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Bad news about Latinos travels fast

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Esther Cepeda
December 21, 2011
— As I look back on 2011, I’d say the most memorable headlines concerning Hispanics fell under the “made us look bad” category. As in, I saw a negative news story attached to someone with a Latino surname and thought “Why, oh why, did the perpetrator have to be ‘one of us’?”

After five years of increasingly coarse anti-Hispanic and anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric—which has resulted in the highest percentage of Latinos targeted for hate crimes and has subjected even U.S.-born Hispanics to immigration detentions—there is a special kind of disappointment and dread of hostile reaction when bad news is associated with Latinos.


For instance, there was that awful moment when the identity of the competitive shopper who pepper-sprayed fellow Black Friday customers at a Walmart was described by Los Angeles police as a “Hispanic woman, 32 to 38 years of age, 5-foot-3,” and so on.


Ugh.


And, what Latino didn’t grimace when it came out that the guy charged with firing an assault rifle at the White House in November, and is believed to have wanted to assassinate the president, was U.S.-born Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez of Idaho Falls, Idaho?


Double grimace a few days later when Jose Pimentel, an American citizen of Dominican heritage who had converted to Islam and got mixed up with al-Qaeda, was arrested under the suspicion of plotting to commit a terrorist attack in New York.


Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, known to some as the first serious Hispanic presidential candidate after his relatively short campaign ended in early 2008, is said to be under federal investigation for two separate incidents—one in which $250,000 from campaign funds was allegedly used to pay off a woman who had threatened to file a sexual-harassment complaint and another involving corrupt state investments.


And these are just the most recent examples of Latinos who deserve to be stood in the town square and have rotten tomatoes flung at them for shaming the rest of us. The rest of 2011 had plenty of standouts. Who can forget the backlash all Hispanics experienced after a predominantly Latino crowd booed the men’s U.S. soccer team when they played Mexico’s squad at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., last summer?


There is a familiar, unpleasant, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that gnaws at Hispanics when “one of ours” does something stupid. It reinforces a certain public sentiment—stronger is some circles than in others—that Latinos are underachieving, violence-prone foreigners who don’t love America as much as others’ ancestors did when they immigrated here. Legally, some would add.


Many Hispanics will be angry at me that I’ve even brought up these bad apples instead of focusing on success stories. But pretending that these transgressors don’t exist won’t make them go away, and committing to spotlighting only the heroes would be equally unbalanced and unbeneficial to the public perception of Latinos.


Obviously, countless Hispanics overcame barriers to become professionals, showed courage under fire, healed the sick, comforted the poor, and otherwise made the world a better place this year. But the seemingly never-ending stream of negative stories involving Latinos—crime, illegal immigration, lagging educational achievement and poverty—will always eclipse good news because humans’ insatiable love of conflict and villains tends to center around race, ethnicity and gender.


The bright side is that for every Latino who does something idiotic to reinforce someone’s deeply ingrained biases against Hispanics, there will always be other exemplars of good character or stratospheric achievement to counter the stereotypes.


Daniel Hernandez, the intern for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords whose fearless and quick thinking after Jared Loughner’s shooting rampage in Arizona in January played a huge part in saving the congresswoman’s life, springs to mind.


The reality is that universal truths always win in the end. Once people get used to seeing masses of Latinos in roles across the wide breadth of society—in everything from middle-class jobs to positions of legislative power and mainstream celebrity—we will be no more threatening or valuable than anyone else in this country.


In a decade or so America will take stock of itself and realize that Hispanics are neither exclusively good nor evil. Like people from every age group, religion, political ideology, and sports-team fan base, there is a perplexing mix of wonderful, horrible and everything in between.


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

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