Like many other Americans I was inspired by the “We are One” concert in Washington, D.C. on the eve of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. The setting, with the Washington and Lincoln monuments as backdrop, was impressive in a down to earth sort of way that only our nation can be. It was an entertaining occasion as stars like Tom Hanks, Tiger Woods, and Denzel Washington enriched the evening with great American stories of past presidents as well as of everyday heroes. All those watching could feel their chests swell with pride in being part of this ambitious civic experiment called America
The most significant part of the evening, and rightfully so given the historic proportion of Obama’s election, was the overwhelming reign of African American culture throughout the concert. The soulful veil of R&B and gospel that imbued most of the evening’s musical performances affirmed something many already know, that African American culture has been one of the strongest defining elements in crafting the story of modern America.
Latinos have a tough yet inspirational act to follow as we write the next chapter of our history in this country. Our modest representation by three celebrities at the event (George Lopez, Shakira and Rosario Dawson) was a not so subtle reminder that despite now being the nation’s largest minority group, we’re still far behind in capturing the nation’s imagination. Why is that, and can we change this?
The African American experience is simply much older, deeper and compelling than our own. Latino history in America can in no way compare with the powerful chapters of slavery, abolition, segregation, and the civil rights movements. These historical milestones placed great tolls on the African American population, but also served as part of a much-needed process of atonement and correction that led to the creation of the modern American identity. As a result, the story of black America has become a gripping all-American story.
Another reason why the Latino experience has not had a power of persuasion similar to its African American equivalent lays in one of the strongest bonds a culture has to thrive, language. The African American narrative that helped redefine the American character was crafted in an American English accessible to an entire nation. Voices such as W.E.B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison and Martin Luther King Jr. both recounted the tale of black America and inspired the country to become a better version of itself. These retellings of hope and tribulations were further emboldened by the creation of unique American artistic standards including the blues and jazz, and continue today with the strong sway of rap and hip-hop.
Our American Latino cultural experience is still more of an experiment, and at the very core sits our Spanish language. Latinos, unlike African Americans due to the savageries of slavery, have been able to keep their original language to varying degrees. This has been made possible through generational traditions, continued migrations, and an evolving and more permissive cultural landscape. While this has made us rich in today’s global context, it has also made it more difficult for us to consistently craft an all-American story. And because of this, we still remain somewhat foreign to America.
So how do we make the contemporary Latino experience and story more meaningful to the rest of the country without forgetting the richness and value of the Spanish language?
It is precisely the contradiction this exercise espouses what makes us unique, allowing us to address both our country from the inside as well as to inspire our neighbors that are part of a more tightly knit global community.
But as the saying goes, we must start at home with the challenge of proving ourselves Americans to our fellow Americans. This is where our community must cast aside aspects of a more relaxed form of bilingualism and biculturalism where we timidly play in the mainstream and leave the power of true connection and story telling solely the Spanish language. The reasons for this behavior, besides the romantic beauty of the Spanish language, include the daunting feeling that the mainstream has already been crafted and all we can do is adapt to the existing stories. We must challenge this, starting with the degree of confidence that we apply to the exercise of crafting Latino stories in the mainstream. And this daunting task requires all the support we can get, and this is where we come in.
Our Hispanic advertising and media community can and should play a more critical role in supporting what Latinos have to say in English. We must put aside fears and notions that Spanish is the one and only authentic and viable way of expressing one’s culture. This mind-set worryingly conveyed in too many presentations talking about how Latinos almost exclusively prefer Spanish, short-sell the market and our community’s ability to shape America’s story. As a result, countless talented Latino voices that can make our cultural case to the mainstream have gone unnoticed. We need more voices like Junot Diaz, and perhaps just a little bit less imported telenovelas.
So Univision and Telemundo, please wake up and acknowledge this language reality and help foster a next generation of English and bilingual storytellers that will make us both more Latinos, and more Americans. Create more programming to mirror this significant part of the population, and they will one day repay us in the form of a richer representation of our perspectives in the American discourse.
By Roberto Ramos, President & CEO of The Vox Collective