Shut out by mainstream media

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Esther Cepeda
Sunday, May 20, 2012
— As recently as five years ago, I was gnashing my teeth because the television networks catering to Hispanics in the U.S. were offering only Spanish-language programs, further isolating a population that many Americans thought didn't care about fitting in enough to bother learning the language.

Today I fear the pendulum is swinging too far to the other side. I worry that the proliferation of advertising, entertainment and news organizations hoping to engage predominantly English-speaking Hispanics will also isolate a continuously assimilating community from a mainstream that seems to view Latinos as newcomers who don't quite want to blend into the crowd.

The list of news and entertainment companies jumping into bilingual or English-only programming aimed at Latinos is long and ever-growing, the two most recent examples being Cosmopolitan magazine and Univision-ABC News.

Hearst Magazines premiered Cosmopolitan for Latinas earlier this month to its target audience, "the young, bold, Latina woman who is sexy, stylish, and intelligent," according to editor Michelle Herrera Mulligan, "and wants to see herself reflected in the pages of a magazine."

Well, OK. But isn't that what Latina magazine has been doing for about 16 years? And even it wasn't the only magazine already aimed at bilingual, fashion-conscious Hispanic women.

You have to wonder why Cosmopolitan sought to capture the attention of young Hispanic women with a separate publication instead of simply folding in more Latina celebrities, models, staff writers and photographers into its flagship offering. It's not as if you couldn't quote a Dominican starlet saying "I'm very proud to have Latin blood" or feature photo spreads of Brazilian Carnaval dancers in the regular Cosmo.

I've heard hallelujahs about how great it is that Cosmopolitan is paying attention to Hispanics. To me, it sounds a lot like "separate but equal."

Why do mainstream organizations seem to believe that Hispanics are so different, so exotic, that it's just not practical or effective to include them in their regular products, services or coverage?

This phenomenon isn't limited to Hispanics. African-Americans and Asian-Americans, increasingly tired of TV programming that looks nothing like our nation's gloriously diverse mainstream, are turning to YouTube to not only watch, but star in, the most viewed shows on the Web. According to The Washington Post, eight of the 20 YouTube channels with the most subscriptions feature minorities, mostly Asian-American, with many black and Hispanic shows filling in the top 50.

But those who don't tune in to YouTube lose out -- big time. Just ask yourself if Barack Obama could have been elected president in a nation that had never fallen in love with "The Cosby Show."

And our news ecosystem -- which some people consider the very bedrock of our democracy -- is in full fragmentation mode. It seems like every major news organization has a Latino-centric section or other "special interest" offshoot. (Disclosure: NBC Latino and several other Hispanic-focused news outlets carry my column.)

I just read a column on a major network's English-language Latino news site about Time magazine's controversial breast-feeding cover. The author wanted to discuss nursing as a professional working mom. "Since I didn't see any Latinas interviewed by Time on this issue, I thought I would offer my opinion," she wrote.

That really got me.

It's wonderful that this journalist had a place to share her viewpoint and get it out to others. But wouldn't it have been better if Time had included in its reporting a range of voices more representative of the general population to begin with? Or if major networks were open to putting such rarely heard viewpoints on their main news pages?

Niche offerings are great but no substitute for all races and ethnicities being represented in American popular culture where everyone can be exposed to the good, the bad and everything in between.

ABC and Univision's new Latino channel will be in English, and the company's leaders have said that they want to appeal to non-Hispanics as well.

I hope they do because so often the distinctions don't matter. I learned about the first American female boxer to qualify for the Olympics from reading The New York Times, an emblem of mainstream media. That the 22-year-old Houston native is of Mexican descent is a notable detail, but no more so than her gender, sport or athletic prowess. Her achievement isn't a Hispanic human interest story -- its American history.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 8:19 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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