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  • Writer's pictureBash The VO

Representation and Identity: Latinos in the Media

“You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.”

- Maya Angelou

What follows is a personal account and opinion

When I came to the US in 1990 from Colombia, Pablo Escobar was still in power and my country was in the throes of a 60-year long civil war between guerillas, paramilitary groups, the government, and now, cartels and narco-terrorists. This combined with the popularized image of the “Colombian Drug Lord” in the American media made for an interesting experiment in identity development. Many of our compatriots in Philadelphia seemed to buy-in to the idea that all we were was drug-dealers and others simply couldn’t see themselves superseding that stigma. Many people I consider family ended up on the wrong side of the law or dead too soon because of drugs or violence. I hate to admit it but I gave into this stereotype at one point. It was a dark time in my life and I’m lucky to have come out of it alive and without any legal trouble.

But why did I feel like this was “Me?” What made my cousins and I think that we were criminals? Did “Clear and Present Danger” and “Scarface” make me want to be one of the bad guys? Did I internalize the “cycle of poverty?” Did Jay-Z, Big Pun, and Tupac make me think it was cool? Yes? No? Maybe so?

After years of internal debate and external influences, with some even calling me “the whitest Spanish kid” they knew, I ended up forging a unique and metamorphic identity that takes the best from each influence and each experience, turning it into wisdom and applicable lessons.

My parents taught me to be my own person and never let anyone else tell me what I can and can’t achieve; to be honest and true to myself and be the master of my own destiny. To this end I have strived to always take the best out of every situation and learn as much as I can from the people around me. With inclusion, diversity, and representation being key talking points today, I began thinking about the different ways these ideas have manifested themselves in my own life.

I was raised in a really interesting time. Media influences like the drug lord were paralleled by the “latin lover” and images from soap operas on Telemundo and Univision. The image of the illegal immigrant that people might associate with the farmers strikes of Cesar Chavez was also prevalent but was off-set, if only a little, by Reagan’s amnesty in the late 80’s. The music of the time was changing as well. The Estefans had made serious in-roads for latinos at the highest levels of the music industry. Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades were in movies and Ricky Martin had begun his illustrious solo career. Soccer was becoming more and more popular in the US. I remember seeing a match in the old Meadowlands between Colombia and Greece when I was about 5 years old.

However football, hockey, and baseball were what most of our friends and neighbors all talked about. They loved the Phillies, the Eagles, and the Flyers. So I wanted to learn about those sports, their history, and their heroes. John Elway was on the cover of the first ever Madden Football game for Playstation and I’ll always remember feeling so accomplished because I knew who he was and why he was on the cover. When it came to music Selena, Gloria Estefan, and Marc Anthony to name a few were breaking the language barrier and giving Latinos the voice and representation in the media that was missing for so long. Hip-hop and rock were alway popular Latinos but the underlying issue of racism made many think they had to choose one of the other to stay true to whatever they thought it meant to be “Latino.”

The biggest change came when, after living in the city of Philadelphia from the age of 2 to 10, we moved to the quiet suburbs and my world was shocked again. I went from the bustling, busy life in the city to the quaint, quiet life of the suburbs. THEY DIDN’T EVEN HAVE SIDEWALKS! I resented it for years but later, when one cousin overdosed, one got pregnant, and the other got locked-up, I realized the gift my parents had grinded so hard to give me. My cousins in the city got caught up in the image of the Latino drug-dealer. They fully embodied what the media had told them Latino’s were: Gangstas and baby-mamas. These people didn’t grow up in “bad” neighborhoods or abusive households. And while addiction does not discriminate, my cousins had everything they needed to get ahead in life and chose to embrace a stereotype and the cycle of poverty that is taught to so many children of color in the US.

I was fortunate enough to have ambitious and unrelenting parents who surrounded themselves with equally ambitious and intelligent people. My parents instilled in me values, manners, and ideals that have gotten me very far in life. Values like honesty, compassion, and punctuality are free and are simple ways to show your character. They never let me forget my roots and they never let me take anything I saw or read too seriously. This is where diversity, inclusion, and representation become fully formed concepts in my life.

Leaving the incredibly diverse environment that was North Philadelphia and coming to the cookie-cutter nature of things in the suburbs really taught me how valuable all the different cultures and people I grew up with were. The accents they had, the food they ate, and the clothes they were taught me about a much wider world that I had known at one point but was supplanted by the simple, suburban life where inclusion then came to the forefront. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the suburbs. I felt very much out of place. I couldn’t even call my black friends the word that they’d called me in the city for years. I was “white” because of the color of my skin but I was a Latino because of my language and culture. I felt like an outsider and weirdo because I wasn’t like the other white kids or the other Hispanic kids. If it hadn’t been for some great teachers and my wonderfully supportive family I may have never embraced my Latino heritage the way I did in the end.

When I got out of high school I started using my middle name, Sebastian, instead of my first name, Juan (which had never been properly pronounced in school). And in the years since then I have become more conscious of how Latinos are represented in the media. Now that I have children who are bi-cultural I want to know how those cultures are represented in the media. Sometimes brands have missed the mark entirely, like Abercrombie and Fitch, but thankfully others like Coca-Cola, Nike, and more have taken the time to learn about the nuances that make Latinos unique and different. There are more Hispanic athletes and leaders but nowhere near the almost 20% of the population that is Latino. Hispanic music is making its way into popular music but is now being censored and manipulated to please a white-washed audience. Where I have seen major strides is in movies and television. Movies like Coco and Encanto and shows like Dora the Explorer and Handy Manny are fantastic representations of Latinos in the media. They don’t stereotype and they tell powerful stories of human struggle and accomplishment.

I am happy to say that in the 32 years I've been in the US we’ve come a long way. My kids won’t have to go off of Speedy Gonzalez and Tony Montana as their representation in the media. There is a movement to forget the old-world idea of what a Latino was in America. People like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, John Leguizamo, and Ralph Barbosa are part of a new generation of Latino-American leaders that are real and true to their culture while embracing the changes that the internet age and the millennial generation are making happen. There are a multitude of other unnamed leaders and influencers that are doing the same thing in their local areas. Teachers are even pronouncing Hispanic names the way they are meant to be said and not in an Americanized way. The future is bright for Latinos. We are ever growing and becoming more and more of an economic powerhouse.


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