Racist stereotypes in Spanish language/Latino/a media

Despite the existence of different racial and national ideologies throughout the Americas, the legacies of European and U.S. empire, colonialism and cultural dominance have naturalized whiteness and “blanqueamiento” as the coveted ideal. Consequently, most stereotypes of anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity have developed global and local manifestations across the Americas, that are also often reproduced in Hispanic and Latino/a media and advertising. For instance, in 2015 a popular Univision talk show host was fired after deriding the very popular First Lady Michelle Obama (by comparing her to a cast member of “Planet of the Apes”), launching yet another debate over the racist foundations of Hispanic television and media. For this was not the first time that the Spanish TV giant had gotten into trouble for trafficking in racist stereotypes.

For decades, newer and longstanding Latino/a media activists and organizations, such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Afro Latino Forum have outspokenly criticized Spanish-language media for their racist portrayals of Latino/as.  A repeated concern is this media’s whitewashing of Latino/as by promoting a White, light-skinned “Latin Look” in most representations, while entirely excluding Indo- and Afro-Latino/as. In this dominant light-skinned Latino/a world there is similarly no room for acknowledging Asian Latinos/as or Indo- and Afro-Latinos hailing from specific indigenous and ethnic groups (such as Garifuna, Mixtec and Mapuche). This has been so despite the fact that Indo- and Afro-Latino/a and racially mixed groups make up the majority of the U.S. Latino/a population and the larger percentage of the U.S. Latino/a population.

The disavowal and erasure of racial difference in Spanish TV is compounded by the Hispanic networks’ reliance on imported programming, especially on the popular Latin American telenovelas. Wrapped in ideologies of blanqueamiento, white actors/actresses predominate most of these productions.  Telenovelas are also well known to cast indigenous people primarily as servants or as comedic buffoons. This is one of the most interesting trends impacting the production and circulation of Hispanic ads for U.S. Latino/as: the disjunction that often exists between ads that are specifically produced to represent U.S Latino/as as a pan-ethnic identity in the U.S. and the large percentage of Latin American programming, especially Mexican products, that frame these productions.  In particular, unlike U.S. produced Hispanic/Latino/a ads, most of the imported TV content circulated in the Spanish language networks are produced with a nation-specific focus or with eyes to a larger Spanish-language Latin American transnational media market. In contrast, since its origins, the economic and cultural impetus behind the Hispanic marketing industry has revolved around the quest to develop original advertisements that would specifically address U.S. Latinos/as as a unique Pan-ethnic market.  In fact, the idea that Latin American imported ads are always less suitable for reaching U.S. Latino consumers has been a major driver for the development of the U.S. Hispanic and ethnic marketing industry.  This industry has long maintained that it is better suited at capturing the unique racial and identity sensibilities of U.S. Latinos/as as shaped by experiences of immigration, acculturation, and their everyday lives as ethnic and racial minorities than are imported Spanish language ads or ads developed for a “mainstream” market. 

 Unfortunately, Hispanic marketing’s ideal of representing Latino/as as a differentiated market has failed to generate diverse representations of U.S. Latino/as that evoke their diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and their experiences as U.S. racial minorities.  In the world of Hispanic television, white and light-skinned Latinos/as predominate most casting, while Afro-Latino/as and Indo-Latino/as are either invisible or cast in stereotypical ways. One trend is to cast Afro-Latinos in urban theme ads or else to cast well-known Afro-Latino/a musicians or personalities as their own; but seldom to represent any generic “Latino/a”.

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Indo-Latino/as in turn, are hardly ever cast in TV ads, except in public information ads.  In particular, non-White Latinos/as are regularly featured in ads for health care provider services, for lawyers specializing in job related accidents and for money transferring services.

Targeting primarily first-generation and working class Latino/a consumers these companies are more likely to feature diverse casting, a trend that, in turn, contributes to fixing racialized difference with lower class and first-generation Latino/a consumers. In other words, in the world of commercial ads, “aspirational” representations for “aspirational” goods, services and products from beverages, to makeup, to cars and electronics, remain tied to White and light-skinned Latino/a actors and actresses.

Racist stereotypes are especially evident in reality TV, one of the most popular genres in Spanish TV. In self-help talk shows, a common trend revolves around a White host (like the very blonde Laura Bozzo of Univision’s “Laura”) ruling over “unruly” guests (who are often working class, indigenous and Afro-Latino/as).

The guests, who are often disheveled, speak in vernacular and popular ways, sometimes in Spanglish, and are a stark contrast to the “civilized” impeccably dressed and well-spoken host. They are shown transgressing all types of social and putative “Latino/a” culturally specific morals (having extra-marital affairs or disrespecting elders, for instance), and, as a result, are the object of discipline and disgust both from the host and the audience.

Even more troubling, however, is the continued popularity of blackface in comedic sketches and advertisements. The use of blackface in Latin American popular culture has a long history embodied in comic book characters like Costa Rica’s Cocori and Mexico’s Memín Pinguín, which was even memorialized with a postal stamp by the Mexican government in 2005, raising criticisms about the use of this image among many U.S. observers.  Blackface characters have also been a common feature in comedies since the origins of commercial television, as well as in contemporary shows aired for the U.S. Latino market.  See, for instance, the Dominican blackface character Yeyo Valdes in Alexis Valdes’ “Esta Noche Tu Tonight.”   Analyzing blackface in Puerto Rican TV, Yeidy Rivero argues that these characters have historically helped to anchor Puerto Rican nationalism by marginalizing Blackness while disavowing that Puerto Ricans can be racist because unlike the U.S.—the reference for most local discussion on race and racism— Puerto Ricans love blackness and our blackface characters (Rivero 2005). Similar arguments are rehearsed around the use and circulation of blackface characters in Latin America and U.S. Latino/a television, with some criticizing their racist legacy in blackface minstrelsy and others defending them as innocent cultural or national treasures. Yet, these debates are always characterized by a resistance to engage with the global legacy of anti-black racism and with its local manifestations that feed these disparaging representations of blackness (Garcia 2015, Hernandez and Arroyo 2015).  As many scholars have noted, nationalism trumps most discussions of racism in Latin America, anchored in binary oppositions that always posit Latin America as racially harmonious in contrast to the U.S., positioned as the pinnacle of racism.

In sum, the challenges to changing the conversation on race and diversity in Spanish language TV are complex and seemingly insurmountable.  After all, racial hierarchies are entrenched not only in the realm of representations but also in the dominant national ideologies prioritizing whiteness that are at play throughout the Americas. Confronting them also demands transnational responses that tackle the production and circulation of Spanish language media across the Latino/Latin American media markets.  Still, voices of criticism are getting louder, specially among younger generations of Latino/a scholars, critics and activists who have had enough of the status quo and are demanding real change.  Some are knocking on the doors of the Spanish language media empire that continues to import talent and content rather than foster opportunities for U.S. Latino/as to produce more bicultural and bilingual representations.

After the Obama controversy in 2015, The National Association of Hispanic Journalists formed a task force to survey how race is portrayed in Spanish language media.  Younger generations of Latino/as, for their part, are turning to social media and to new media platforms confronting racism among Latinos/as and producing alternative and corrective representations and stories.

What is certain is that Spanish-language and Latino/a media and advertising will need to be more attuned to changing racial sensibilities if it is to remain relevant in the future.  Central to this task will be addressing the current “Latino media gap” that characterizes the U.S. media landscape.  This gap refers to the continued shrinking of Latinos/as’ involvement in mainstream media as producers, writers, and actors alongside their rising consumer growth (Negron, et al 2014). Latino/as’ shrinking roles both in front of and behind the cameras is especially at play in advertising, which remains an overwhelming White industry. In sum, it is obvious that Hispanic and ethnic marketing cannot work alone to address the misrepresentation and invisibility of diverse consumers in the production of advertising and media.  As the U.S. becomes a majority “minority” society, it is imperative that advertising becomes a truly diverse space where the goal of attaining more diverse and accurate representations is everyone’s concern.


Davila, Arlene

2011  Latinos Inc. Marketing and the Making of a People.  UC Press.

Garcia, William

2015 “Invisibilities of blackfaces in Post-Racial Latino Media.” UPLIFT

Hernandez-Reguant, Ariana and Jossiana Arroyo  http://www.upliftt.com/media/invisibilities-of-blackfaces-in-post-racial-latino-media/

2015, The BrownFace of Latinidad in Cuban Miami. In CubanCounterpoints, July 13., http://www.cubacounterpoints.com/features/the-brownface-of-latinidad-in-cuban-miami-by-ariana-hernandez-reguant-and-jossianna-arroyo/

Negron Muntaner, Frances,  Chelsea Abbas and Luis Figueroa, Samuel Robson

2014  The Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Mediahttp://www.columbia.edu/cu/cser/downloads/Latino_Media_Gap_Report.pdf

Rivero, Yeidy

2005  Tuning Out Blackness, Race and Nation in the History of Puerto Rican Television. Duke University Press.

Racist stereotypes in Spanish language/Latino/a media