Janesville74°

Yearning for the mainstream

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Esther Cepeda
April 10, 2011
— In a world where everyone is considered special and believes themselves to be, like the residents of Garrison Keillor’s fictitious Lake Wobegon—strong, good-looking and above average—I’m striving for ordinary, general and mainstream.

Weird, I know. But like an overstimulated child, I’m worn and cranky from too much Latino-mania. We’re the largest minority! We have $1 trillion in buying power! Google, L’Oreal, and State Farm are culturally marketing to us! Whoop-dee-doo. I’d rather be seen as a normal part of everyday American life instead of perceived as belonging to an alien population that requires special outreach.


When I was little, my Latino cultural touchstones were the rock band Santana, Freddy Prinze of TV’s “Chico and the Man,” and Jose Feliciano, who sang that show’s theme song as well as the ever-popular “Feliz Navidad.” They appealed to people of all types, not just Hispanics. I liked that.


But this was before the decline of mass media and the reign of the segmented target audience. Today it’s all about “reaching” Hispanics through segregated “culturally relevant” Hispanic TV programming, radio, social media and news websites—as if the majority of Latinos interacted exclusively with those media. Worse, many of these efforts are in Spanish even though, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 84 percent of Latinos under 17 and 56 percent of Latinos over 18 speak English fluently or exclusively.


I yearn for the Latino community to become un-niched. If by 2050 Hispanics do comprise one-third of the U.S. population, I’d like them to be an equal part of an American community that embraces its diversity as a strength, not a group maneuvering against disparate Asian, black, mixed-race and white blocs for whatever’s left of the American Dream.


I long to see people with hair, skin and eye color like mine in all types of magazines, and on news anchor desks and big screens everywhere—not just in the ones that have been assigned to my minority group.


Happily, in the past three weeks I lucked into two different novels that feature characters who just happen to be Hispanic. In Jack Kilborn’s “Afraid,” set in rural Wisconsin, there’s a Hispanic character who is no more or less deliciously evil than his white, bad-guy counterparts. In Matt Burgess’ “Dogfight, a Love Story,” the details of protagonist Alfredo Batista’s life in Jackson Heights, N.Y., are just the details any good writer would use to fill out an interesting character. I was thrilled.


There was nothing about these people that required Hispanicity—they didn’t have inspirational stories about rising from poverty, or sad ones about learning English. They didn’t use some deep cultural wisdom to deal with a problem or drop pithy Spanish-language sayings. This struck me as unique.


I read about 35 books per year, mostly best-sellers, and know from experience that the overwhelming majority of non-Latino authors usually don’t include Latinos in their stories. Burgess and Kilborn didn’t include these characters because the authors are Latino or have some special connection to Hispanic culture. It was simply because Latinos exist everywhere in real life and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t appear in books that have nothing to do with the Hispanic experience.


“You know, after the book was published I thought for sure people would want to talk about this, but you’re the first person to ask,” Burgess told me from his home in Minnesota, where he’s working on his next novel. I contacted him because I just had to know why he made the struggling, young father-to-be in his book Puerto Rican.


“People definitely don’t want to talk about why a white guy is writing about all these different ethnicities and races because people are afraid and unwilling to talk about race these days,” Burgess said. “But it’s simple: I grew up in a neighborhood (Jackson Heights) and went to school with Irish, African-Americans, Latinos, Indians, everything. That multiculturalism was something that we all took for granted—and it wasn’t that we were colorblind, we were aware of people’s races and ethnicities. So when I write, I write about all different kinds of people.”


This is, I hope, the future—one where people from all walks of life will see others in all the places they see themselves. A future in which mainstream books, news, movies and TV shows reflect the real America instead of celebrating content that’s “separate but equal.”


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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