This week I read a two-page case study about the importance of women and minority owned media companies. This case study was omitted in the updated version of my current textbook. In the case study, for reasons I don’t understand, Latinos weren’t even mentioned as consumers or owners. I’m going to stop here to scream for a moment, or maybe forever, because there are so many things wrong with both circumstances.
As the daughter of an indie filmmaker and the first Mexican American cinematographer in the country, I view giant media conglomerates owning everything as dangerous and oppressive to minorities. My view is almost entirely centralized on the scenario created where these conglomerates tell our narrative. This is dangerous because we have no other option than to believe them. In a free society this is media fascism!
Before I proceed with my rage and disgust about why Latino media ownership matters, it is important to recognize successful Latino founders, creators, and owners of media companies. I want to be clear that the people I mention are household names where I come from. I didn’t have to dive into the depths of the internet to discover them. Some, I have the honor to know personally because they are from my hometown, San Antonio, Texas or because we have intersected in business and cultural circles. I urge anyone reading this blog to Google any of them because what they have achieved and how many still fight the media oligarchy to tell our stories and represent our communities accurately matters.
- Emilio Nicolás, Jr., rest his soul, is credited for paving the path for Spanish language media in the United States. He is from my hometown, San Antonio and started out in radio and left a legacy of television. He also gave my dad a TV show.
- Danny Villanueva, a former Dallas Cowboy punter owned several Spanish language television stations in Los Angeles.
- Jeff Valdez, a comedian and creator of SiTV. He created a network in the 90’s that featured Latinos speaking English on his own cable network.
- Hugo Morales, a MacArthur genius grant recipient and founder of the National Latino Public Radio Network.
- Monica Lozano, and her family, until very recently owned Impremedia the largest Spanish language U.S. newspaper network in the country. In 2007 her company bought out the largest Spanish language newspaper network in Texas that I worked for, RUMBO.
- Edward Schumacher Matos, founder of RUMBO.
- Robert Rodriguez, famed cinematographer who recently created his El Rey cable network. He is also from San Antonio and I went to school with some of his younger siblings.
- Ozzie and Will Areu, the first Latinos to own and operate a major film and television studio in the U.S.
These folks have dedicated their lives to what the case study – omitted. Perhaps the segment of what Latinos represent in media ownership on a national scale is microscopic, but its worth mentioning, if for any other reason than the demographics of our country. These individuals sought to tell the stories of their own communities. For a while, many found early commercial success in their endeavors, or at least made the case for success with partnerships with larger owned media conglomerates. However, most of their stories involve being bought out and commercialized by larger media conglomerates. And therein lies the rub.
When media conglomerates eat up local media groups they do so, in my opinion, for one of two reasons. The local media group is profitable and they want that revenue, or because they want to take out the competition. Sometimes, it’s both. In either case, underrepresented groups, specifically us Latinos, get a raw deal because we lose the ability to tell our own stories and we lose the influence to tell stories that matter to us in ways that resonate with our community. I’m going to ramble on about this a little because I have always been very suspect about how other people tell our stories and represent us in media.
As a child I had West Side story and Charo from the Love Boat, along with black and white reruns of Ricky Ricardo. While I am a fan of Rita Moreno, these images were thick accented, highly sexualized, caricature tropes of Latinos. And of course, I must recognize every Western movie where Mexicans were portrayed as stupid, corrupt, and defeated, all the gang banger appearances where Puerto Ricans and Mexicans were thugs, and the countless brown maids and whores that appeared over the years, often represented with questionable legal status and without speaking parts.
I also had all my abuela’s Spanish telenovelas and Walter Mercado (a Puerto Rican psychic) at the end of a newscast. While I knew the reinforcement of a Latino caricature culture was inaccurate, it horrified me that many outside and inside our community accepted (or even celebrated) this representation. Thank goodness for Maria and Luis from Sesame Street, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, Ponch on Chips, and Jennifer Lopez. It is in deciphering how I contrasted with these media images telling me about myself and my culture that I always viewed media portrayals with a critical lens.
And that’s what the leadership of media networks and Hollywood studios get wrong when they own everything. They whitewash and seek to tell stories that entertain to make money. They greenlight projects about sicarios and drug lords, reality TV shows about El Chapo’s wife, and pay highest dollar to today’s most famous Latino trope – the modern day Charo – Gloria from Modern Family. Culturally speaking we get others, like a Spielberg to cast a Colombian woman as Maria in his West Side Story remake; not understanding what it would mean to our community for such an iconic Puerto Rican character to be played by a Puerto Rican actress. Or pet celebrity projects like Mel Gibson’s Apocalyptico. Then they get things wildly wrong, like when Disney tried to trademark The Day of the Dead and end up apologizing with a seat at the table and Coco.
When we do come to tell our stories, it must be in the vein of a White savior motif or an imagined whitewashing of our beloved Bless Me Ultima. Or we are burdened to tell a story that others feel should be told –like a bio epic on Cesar Chavez, instead of being encouraged to write an intergalactic fable where Latinos exist and there is a resonance of Aztec myth and the lead is a Hispanic cyborg like in Alita: Battle Angel. (BTW, I am giving major props to James Cameron on his collaboration with Robert Rodriguez.)
When we own our own media companies we have the freedom to tell our own stories, not just to ourselves, but to everyone. We can present our experiences and our values, as well as our contradictions and complexities! It’s something the Black community has fought for and continues to fight for, and it’s something we as a Black and Brown community are reckoning with aggressively, on many fronts.
My greatest hope in penetrating the lack of ownership and thus representation in the status quo is that writers, artists, and creatives use social media, and all its capabilities, to impact the media industry in the same way artists have changed the music industry.
P.S. All the links in this blog were researched and added after I wrote my blog to offer greater context and or understanding of the force of the people and movements I mention.