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COVER STORY : Casting the Spotlight on TV's Brownout : Critics say the networks are ignoring America's fastest-growing minority. Now a divided Latino community struggles to fight back.

March 05, 1995|Greg Braxton and Jan Breslauer | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer. Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

The bewilderment and anger over what he was--or rather, wasn't--watching on his tele vision screen was too much for Latino songwriter Lalo Guerrero. So he sat down and channeled his frustration into a song. He titled it "No Chicanos on TV."


\o7 I think that I shall never see

Any Chicanos on TV.

It seems as though we don't exist

And we're not ever even missed.

And yet we buy and buy their wares.

But no Chicanos anywhere.

There are Chicanos in real life,

Doctors, lawyers, husbands, wives.

But all they show us on TV

Are illegal aliens as they flee,

Or some poor cholo that they bust

Flat on his face, he's eating dust.\f7


Guerrero wrote the ditty in the 1980s. More than 14 years later, the song remains the same.

A study released last September by the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs concluded that Latinos accounted for only 1% of all speaking characters in prime-time entertainment programs during the 1992-1993 season, despite the fact that Latinos make up 10% of the U.S. population. The report noted, moreover, that the 1% figure was a decrease from the 3% that Latino characters represented in 1955 and that the images of Latinos were more negative than those of other cultures or minorities.

For many Latinos, that report was the final insult. On Jan. 12, a coalition of 45 national Latino organizations declared war on television. Complaining that the TV industry is rampant with institutional racism toward and ignorance about Latinos, the leaders said they would use their "$190 billion in purchasing power" to punish the major networks with actions ranging from viewer boycotts to angry demonstrations outside television stations if there wasn't immediate change.

ABC in particular was targeted by the coalition, which claimed that the network reneged on promises it made to Latino leaders to schedule a Latino-themed show this season and to put more Latinos on other programs.

An increasingly negative public image of Latinos--crystallized by the passage of Proposition 187, the get-tough-against-illegal-immigration initiative on last November's ballot--makes it more important than ever that there be positive Latino figures on television, coalition leaders said.

"The subconscious damage that the media has done is incredible," says Jose Luis Ruiz, executive director of the National Latino Communications Center, a nonprofit production company that provides Latino-themed programming to public-television stations. "It drives a wedge between us culturally, historically and socially. The media talks about our shortcomings, not our contributions. And if you continue to tell a child he or she is wrong and no good, they will grow up believing that."

Since the protest was announced, however, no storm has hit. Instead of demonstrations and a mass viewer tune-out, activists have only sent a letter to ABC affiliates. The letter, written by the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which is spearheading the campaign, warned of the impending boycott against the network and its advertisers, informed affiliate officials that they would be under "special scrutiny" by the coalition for any violations of the Federal Communications Commission's equal employment opportunity policies and urged them to lobby Capital Cities/ABC to follow through on the company's "commitment."

This unexpectedly slow start may be indicative of just how divided the Latino community is over what constitutes the best course of action to improve and increase Latino images on television.

On the one hand, many Latino performers and other industry insiders say the coalition's plan is long overdue.

"It's a shame that we have to go to this extreme, but I doubt that the television executives would listen to us any other way," said Michael DeLorenzo, who stars as a police detective in Fox's "New York Undercover." "The squeaky wheel gets the oil, and we have not squeaked."

Said Moctesuma Esparza, who has produced several feature films and television movies, including "Gettysburg" and "The Milagro Beanfield War": "The only surprise was that it took this long. It would have made economic sense for the executives at the networks to have anticipated something like this happening. But many times they have to get black eyes before they adjust to the economic realities."

Others, however, believe the situation is slowly but surely improving and worry that outside pressure now may do more harm than good.

"It's good when people protest, but sometimes they do what they do because they don't know how the industry works," says Nely Galan, whose Galan Entertainment has a development deal with Fox. "There are economic forces making it great to be Latino now. Latinos have become a vital force, spending more. That's the reason it's getting better, period, not because people are complaining."

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