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(In)Visibilities of Blackfaces in Post-Racial Latino Media

(In)Visibilities of Blackfaces in Post-Racial Latino Media

By William Garcia

Was there a lack of coverage by the Latino media into the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by white police officers in the U.S? If so, should it raise eyebrows into what causes Latin@s to allow racism to endure in Latino communities? Do the Latin Grammys also lack diversity even if Latino music revolves around black culture? In March of 2012, the website Latino Rebels (which serves as an non-informal social media platform), published an article titled “The ‘White Hispanic’ Label: Yes People, Racism is a Latino Thing Too” and highlighted the increase of white Latino racism in the U.S; highlighting the case of Trayvon Martin murdered by George Zimmerman, a white Latino male who was defended by conservative bloggers saying: “You see, race-baters, he is NOT white? He is Hispanic! Shame on you liberal media! You were quick to play the race card. White people are not racist!”[1]

The Latin@ media continues to exclude black bodies from television in order to perpetuate systemic white privilege. Although racism within the Latino community has not been part of a mainstream conversation, the presence of color-blind or post-racial structures may mask white supremacy within the community itself. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla explains that while post-racial and color-blind racism has existed in Latin America since independence from Spain in the 1800s, many Afro-Latin@ groups and other Latin@ minorities are claiming more visibility in the face of this adversity.[2] This color-blind racism has been developing in the United States and operates under what sociologist Tim Wise calls “Racism 2.0”–an implicit racism, which he claims allowed President Obama to win the presidency in 2008. He describes it as:

A far less easily recognized type-which could allow [Obama] to win the presidency, but only because of his ability to ease white fears and transcend his still-problematic blackness, biracial though it may be. While Racism 1.0 appears to have suffered a great defeat this time out—and for that, we can all be grateful—let us not overlook the possibility that Racism 2.0 may have been in full effect, and ultimately the reason for Obama’s victory.[3]

While President Barack Obama was elected by white voters because he was able to “transcend race” or “moved beyond his race” white people still view most black people as lazy, more prone to violence, and less intelligent. Although Wise’s groundbreaking analysis brilliantly describes racism over time, the systemic racism reinforced by the Latino media has remained static in Latino culture and politics. Post-racial racism is intrinsic to Latino identity. Denying ones blackness is intrinsic for being Latin@. The idea that we are all mixed allows for the invisibility and intransigent ridiculing of blackness in the Latino media to continue. This callous point of encounter is reinforced with the proliferation of white and light-skin actors in Telemundo and Univision selling a world of whiteness. All one has to do is go to novela-watching Latino household and you will see family members stuck on the couch in a trance watching novelas throughout the day and whenever possible.

Regardless of these shortcomings, anti-black racism and white supremacy in the Latino media is being confronted. The recent impact of El Proyecto Mas Color is an awareness campaign started by Sophia and Victoria Arzu, two young Honduran-American women of Garifuna descent. Their project promotes the representation of Afro-Latinos and other minorities in Latino media and campaigns for more diverse depiction on Spanish-language television that includes Afro-Latinos.[4] Furthermore, Victoria Arzu expresses the fundamental and insightful criticism that is disregarded in the Latin@ community: “People need to remember that Latino is not a race”.[5] Through this project that they have started on their own and supported by change.org, these two young women have been featured on Latino USA, a radio segment of National Public Radio, condemning racial injustice in Latino media. In fact, they have written a plethora of letters to Telemundo and Univision television networks requesting the presence of Afro-Latin@s and other minorities.[6] Telemundo responded to them by saying that they were unable to fulfill the request because it would compromise ratings and because they were based in Mexico.[7] As a response, they founded Proyecto Mas Color, which has a created a petition against Telemundo and has accumulated almost 100,000 signatures and continues to raise consciousness.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.36.28 PMSophia and Victoria Arzu speaking in a YouTube video expressing their concern for the lack of black bodies in Spanish-Speaking media, especially on Telemundo and Univision

These initiatives have successfully had an impact on a political level. In September 2014, during Spanish Heritage month, the AfroLatin@ Forum organized a roundtable discussion in New York City to appeal to the U.S Census Bureau to re-analyze the account of their numbers and recognize Afro-Latino identities. During the 20th century, when Latin America was seeking independence from Spain, they created the myth of racial harmony and mestizaje in order to claim a new and different identity and gain independence. The idea of a mixed people that needed to become autonomous, were ideas termed by Jose Vasconcelos from the notion of a cosmic race and Jose Marti notions of a Latin American identity, which resulted in color-blind racism that favored whites through to the gradual disappearance of blackness and other minorities with the process of whitening (blanqueamiento). In colonial times, Blacks in Latin America were obligated to refrain from marrying with other black people while also internalizing the racist lives they had to endure. This devaluation of black bodies continues today. Before the term color-blind racism was termed in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean had been exercising this concept for hundreds of years.

In his article titled “Mujeres Invisibles: Afro-Latinas & Hollywood,” John Anthony underscores that even though Latinos are marginally represented as gangsters, tough guys, and womanizers while women are only given supporting roles, Afro-Latinas continue to be underrepresented even amongst the Latino population. Anthony remarks: “While the industry has found a way to exploit the sexuality of Latinas in film and television, they still tremor at the idea of a dark-skinned Latina with more African features”.[8] Anthony alludes to this form of racism in comparison to the ways slaveholders treated lighter-skin slaves better than darker-skin slaves. Independent films and platforms by socially conscious directors and producers challenge these jarring behaviors against Hollywood and Latino Media, such as Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS), but cannot fully replace educational institutions and practices that cloak the harsh conditions that reinforce existing social and economic hardships.

Blackface in Post-Racial Latino Media

Less known are the blackface performances that currently continue to devalue black bodies in Latin American and the Caribbean. Latino television continues this fervid racist practice through the use of blackface. All around the world, the racist tradition of blackface permeates in the 21st century usually without the acknowledgment that it as an unjust black devaluation. For example, the nightly show Esta Noche Tu Night hosted by Cuban Alexis Valdes exemplifies the racist intransigence that is introduced by the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean. Valdes show at times brings out characters in blackface that have posed as various personalities ranging from president Barack Obama to a South African soccer minister, which gave Esta Noche Tu Night high ratings by devaluing and stereotyping all types of black people. Another blackface recurring performance on Valdes’ show is of the Dominican Yeyo Vargas and the Haitian Torero Haitiano, which publicly satire and ridicule Haitian and Dominican relationships often painting the Haitian in darker hues than the Dominican blackface character.[9] Both characters are illiterate; act like buffoons, dance and speak negatively about black people, and are hardly understood when they speak.[10] This mimicry contributes to the discourse that Dominicans are quintessentially anti-black and second-class Latin@s, however, more human than Haitians as long as they look ridiculous for being a majority black country itself.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.41.14 PMYeyo Vargas ‘El Dominicano’ a blackface character on Esta Noche Tunight nightly show on MEGA TV
Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.43.51 PMEl Torero Haitiano, a blackface character on Esta Noche Tu Night 

Esta Noche Tu Night is based out of Miami, Florida—on U.S. ground. These blackface performances aired in the United States (Miami) create a US-Latin America-Caribbean transnational nexus of racism. Unlike the United States, nationalism in Latin America was and continues to be interwoven with racism and white supremacy. To attack racism in Latino communities is close to denying one’s national and cultural identity. This phenomenon of racial ideology is a way to explain and justify dominant races and stigmatize others.

The program is televised by Mega TV, which is owned by Spanish Broadcast System (SBS). SBS is the largest publicly traded Hispanic controlled media entertainment network in the United States broadcasted in the U.S, Puerto Rico and Direct TV-Dish Latino. In the their mission statement it declares:

Mega TV is an example of SBS long-term strategy, i.e., the ability to create and disseminate content across multiple platforms enabling us to maximize revenue and expand our brands. As always, we continue to maintain our leadership position in today’s (and tomorrow’s) US Hispanic market.[11]

Contrary to SBS and their mission statement David Leonard, Chair of the Washington State University published an article at the Huffington Post expressing his concern for the continuous indignation of blackface:

Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization of denied citizenship, and of efforts to justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarcerations whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its legal justification for violence. Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes…the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and century’s worth of injustice.[12]

In conversation with Leonard’s comments, one of the most important cases made against SBS was done in Puerto Rico in 2011, when LGBTQ activist Pedro Julio Serrano led a boycott against La Comay. La Comay was a stuffed life-sized puppet character played by Antulio “Kobbo” Santarrosa that was supposed to reflect a society matron who recounts rumors and gossip that people have told her along her co-host Héctor Travieso on the show SuperXclusivo. The boycott protested in front of the studios of WAPA TV, which housed the show, and complained about the show for many reasons, including making homophobic comments against the brutal murder of gay publicist, Jose Enrique Gomez, amongst other racist comments. The website Latino Rebels published the open letter sent to Mega TV, who also televised the show as part of SBS, on their Facebook page, which states:

Santarrosa has a long history of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist and bullying remarks during his show, which are no longer acceptable to the Puerto Rican community…Some highlights include calling black individuals “monkeys”, attacks against other Hispanic communities (like Dominicans and Mexicans) for being ‘illegals’, homophobic attacks using words like ‘pato’ and ‘maricón’ (i.e. “faggot”), etc.[13]

The Comay boycott is an example of how to challenge the saturation of racism in Latino Media and the interconnectedness between transnational cooperation in the Latino community to address problems of racism that exist in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2012, SuperXclusivo was cancelled and replaced by the show Lo Sé Todo, which also caused controversy after co-host Rocky “The Kid” made fun of a black person with monkey sounds in the background. The show’s competitor Dando Candela interviewed Afro-Puerto Rican lawyer Marcos Rivera, which stressed that racism in Puerto Rico is an issue and condemned the continuation of any racism in Puerto Rican media.[14]

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.45.26 PMBoycott La Comay ad aimed at WAPA TV in Puerto Rico. (2013).

Ironically, while many entertainers condemn racism, many continue to utilize blackface as a form of entertainment usually supported by the public. The discourse of Latinidad as one that is about racial harmony and mestizaje continues to be celebrated. Entertainers like Raymond Arrieta, a green-eyed white Puerto Rican, created a blackface character he called Pirulo el Colorao as a way to validate racial harmony and alleged “black consciousness”.[15] The newspaper Primera Hora, published an article titled “Pirulo El Colorao revive con mas sabor,” where it omitted any mention of race and black minstrelsy or how it could offend the black population. Nor did it mention that this character follows the historical wave of blackface in Puerto Rico that includes Diplo the most successful Puerto Rican blackface. Blackness in Puerto Rican media is severely ignored in a way that it requires white actors to represent black Puerto Ricans as pure entertainment. Black Puerto Ricans like Los Hermanos Ayala fall into the trap believing discourses of benevolent slavery, which continues to celebrate “exceptional” black culture that is supposed to differentiate national Puerto Rican whiteness from U.S Anglo-Saxon culture.[16]

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.47.02 PMPirulo el Colorao, a blackface character in El Show de Raymond Arrieta with the song ‘Pirulo el Colorao’ song in the background by Los Hermanos Ayala.

Many mainstream American audiences are unaware of blackface in Latino media and also do not see blackface as derogatory in Latino media even if aired in the United States because they see it as Latin@s making fun of themselves; halting any intervention from human or civil rights groups. As the civil rights victories of the 1960s dealt a blow to racial discrimination, American institutions started acknowledging their injustices, and white Americans—who held power in those institutions—began to lose their moral authority, which caused an end to televised blackfaces.[17] However, the Latino media continues to operate in a racist pre-civil right era in U.S soil that has only exploited Afro-Latin@s in the U.S, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Regrettably, color-blind racism under the guise of mestizaje in Latino culture justifies blackface and the lack of black visibility. Furthermore, this consolidates a national consensus, which highlights how blinded the population is in regards to the construction of whiteness and blackness. One can only imagine the controversy if a black actor performed in whiteface and the reaction of such comedic effect in many racially conscious minds. This not-so-subtle form of white supremacy often never goes cosigned as racist and classist because blackness consistently becomes culturally relegated to primitive folklore of the past.

Conclusion

The disparities of color-blind racism in Latino cultures are worrisome and deplorable. Our lack of sympathy for Afro-Latin@s in our own communities by supporting white-only novelas and shows that make fun of black bodies continues to alert us of the need to fight racism in Latino communities even if it seems unlikely to have an effect. Blackface in Latino media creates overt racism in an acceptable and fun way. False notions of mestizaje gives people the belief that it’s okay to laugh at a goofy, loud, and illiterate black Dominican because “we are a mix of everything.” Historically, Latin America was founded on notions and practices of color-blind racism while the United States was in-your-face racism. Currently, in Latin America, racism is being slowly tackled, while in the United States it has become more post-racial.

In our recent context, even though the George Zimmerman case and recent Haitian lynching in the Dominican Republic are not directly linked to racism in the Latino media it does further illustrate the expendability and dispossession of black bodies. The lack of visibility of black bodies in Latino media and the undignified degradation of using blackface in Latino media are also abominations that skyrocket ratings. The racial imaginaries of what Latin@ is (because of SBS) can be interpreted as a project of whiteness diluted through blackness. It makes the Latino community indifferent to black bodies.

According to Omaris Zamora’s article “Refashioning Blackness, Refashioning our Histories” the Census Bureau intends to designate Latino as a racial category by the year 2020, which will no longer give Afro-Latin@s and other minorities an opportunity to choose their respective race and instead erase them institutionally. Latino history will remain a straightjacket if we do not find the key of social and racial justice. If there is something that Victoria and Sophia Arzu and the Comay boycott has taught us, is that change is possible. The travesty of Latino color-blind racism has to stop and for that, we need Latin@s of all races to pitch in.

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William Garcia is an Afro-Nuyorican by way of Staten Island. He has a BA and a MA in History from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. His research interests are Afro-Latino history, hip-hop and reggaeton in the Caribbean and Puerto Rican transnational migration. He is currently an MA student in Curriculum and Teaching at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @webdubois2014

Bibliography

Arroyo, Jossianna,“Roots” or the Virtual Realities of Racial Imaginaries in Puerto Rico and the Diaspora, (2010), Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Berg Charles Ramirez, Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion and Resistance (Texas Film and Media study Series), (2002) University of Texas Press.

Cruz, Isabelo Zenón, Narciso Descubre Su Trasero: El Negro En la Cultura Puertorriqueña (1974) Editorial Furidi.

Davila Arlene, Rivero Yeidy M, Contemporary Latina/o Media: Production, Circulation, Politics (2014); NYU Press.

Davila Arlene, Latino Spin: Public Image And The Whitewashing of Race, (2008), NYU Press

Davila, Arlene, Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People (2012), University of California Press.

Fountain Anne, Jose Marti, The United States and Race, (2014) University Press of Florida

Godreau, Isar, Scripts of Blackness: Race, Cultural Nationalism, and U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico (2015), University of Illinois Press.

Rivero Yeidy M., Tuning Out Blackness: Race and Nation in the History of Puerto Rican Television (2005) Duke University Press.

Valdivia Angharad N, Latino/as in the Media (2010), Polity.

Vasconcelos Jose, The Cosmic Race/La Raza Cósmica (1997)Reprint, Johns Hopkins University Press,

Zamora Omaris, Refashioning Blackness, Refashioning our Histories, (2013) Portal Magazine.

Wise Tim, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, 2009, City Light Books/Open Media Series.

Notes

[1] Latino Rebels: The “White Hispanic” Label: Yes People, Racism is a Latino Thing Too (March 29, 2012) http://www.latinorebels.com/2012/03/29/the-white-hispanic-label-yes-people-racism-is-a-latino-thing-too/.

[2] Left of Black hosted by Marc Anthony Neil. Duke University (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYJUrBhHFEg

[3] Tim Wise, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, 2009, City Light Books/Open Media Series: pp. 10.

[4] Proyecto mas Color Facebook website: https://www.facebook.com/proyectomascolor

[5] Raul A. Reyes, Afrolatinos Seek Recognition, and Accurate Census Count, NBC News, (Septemebr 21, 2014). http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/hispanic-heritage-month/afro-latinos-seek-recognition-accurate-census-count-n207426

[6] Latino USA.com http://latinousa.org/2015/01/23/somos-afro-latino-2/

[7] What Am I? (Afrolatino) (2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji1fjeYNkCY

[8] John Anthony, Mujeres Invisibles: Afrolatinas & Hollywood, UPLIFTT, (February 8, 2015), http://www.upliftt.com/uncategorized/mujeres-invisibles-afro-latinas-hollywood/

[9] Esta Noche Tu Night, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ri1tUoh-eQ

[11] Spanish Broadcasting System Website: http://www.spanishbroadcasting.com/mission.html

[12] Jenee Desmond Harris, Don’t Get What’s Wrong with Blackface? Here’s why it’s so offensive. Vox.com (October 29, 2014) http://www.vox.com/2014/10/29/7089591/dont-get-whats-wrong-with-blackface-heres-why-its-so-offensive

[13] Latino Rebels, #La Comay is Back: An open Letter to SBS and @MegaTV Live, (January 24, 2013). Latino Rebel Website: http://www.latinorebels.com/2013/01/24/boicotlacomay-is-back-an-open-letter-to-sbs-and-megatvlive/

[14] Dando Candela, Reacciona contra Incidente en “Lo Sé Todo”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Zib3iH1Hzg

[15] Pirulo el Colorao, Pirulo el colorao https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTOiUjlHEaw

See also: http://www.primerahora.com/entretenimiento/farandula/nota/piruloelcoloraoreviveconmassabor-998101/.

[16] Isar Godreau, Scripts of Blackness: Race, Cultural Nationalism, and U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico (2015), University of Illinois Press, pp.: 231.

[17] Even though many White Americans continue to use blackface especially in Halloween and other celebrations and reject to acknowledge the practice as racist.

Comments

  1. I wouldn’t exactly say that Americans are post racial, while latinos are still struggling. I think Americans have had more racial conflicts because that is where the civil rights movement took place and people have learned from that. I do think that racism is still a problem in both Latin America and North America (actually in the world). I am offended by racism and I do not appreciate these misrepresentations in media and even in real life. The world is wrought with problems and racism is one of them. We should find ways of combating it. The most important thing to know is that appearance is not necessarily an indicator of character. It often times takes getting to know people to reach some conclusions about them, and even then, we could be wrong. When I mention this, I am not referring to race alone, but to overall appearance. Race is not even completely identifiable by appearance.

    I meant, for example, that a bum may look dumb, but he or she can be a genuis. He/she may even look like a bum, but may simply be disguised as one. Blondes are not all bimbos, The tallest men are not necessarily the best at basketball, etc.

    Even so, many people do judge and discriminate others by what appears to be their race, and it needs to stop. Whatever it is that people use to try to make others seem ‘inferior”, needs to be dutily questioned. Again, I’m not referring solely to race when I say this. I mean that many human beings exhibit a tendency to come up with crazy reasons/justifications why they are ‘better’ than the other. I also mean they may project these tendencies onto their very own; mother, father, sister, brother…

  2. Fcck this bullsh!t about wihetface has no racial history .white people don’t you get it? Think about black people’s logic: 1) Whiteface does not have a history of being offensive.2)Therefore, movies like white chicks will continue to be inoffensive until it has a long, ugly history. (In other words, wihetface will not be deemed offensive until blacks are in a position of dominance and whites are reduced to their rightful place at the bottom. This means whites do not deserve the same level of respect UNTIL they are the new slaves and the blacks dominate this country, which is what they think they are going to do.) So what should any average-IQ white person take away from that? Answer: WHITE PEOPLE do not deserve respect or the same level of treatment by blacks and others, until THEY ARE ON THE BOTTOM! So now ask yourself, the blacks in this country will never be satisfied until YOU, white man/woman are under the yoke of slavery or worse (need I mention the genocide against whites in Zimbabwe?) So when are you gonna stand up for yourselves? When it’s too late, and wihetface is finally considered offensive b/c your great grandchildren are enslaved? My suggestion: get licensed to carry concealed weapon and take the war to the streets the next time your minding your own biz and a black man wants to make you his victim, take his head off. It’s self-defense, and its within the law! Blacks can’t carry concealed weapons legally b/c most of them have a criminal record so if a black pulls a pistol out on you, he gets arrested for possession afcf and off to a lengthy prison term, and you get off scott-free! Possibly even put one of them out of commission permanently, if your aim is right. Well anyways, that’s what I’m doing. I’m taking it to the streets. My case was dismissed, judge ruled it was self-defense and the black guy is doing 10 years in prison for possession afcf with .45 bullet fragments in his chest. Life is good!

  3. Islander

    William Garcia I signed the petition asking Raymond Arrieta to stop doing his blackface charaters on TV. I agree, it is important. But I see a new generation of scholars and intelectuals coming back to the Island after pursuing their graduate studies in the USA trying to impose the views of African Americans of segregation and racism into the reality of racism in the locals and I find it worrysome. Eventhought we have shared the same history of colonialism and slavery we don’t have the segregation part. In my Islander perspective I see segregation as a collective mental illness we don’t share with the people of the USA and I don’t think that importing the segregation mentality to the Island will correct our racism problems. I think it will make them worst. Everybody in the Caribbean Island has a blue eyed relative and a dark skinned relative. I grew up (race) color blind. When I went to the USA I realized some of my relatives and friends from childhood were black and others white. Before going to the USA I never saw them that way…I only saw them as Puerto Ricans. People of the Island were never divided as white ricans or afro ricans. We were divided only by social class regardless as skin color. Skin color were always regarded as shades and we were always proud of being hybrid…moreno..mulato… jabao..violeta… cafe con leche…chocolate. .trigueNo…etc. Now the new generation of academics are dividing us in afro ricans and white ricans and instilling the segregation point of view that is not ours. That is dangerous. We need to correct our racial and class divisions with our own identity and reality instead of importing foreign ideas that will damage the beuty of being a Caribbean.

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