Thursday, June 22, 2006

Here’s one more wrench to throw into the great immigration debate of 2006.

Does Hispanic popular culture lag behind American political correctness standards? If so, what can be done about it? And how does this social sensitivity gap, if it exists, threaten multiculturalist dogma that says all cultural artifacts are created equal?

Check out the fare that’s offered up on the dominant Spanish-language network Univision and its rival Telemundo to see what I mean. “Sabado Gigante,” for example, a variety show hosted by the Chilean Don Francisco, traffics in crude ethnic stereotypes that would never pass muster on American networks.

Steamy telenovelas such as “La Fea mas Bella” and the live three-hour variety show “Escandalo TV” are rife with silicone-enhanced bimbos and the kind of misogynistic imagery that would make a proper American feminist set fire to her undergarments.

Moreover, on Spanish-language entertainment serials, there’s an unmistakable Eurocentric racial pecking order that favors white skin and blond hair. “The only characters who look like typical Mexican-Americans, who are part white and part Indian, are the comic relief characters,” observes movie critic and blogger Steve Sailer, a frequent critic of unrestricted immigration.

Maybe so, says Robert Pastor, director for the Center for North American Studies at American University — but is it any crasser than what one typically finds on English-language TV?

George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen is generally bullish about how mass immigration will impact American society but acknowledges divergent cultural standards. He poses a counterquestion: Might the depictions of family on mainstream American TV shows, where traditional values and “family loyalty” aren’t always defended, in turn strike culturally conservative Hispanics as offensive?

For its part, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, which tries to increase positive roles for Latinos in movies and on TV, is acutely aware of the culture gap. “Is some of the programming out of sync with the American sensibilities? The answer is yes,” acknowledges NHFA co-founder and chairman Felix Sanchez.

“They perpetuate a very strong color line that preferences European ancestry over mestizo images,” he says. “They promote the ideal image of being blond and fair and blue-eyed, even though almost ninety percent of Mexico and the U.S. Hispanic population do not share those characteristics. It creates a kind of self-esteem issue and complicates individual empowerment efforts.”

The NHFA has tried to attack the problem at its source and found it an uphill battle. The Federal Communications Commission has more or less turned a blind eye to Spanish-language TV, Mr. Sanchez says. And Univision Communications Inc. imports much of its content from Mexico-based Grupo Televisa and thus has little editorial control — which is why NHFA is pushing for more natively produced programming.

Most important, Spanish-language programming in the U.S. is wildly popular, especially among the key young-male demographic. In local markets, Spanish-language news coverage — which, let it be said, is often first-rate — competes head-on with the major broadcast networks.

Television, generally speaking, is by far the most popular source of entertainment among the more than 40 million Hispanics who live in the U.S., most of whom have yet to reach the income stratum where video games, boutique cable channels, IPods and the Internet await.

This discussion shouldn’t be dismissed as a footnote to the broader immigration debate; it bears directly on the question of assimilation.

Mr. Sailer, who lives in the Los Angeles area, says that given their large and growing proportion of the population, Hispanics have had “a strikingly small impact” on American popular culture. He contends that the volume of Hispanic immigrants, combined with the popularity of Spanish-language television, has had a ghettoizing effect on Latinos: They and their children “can cocoon themselves in a Spanish alternate universe,” he has written.

American University’s Mr. Pastor counters that Spanish-language TV caters mainly to first-generation Hispanic immigrants, whose unimpeded flow guarantees ever more viewers for the Univision and Telemundo networks. “The second generation assimilates in roughly the same way as other immigrant groups,” he insists.

Whoever turns out to be right — Mr. Sailer the pessimist or Mr. Pastor the optimist — will determine whether Spanish-language TV cleans up its act.

According to Mr. Cowen, the rate of successful assimilation will determine the kind of economic constraints that networks like Univision find themselves under in the future.

Put another way: Blatant sexism and racial caricatures won’t fly when — if — Spanish-language programmers and English-language networks and cable outlets are competing for the same advertiser dollars.

“The more they try to reach a mainstream audience, the more professional the production will be,” Mr. Cowen says.

• • •

Conservatives may be all wet for fearing that Hispanic immigrants won’t assimilate fully to America’s economic model and social mores.

Yet, the entertainment content on Spanish-language networks like Univision, Telemundo and Galavision suggests it’s liberals who should be trembling in their progressive, egalitarian, post-patriarchal boots.

It is not uncommon, for instance, to see Latino sketch-show actors wearing blackface or Buckwheat-style wigs. “Sabado Gigante’s” Don Francisco dances suggestively with female-singer contestants and bullies non-Spanish-speaking guests as they accompany their spouses.

Afro-Cuban freelance writer Brigida Maura reported in 2003 that on Telemundo’s reality series “La Cenicienta” (that is, Cinderella), the Mexican mother of bachelorette star Minerva Ruvalcaba said of a half-white Cuban suitor: “Despite your color, you are a good person.”

But it’s ultimately the inexorably gaudy sexism that most rankles critics of the major Spanish-language networks.

Latina writer Marisa Trevino explained on her blog that Hispanics in the U.S. “won’t be able to forge new images for ourselves and change how others see us unless networks like Univision and Telemundo start becoming more discriminating in what shows they bring over from Mexico and South America, where most attitudes toward women are still in the Stone Age.

“That fact is obvious within 15 minutes of any telenovela, where the ‘attractive’ women are dressed suggestively or, if it’s a beach scene, with practically nada. The camera always has a way of lingering several seconds too long on someone’s bulging bust line or bare backside.”

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