability to inspire. Instead, the program did a great job of reminding everyone which immigrants are hated, who holds the highest high school dropout rate, and who isn’t measuring up.
Sure, Soledad trotted out the usual suspects of Edward James Olmos, Eva Longoria, and George Lopez to remind us that celebrity status is right around the corner with hard work and sacrifice. But after that, it was back to the barrage of negativity that essentially illustrated the following: a demographic that just doesn’t measure up. I didn’t allocate my time to that program to hear that broken record of failing students, subtraction of culture, and anti-immigrant (i.e. anti-Latino) communities. What I wanted to know were the stories we don’t hear but need to hear about what we’re doing right. The stories about how far we’ve come and what wonderful accomplishments are on the horizon. OK, so I didn’t get what I wanted. There are greater ills in the world. But here’s how it’s actually relevant.
For non-Latinos who watched for an inside look of our community, their perception of Latinos right now is probably pregnant teens, loss of culture, and limited success. Taking it a step further is how Latinos felt after watching the program. In general, all we’re fed are the negatives. A down economy, a failing education system, inadequate healthcare, two wars, global warming, anti-immigrant sentiments, and you get the picture by now. It’s a very negative landscape, and one that seldom offers inspiration. Underscoring all of this is a political system that reeks of a pissing contest between politicians who are more interested in blaming their opposing parties than legitimate bi-partisan collaboration. And within all of that is an image of Latinos that these days is not positive, which Latino in America did little to dispel.
Never mind that we have a Latina Supreme Court justice, Latino elected officials, prominent athletes, and a growing presence in every sector of American society. The negatives had to prevail. While knowing how popular the name Garcia is makes for an interesting conversation piece, I’m not particularly interested in triviality. Instead, I’m interested in inspiration, particularly in light of the continual deterioration of society taking place in Arizona. As such, since Soledad got to give her opinion on Latinos in America, here is mine.
To be Latino in America in the 21st century is to be the backbone of this nation. Certain sectors of the economy would crash tomorrow if Latinos stopped working, and our military would be severely depleted without Latino soldiers. We peacefully assemble in the face of bigots who would rather see the entire community deported, and in so doing carry ourselves with a grace we often are not afforded. Beyond that, our culture is rich and our societal contributions will only continue, making our presence in this country significant. Simply stated, we are America. But none of that was highlighted by Latino in America. Thus, I write this piece to call on our community to not fall into the trap that Soledad did. I urge you to find and highlight what we do correctly, find our inspiration, and flaunt it.
Matthew Stieglitz received his BA in Communication from the University of Delaware. He is currently a 2011 Master of Public Administration candidate at Cornell University concentrating in Government, Politics, & Policy Studies. After receiving his MPA, Matthew will attend law school in order to merge his public affairs background with a legal education to most effectively advocate for Latinos.