On this eve of Hispanic Heritage Month, I can’t help but feel frustrated. According to a poll released this week by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions, seven out of every ten non-Latinos believe that Latinos are gang members or criminals.
The bad news is obvious– over seventy percent of non-Latinos believe Blood In Blood Out movie characters are the norm in our community. However there is a silver lining, these negative views are malleable.
The NHMC-Latino Decisions poll was part of a larger study that looked at how people viewed Latinos as a result of being exposed to negative/positive representations of Latinos. Non-Latino survey respondents were divided up into groups. One group saw a clip from “Training Day” where tatted-up homeboys and homegirls were swilling beer and mad-dogging the white and black dudes. Another group saw a clip from “The West Wing” where Max Santos (Jimmy Smitts) is portrayed as a Latino presidential candidate giving a moving discourse about his bootstrap story.
Not surprisingly, the respondents that watched the gangbanger clip had more negative views of Latinos along a whole host of dimensions—honesty, neighborliness, patriotism, family orientation. On the flip side, respondents who watched positive portrayals of Latinos had less negative views of them. It’s really quite simple; the more Latino criminals and slouches appear on TV, the more negatively Latinos will be viewed. The more Latino astronauts, teachers, and students appear on TV the more positively Latinos will be viewed.
On the heels of the Latino Decisions poll, the importance of Hispanic Heritage Month hit me like a ton of bricks. Throughout the years, I have looked forward to the first couple of weeks of fall, when my Latin American ancestry is highlighted. I’ve always enjoyed seeing fellow Latinos, people who looked and sounded like me, showcased for their professional and personal successes. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit to also liking the dinners, parties, and festivals that are part of the celebration month.
But until this week I had a very selfish view of Hispanic Heritage Month. I saw Hispanic Heritage month as being about me and my ethnic group. It was a family celebration. Not that non-Latinos weren’t invited, but the celebration was about us. Put differently, it was essentially Latinos preaching to the choir—successful Latinos highlighting their successes.
The findings from the Latino Decisions poll, together with two years of a harsh anti-immigrant media barrage, have jolted me. I no longer have a sanguine view about the weeks that make up Hispanic Heritage Month. This month is not about celebrating, it’s about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Hispanic Heritage Month must be used as a springboard to shift popular negative perceptions of Latinos. It must be a vehicle for re-framing who Latinos in this country are. And most importantly, the focus of Hispanic Heritage Month should not be Latinos, but rather all Americans.
Latinos, both in Hollywood and society, have been typecast. We are the gangbangers, the gardeners, and the harlots. Just like in any culture, we have our share of these types, but we also have an incredible array of successful and productive members of society. The responsibility is on us to show this side. While it will be a steep climb to overcome these popular characterizations, it can be done. As the Latino Decisions survey itself demonstrated, while there are negative perceptions, the presentation of a positive characterization does walk back these entrenched stereotypes. And what better place to start getting to work than with this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month?
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.