It’s considered a taboo issue. Yet the recent Univision scandal — the firing of TV show host Rodner Figueroa for comparing First Lady Michelle Obama to an ape — prompted a debate on race in the Latin American community, where for many it’s an issue not to be discussed, while others consider it a necessary conversation.
“We’re only talking about this because the comment was about the First Lady, but the truth is that it would be just as be wrong if it had referred to a co-worker, a waitress in a restaurant, or a nurse who cares for you in the hospital,” said Marlon Hill, a Jamaican-born attorney in Miami. “You must educate yourself and understand that when stupid things are said, other people may perceive them in a hurtful way, even though the intention was not to hurt.”
On a live segment of the show El Gordo y La Flaca, Figueroa was commenting on a video showing how a makeup artist transformed himself into various celebrities, among them the First Lady. Then Figueroa said, “Michelle Obama, you know, looks like she was part of the cast of the movie Planet of the Apes.”
The comment offended many viewers and led Univision to fire Figueroa and issue a news release condemning his remarks. Shortly after, the anchor wrote an open letter to the First Lady apologizing for his lack of judgment and saying that he did not mean to discriminate.
Some people were not surprised by the incident and saw it as a public eruption of a common practice, particularly in Latin American countries, where the perception of race is different than in the United States.
“In the United States, the idea of race is very black and white. The problem with that is that many Latinos are mixed race and the reality of race is much more complex in Latin American countries,” said Michelle González Maldonado, a professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Religious Studies. “That does not mean that there is no racism. There is. But it’s a type of hierarchy of color. I call it a pigmentocracy.”
In Latin America, the sentiments are manifested in popular but racist expressions when referring to people of African or indigenous origin. In some countries, curly hair is called “bad hair” and the word “Indian” is a synonym for “fool.” They also use phrases such as “to whiten” or “improve the race.”
González, who has researched race in Latin American countries and teaches about the relationship between race and religion, said that the hierarchy of races has existed since the Spanish colonization period.
“The Spaniards had some 20 or 25 categories to define races of the people they met,” González said. “This fluidity makes it also easier in Latin America to hide your race.”
For example, González, who was born and raised in Miami of Cuban parents, said she always identified herself as “white,” just like her family. It was not until her college years, when she studied at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., that she understood that in the United States, Hispanics are categorized as people of color or “brown.”
“I had to leave Miami to realize I was a person of color,” said González. “At the university ... I was told, ‘No, Hispanics are not white, they are people of color.’”
Unlike in other cities in the United States, the Latin American community in Miami has more economic and political power, which contributes to the perception that the social framework is different from the rest of the country’s, she said.
“There is a very complex story in this city when it comes to racism, and we have had moments of a lot of tension between the Latin community and African-Americans,” she said. “And if you ask the majority of Latinos and Latinas in Miami, they will identify themselves as white.”
This is partly the reason why the issues of race and racism are approached differently in Miami than in the rest of the country.
“This does not mean that a certain type of racism is better or worse, but there are different perceptions,” González said. “In this country there is fear to talk about this issue and people shield themselves behind the phrase, ‘I don’t look at color.’
“But my question is, Why not? Our skin, our body, our features are part of who we are. It is not a bad thing that they are seen. What’s important is how they are seen.”
Hill, who immigrated to Miami at age 14, said he discusses racial issues openly because it is something that directly affects his community, and it should be talked about more honestly.
“I still arrive at a place in Miami where a person is speaking in Spanish and they address me in English, because they assume I don’t speak Spanish because of the color of my skin,” said Hill, who covers these issues on his radio show D’Peoples Politics on WZAB 880 AM.
“To assume is dangerous, because you could, for example, deny someone a job opportunity due to the color of their skin, without taking the time to know their qualities. And there are black people in Miami who feel discriminated,” Hill said.
The Univision incident also sparked a debate about diversity in the Spanish-language media.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists applauded Univision’s decision to fire Figueroa, but at the same time the president of the organization questioned the lack of diversity in the media.
NAHJ president Mekahlo Medina said in a release posted online that Latino journalists “should not ignore the blatant racism that exists in our communities and in the newsrooms.”
Medina questioned: “How many Afro-Latino anchors are seen in Spanish-language newscasts?”
The organization said that it will analyze the issue at its next national conference and carry out a study of diversity in Hispanic media.
Though the Univision incident is a public example of a discriminatory behavior, Hill said it is not the only case. He said Figueroa should not be used as a scapegoat to face a problem affecting the entire community.
“Even now there is a guy who will say something negative about his niece’s boyfriend only because he is black, or a client saying something racist about the person serving them in a business, because it’s very common,” Hill said. “So we should use this as a teaching and learning opportunity.
“The difference is that people in the media have a bigger responsibility because their words impact public opinion. And if we have the power of facing a camera with a microphone, it’s better to use it to say something positive.”