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Latinos who cry wolf

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Esther Cepeda
February 20, 2012
— “Chimichanga-gate” started innocently enough: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., referenced the deep-fried burrito at a Senate confirmation hearing last week along with other cultural and economic contributions of his home state.

Dana Milbank, a Washington Post columnist who is nationally syndicated through the Washington Post Writers Group, as am I, quoted McCain—“The lettuce in your salad this month almost certainly came from Arizona. … It is also believed that the chimichanga has its origins in Arizona”—in a column titled “Does the GOP care about Latino voters?”


It was a well-reported, incisive, and culturally respectful piece about Republicans stalling the judicial nomination of Adalberto Jose Jordan, who has since been confirmed and is now the first Cuban-born judge to serve on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Milbank used that situation to make the observation that Republicans must have a “suicide impulse” because they seem to go out of their way to alienate the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country.


Milbank closed his column with McCain’s quote and the line: “The chimichanga? It may be the only thing Republicans have left to offer Latinos.” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina Tweeted those words and the column link with the description “Line of the day” and then the refried beans hit the fan.


Some who read the tweet out of context—and apparently didn’t bother to read the attached link—decided that the remark was racist and insensitive to Hispanics and pretty much demanded that Messina and Milbank be tarred and feathered.


Then the Republican National Committee and the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network demanded an apology, and quite a few Latino columnists, activists and commentators elbowed each other out of the way to condemn the perceived slight.


They demanded to know how these two white political insiders could dare assume that all Hispanics eat chimichangas, though neither Milbank nor Messina even came close to mentioning Latino voters’ eating preferences. Some decried the horror of Milbank’s condescension for referring to the chimichanga in his closing, and others took the opportunity to make fun of “gringos.” Latinos, this will not do.


Now that Hispanics are finally being taken seriously in politics, they cannot go around tearing down those who care enough to accurately report on lawmakers seeking to limit Latino access to political power. Certainly not because some tweets and Facebook comments claimed racism and it was easy to chime in with an indignant rejoinder before getting the facts straight. And especially not when a common complaint is that the mainstream media ignore Latino issues.


Latino overreactors—those ready to be offended by a column, a ridiculous line from a comedy show or someone’s misinformed social-media comment—risk making it seem as though Hispanics are perennially aggrieved and impossible to satisfy. Not exactly a recipe for creating effective political alliances.


Hispanics must guard their reputations carefully: Getting all upset over snubs that aren’t even real won’t advance the mission of eradicating the lazy, simplistic labels that are routinely placed on Latinos by those too ignorant to care about insulting us.


Instead, overreacting to every little thing makes it harder to gain sympathy for true abuse, thereby trading one set of stereotypes for another that says we’re a bunch of girls and boys who like to cry wolf.


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

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