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Media Forums for Latino Communities

Latino community media, much more than commercial outfits, have consistently committed their access to newsprint and the airwaves to addressing pressing issues that affect Latino populations in direct and indirect ways. The immigrant rights debate that peaked in 2006 is an excellent example of how local Latino community media defied the citizenship, ethnic, and racial hier- archization that exists within the broader cultural and political landscape. By participating in “La Gran Marcha de 2006” and instigating the participation of more mainstream Spanish-l anguage outlets, the movement provoked debates within the industry about the media’s role in fueling discussions about immigration in the public sphere. At that moment, there was a sense that Spanish- language media may be on the verge of going against “what’s normal” for commercial media and, in fact, returning to its roots of community activism.

The cultural politics of mass media became very important during the mobilization period, especially between 2006 and 2007, for its effects on both support for and opposition to the immigrant rights movement. In late 2005, the House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner had introduced H.R. 4437 (“Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act”), legislation that would virtually criminalize immigrants without documentation and restrict the asylum process. The bill galvanized pro- and anti-immigrant groups, and locally based Spanish-language radio and newspapers became especially vital to the ensuing debate. Not only did these media inform the public about the implications of the Sensenbrenner bill—which ultimately failed to pass in the Senate—but the community media relayed updates about the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) intensification of worker raids in factories suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants.19 For instance, Spanish-language radio, newspapers, and online outlets such as Radio Campesina, El Tecolote community paper, and Justice for Immigrants began sharing more information about immigrant rights, community resources, and worker sites that were raided by ICE. However, other outlets like the nationally syndicated Hoy daily in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York attempted to provide “objective” news and entertainment and thereby avoid the politics of immigration reform.

As debates over immigration policy become more vital than ever for Latino communities, Spanish-language and bilingual media—both mainstream and community-based—are increasingly confronted with an important question: what role will they take in shaping the discursive and visual landscape of what it means to be a Latina/o in the United States today? According to America Rodriguez, Latino news has historically created a symbolic system of representation in which Latinos are both denationalized from their country of origin and renationalized within the US context.20 Current debates over immigration, however, complicate this process, because to be Latino is to be suspect of cultural and political citizenship in ways that were not manifested in the past. The attempt to delegitimize President Barack Obama’s birth in Hawaii is one example of the contemporary US climate.

Community Latino media is at a crossroads as struggles over immigrant rights become increasingly complicated and ruthless. There is tension among media producers between the responsibility of outlets to serve their local communities and national audiences in culturally relevant and political ways, especially with their attempts to counter racist images and discourse while also satisfying advertisers so that they can sustain their outlets economically. In 2004, in a short essay online, Jamie Pehl, an Illinois middle school teacher, argued that the lack of critique by consumers and Latino media makers alike was causing “social and civic damage,” especially to non-Latino young people’s perceptions of Latinos and Mexicans.21 Thus it is critical to examine how Spanish-language and bilingual radio, newspapers, and, increasingly, online forums are mediating the cultural and political debates over immigration, the growing anti-Latino immigrant attitudes, and the politicization taking place within Latino communities.

It is important to note, however, the intense market pressures under which commercial Spanish-l anguage media operates. Since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the commercial Spanish-l anguage radio and print industries have experienced a good deal of consolidation and corporate concentration. Companies such as ImpreMedia are making the most of the synergy between their corporate holdings and repurposing media content across outlets. In addition, the growing concern over harsh immigration policies at the state level has transformed the issue into a programming staple on media outlets. At the community-based level, newspapers and radio shows are also covering the daily and legal challenges that immigrant audiences are encountering, not just the policies being produced on Capitol Hill or state capitols. One reporter I interviewed stated that her editors were still unclear as to why US-born Latinos cared about immigration—they are citizens, the editors reasoned, so there’s nothing for them to worry about. Despite corporate pressure to tone down the political calls for action by Latina media producers, many workers in both the Spanish-language and English-language media landscape are struggling daily with the “obnoxious nativist and racist views” about Latinos in the United States harbored by some of their colleagues, as the journalist I interviewed also noted.

Elena Shore observes that the Spanish-language media are not a unified front in their participation in social and political activism, especially with regards to immigration.22 Some in the industry consider such activism important since the mainstream English-language media does a poor job of representing the diverse voices of the Latina community. One editor stated, “On May 1 we are all immigrants. And with one united voice . . . we have the power to change our world for the advancement of all people.”23 Yet others claimed that such involvement damages Spanish-language media’s ability to maintain “objective” journalistic standards and achieve credibility with the advertising world. One radio producer argued, “As media we have no business promoting, either way. I think it’s out of line to do that.”24 Consequently, the cultural diversity that Spanish- language and bilingual outlets provide to the broader media landscape is acceptable as long as it does not disrupt the political and ethno-racial status quo. Yet as Shore and others have noted, newspapers, radio, and television for Latino audiences across the Americas have a history of promoting boycotts, mobilizing communities, and speaking out against perceived injustices. This tension over diversity, media activism, and social justice is one that reflects, as Yudice notes, a more critical issue: it is “an absorption of diversity into a conservative sphere, a necessity if the Republicans are to survive in an increasingly nonwhite world.”25 This means that the absorption of commercial Spanish-language media into the asset holdings of global media corporations minimizes the possibility that they will be used politically and operated more as marketing vehicles.

For this reason, as they come under greater economic and political pressures, Latino community media are increasingly sites of resistance that have the potential to foster social change through media justice. The rising backlash against Latino immigrants, the shifting US demographics, and the inequities that Latinos continue to experience are issues that make coverage by Latina/o community media even more critical, especially since they make visible communities who are voiceless and demonized in mainstream English-language media. Community newspapers such as El Sol Latino in western Massachusetts and La Raza in southern Texas, and local radio programs like Tertulia and Musica sin Fronteras offer content that challenge racist educational policies, provide information about community resources, and translate the legal facts of immigrant rights. In these outlets, community members participate in the production of content, and as a result provide a grassroots, on-the-ground examination of issues that affect local Latina/os. For example, community journalists have written articles about the impact of environmental injustice on local children’s health, the effects of ICE raids on local families, and the educational differences between neighborhoods. In addition to speaking to the Latino community, these media outlets are also reaching out to non-Latinos as audience members and media makers in hopes that the broader communities will come to a more nuanced understanding of what is at stake for everyone when one particular ethnic or racial group is consistently demonized and negatively targeted in mainstream English-language media. Allies across racial and ethnic lines are vital for social justice to be transformative. With that in mind, the next section describes efforts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to achieve such a transformation.

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