Last week the Pew Center on Hispanics published the results of a study in which Latinos were polled about who they perceive as the most significant Latino leader in the US. A remarkable 64% answered they do not know. Another 10 per cent said no one is a significant Latino leader. Seven per cent named Sonia Sotomayor. The remarkable absence of a Latino figure in the center of public discourse is not surprising when I think about the way Latinos are portrayed in mass media or –actually—NOT portrayed at all. A separate Pew study of Latino media coverage found that vast majority of coverage of Latinos in 2009 was on immigration, drug wars, the H1N1 flu outbreak in Mexico City and Sonia Sotomayor—in that order. And the remarkable thing is this: most of the time when these issues are discussed in major media outlets there were few Latinos present.
Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the US and are at the center of one of the most contentious debates in the US as immigration reform ensues. Researchers David Hayes-Bautista, Rodolfo De La Garza and Dowell Myers, journalist Robert Lovato are just a few of those who should be involved in the discussion. These are the individuals who have dedicated years of study to provide informed perspective on a complex issue. Yet in an age when media interns are asked to find experts for the most obscure biotech developments, technical breakthroughs and the complexity of climate change—how is it that major news casts can cover immigration and fail to ask Latinos to be part of the discussion?
This lack of presence of Latinos in the media is a key contributing factor in this perceived vacuum of Latino leadership. But there’s more to it beyond the mainstream media neglect. In watching the endless number of people who claim their 15 minutes of fame—Joe the Plumber, Preacher Terry Jones itching to burn Quarans, and irritated flight attendant Steven Slater—I am stunned at the level of hubris evident to seize a moment in the bright lights. This is so not Latino. Latinos bring cultural values that emphasize humility, stoicism, and cooperation. It is rare to see Latinos who want to draw attention to themselves. Even in the face of remarkable achievements, few Latinos engage in self promotion. It’s a trait that is at the same time admirable and yet limiting in a world that seems to notice the obnoxious first and the nobel last.
The future of the nation is linked to the future of Latinos. Latino leaders exist in every field and discipline and they need to be engaged in the media rich society we experience now. We may be a quietly proud people but let’s not confuse this with being absent or unavailable to lead. -M