Latino Empowerment through Public Broadcasting

Voices of Dissent: Life and Challenges of the Latino Community


Historically, coverage of Latinos and Latino-related issues in U.S. media has been sporadic with news stories focused on presenting immediate and often polarizing issues, rather than Latino communities’ contributions to American society. A 2017 report by media scholar Dr. Federico Subervi conveyed the results of a study on how national television news networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN) covered Latino subjects from 2008 to 2014. His findings echoed those of the Network Brownout Report, an earlier series of studies he co-authored from 1995 to 2005 that was commissioned by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) as a call to action for better and less stereotypical network coverage.130 Subervi’s and NAHJ’s research found that although Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority in the country, news stories about Latinos or featuring Latinos comprised less than one percent (.78%) of the network news. The percentage of stories with Latinos as the central focus was .41%, proving the persistent almost invisible status of this group despite its population growth. Most news stories were predominantly negative in tone, full of unfavorable stereotypes (e.g., the “uneducated Hispanic”), and almost always related to illegal immigration, poverty, or crime.131 Network news seldom featured issues of concern to Latinos themselves, such as affordable housing and political activism.

Radio and television news and other programming can subtly influence the level of importance viewers give to specific topics. For example, an emphasis on immigration can communicate to viewers that this issue is an urgent matter to be prioritized above others.132 The use of footage of Latinos crossing the border accompanied with words like “criminals” or “illegals” to describe them can be perceived as categorizing Latinos in general as lawbreakers and result in violent responses against them. Issues of importance to Latino communities, such as workers' rights, will recede if they lack the same exposure.

The perpetuation of negatives stereotypes fosters discrimination. Lisa M. Edwards and Andrea J. Romero, scholars in the field of discrimination of Mexican youth, define discrimination as “the daily hassles that occur because of the lower status of minority groups, including negative stereotypes or prejudiced comments, as well as negative actions towards individuals based on ethnic group membership.” Their findings highlight the negative effect of discrimination on the self-esteem of adolescents of Latin American heritage living in the U.S.133 Professor of Counseling Psychology Elena Flores and colleagues have reported on the higher rates of health risk behavior of Latino youth and their relationship with racial/ethnic discrimination. Overall, Latino youth have higher rates of long-term cocaine and alcohol use, as well as more reported incidents of physical fights.134 Discrimination based on ethnic stereotypes, even passing “jokes,” can make children feel devalued at school.135

The general absence of positive representation of Latinos and Latino-related issues in television news and programming inspired the Latino community and public broadcasting to create shows beginning in the early 1970s like Realidades and Images/Imágenes. These programs were intended to tell their side of the story and balance negative representations, as discussed in the “Latino Public Television History” section of this exhibit. In public broadcasting, Latino creators found a way to raise their voices and produce their own counter-stereotypical images. Still, the battle for the inclusion of Latinos and their contributions in the mainstream narrative has been long and tumultuous.

Stereotypes and “The Invisible Hispanic”

In 1971, A Federal Case, a National Educational Radio Network series about U.S. political topics, aired the episode “Chicanos and the Media” in which guests discussed typical stereotypes like the Mexican with a speech problem. In the program, Domingo Nick Reyes, the executive director of the National Mexican American Anti-Defamation Committee, stated that one of the problems that Latinos face is the persistence of negative stereotypes. He stated, "In terms of employment, in terms of housing, in terms of gaining a rightful part in the American mainstream, these stereotypes will continue to dog our footsteps." When asked if he was being overly sensitive to “good, clean, American fun,” he responded, “Children will grow up with a locked-down vision of what Spanish-speaking people are like.” Future policymakers and voters were being raised with negative images of Hispanics that could potentially affect their future decisions regarding this community.

In 1984, the southern California KOCE-TV series Jim Cooper’s Orange County aired an episode called “The Invisible Hispanic.” The episode presented another way to examine how Latinos perceived popular stereotypes and their effects on their lives. The show looked to erase negative stereotypes about Latinos by interviewing highly educated Hispanic professionals, the “invisible Hispanics,” about their thoughts on assimilation into American culture.

Language and Assimilation

A debate over bilingual education took place within communities, and public broadcasting transmitted it throughout the public sphere. Spanish-language public broadcasting programs have covered the changing education policies that have affected Latino children through news segments and cultural programming. Occasionally, mainstream public radio and television programs also provided forums for Latinos to voice their views on education policies and their effects on Latino communities. For instance, public radio and television opened discussion spaces to scrutinize the effectiveness and consequences of the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) of 1968.

BEA, alternatively known as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Amendments of 1967, encouraged funding for programs targeted at non-English speaking minorities.136 By granting funding for planning, developing, training, and operating bilingual programs, BEA responded to the two main needs of limited English proficient (LEP) students: to learn English quickly and to keep up their academic progress in other courses.137 At the time of its enactment, there was a general understanding that a child could take anywhere from three to five years to learn a second language fluently enough to perform at an academic level. Provisions in the BEA allowed students to continue their education in different subjects (history, science, geography, etc.) as they became proficient in English.138

Bilingual education was a highly contentious topic. The program inspired not only educational discussions but also stirred ferocious debates about multiculturalism, assimilation, and what it meant to be an American. There were several models and approaches to providing bilingual education, and each school district – and sometimes even each school – was free to choose the most appropriate approach for them.

Bilingual education, from En Camino: (KRCB, 1986).
 Bilingual education, from [*En Camino*]( (KRCB, 1986).

Spanish-language public radio and television covered bilingual education and its consequences for the Latino community quite extensively. En Camino, a 1980s public affairs program produced by KRCB in Rohnert Park, California, combined educational segments with live entertainment to keep the Latino community well-informed in a dynamic way. On November 13, 1986, En Camino presented an episode with a section on bilingual education that explained in Spanish the basic precepts of the legislation and aired interviews with Hispanic and non-Hispanic teachers and students who discussed what bilingual education meant to them presently and for the future. Elda Sparise, a student of Mexican parents, recalled her experience coming into the United States as a child with no knowledge of the language or culture: “Me sentía muy perdida. No solamente por la lengua, sino por la cultura. Fue horrible. No me gustaría que otros niños pasaran lo mismo que yo.” [I felt very lost. Not only because of the language, but because of the culture. It was horrible. I would not want other kids to go through the same things I did.] Jennifer Reynolds, the ex-president of the California Association for Bilingual Education, stated that bilingual education was not a “luxury.” It was a necessity in a linguistically diverse public-school system.

The En Camino episode went on to argue that the reason there were not many lawyers, doctors, or CEOs of Latino heritage was that youth grew up in a system that did not expect anything of them. One student commented on the attitudes towards Latino youth: “You’re looked down on. Like, you are expected to pick grapes and pears, and all that. They don’t-They don’t think of you as doing anything else.” His comments reflected the negative consequences of stereotypes and discrimination on the self-esteem of young Latinos and ultimately on the upward mobility of people with Latino heritage.

On September 25, 1995, the radio series Buenas Noches, produced by Radio KDNA in Granger, Washington, aired an episode dedicated to educating the public on bilingual education. Although Latinos produced both En Camino and Buenas Noches, the differences between them demonstrate a diversity of thought within the Latino community. While En Camino focused on the positive aspects of the program, Buenas Noches gave voice to the struggles of learning English. Although the hosts of Buenas Noches approved of the bilingual program, they expressed frustration at feeling pressured to give up their first language and learn English too quickly. One host questioned: “How do they want us, our people, to come and in six months learn English? If they haven’t learned [Spanish] after 200 years?” This remark expressed a vexation that is common when learning a new language and also referenced the more than 200-year history of Spanish-language speakers who lived throughout vast areas that became part of the United States following the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. To ensure linguistic control of the area, the U.S. had deferred statehood “until English-speaking settlers had sufficiently populated the new territories.”139

Learning a new language is a huge undertaking that goes beyond simple language acquisition. As Laurie Olsen, author of a report on immigrant students for the group California Tomorrow, stated in a Radio Bilingüe interview, “For the vast majority of immigrant kids, the leaping of cultures is a far greater problem that they’re facing than even the language issue.” Children often get bullied and harassed because of the language that they speak, Olsen pointed out.

The MacNeil/Lehrer Report approached the topic of bilingual education by focusing on the economic and sociopolitical consequences of the policy. On May 15, 1978, 10 years after the BEA legislation passed, Robert MacNeil began a program devoted to bilingual education by highlighted the existing civil tensions surrounding this topic: “One of the easiest ways to start an argument these days is to discuss what kind of education our children are getting.” Indeed, MacNeil’s introductory comment described the dynamics of the episode itself, one fierce argument on the theoretical, economic, and ethical merits of a program dedicated to a particular sector of the population. By that time, the government had spent $135 million to teach ¼ of a million students. Still, the debate was more centered on the argument that bilingual education was not successful than on its costs.

Hernan La Fontaine, from The MacNeil/Lehrer Report: (WNET and WETA, 1978).
Hernan La Fontaine, from [*The MacNeil/Lehrer Report*]( (WNET and WETA, 1978).

The goals of bilingual education were to teach English and help students progress academically in other classes. MacNeil and co-host Jim Lehrer interviewed three professionals with three different views on the subject: Dr. Howard Hurwitz, a former high school principal; Hernan La Fontaine, an official from the New York City Office of Bilingual Education; and Kay Jones, an educator from the University of New Mexico. While Jones expressed a neutral point of view, emphasizing that the bureaucratic aspect of the program needed to be reworked before the program could be effective, the two other guests voiced more polarizing opinions. Hurwitz fervently opposed bilingual education on the basis that it was ineffective and detrimental to children’s assimilation into American culture. He believed they would learn poor quality English in the bilingual programs that would lead to Spanish-accented English and discrimination. He stated that bilingual education was a political weapon forged by militant Puerto Rican and Chicano groups to gain political leverage. La Fontaine, the only Latino on the panel, approved of bilingual education, believing it to be a viable approach to reach students who, in the traditional system, had been barred from participation.

Hurwitz and La Fontaine both were proudly American and wanted minority students to have a good education, but they differed fundamentally on their definition of “assimilation” and American identity. For Hurwitz, assimilation meant full integration into mainstream society. Students could continue to learn Spanish as a foreign language, but their main objective should be to learn English and acquire the customs and norms of American culture. According to this “melting pot” standpoint that often has become synonymous with Americanism, English, although not officially the language of the nation, is the nation’s de facto primary language. Within the melting pot, English functions as the thread that connects all communities into one single unit, the American people. For La Fontaine, assimilation did not mean leaving behind the language and customs of one’s country of origin. Being American and Latino were not mutually exclusive. He believed that young Latino children could speak English and Spanish, and celebrate both North American and Latin American cultures.

La Fontaine gave voice to millions of Latinos who have faced questions about their identity. In Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, journalist and author Juan Gonzalez writes, “Since a people’s culture is inevitably expressed through its language, the growth of ‘foreign’ language use somehow implies the growth of alien cultures.”140 As Laurie Olson stated on Radio Bilingüe, “I feel that the debate over bilingual education has not been a pedagogical debate. It’s not been a debate about effective programs. It’s been a politicized debate about how, to what degree, people feel we can tolerate a multilingual, bilingual society as opposed to a monolingual society.”

Yes on 58 buttons, from PBS NewsHour: (NewsHour Productions, 2016).
Yes on 58 buttons, from [*PBS NewsHour*]( (NewsHour Productions, 2016).

The battleground of education has continued to be one of the most active places to discuss multiculturalism and the connection of language and assimilation. In June 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227 to eliminate bilingual education and make English the main language of instruction in all public schools in California. The proposition passed with 61% approval.141 The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer broadcast a report on February 1, 1999, on whether schools throughout the state were complying with the new law and its effects in five localities. The segment included interviews with parents, students, school superintendents, a teacher, and a principal, in addition to the sponsor of the proposition, to present a variety of views and experiences. On November 1, 2016, the PBS NewsHour covered the efforts of California activists to pass Proposition 58, a ballot initiative to repeal most of Proposition 227 and for public schools to allow the use of non-English languages. Six days later, the proposition passed with 74% of voters approving it.142

Housing Crisis

Language is the tool we use to socialize with others, assemble, and share commonalities. A person’s language skills can facilitate or obstruct their membership in an ethnic group. Discrimination due to linguistic characteristics, however, can affect access to affordable housing, job opportunities, and upward mobility in society. One of the main problems that Latinos have faced when looking for a place to live has been discrimination based on their nationality, culture, language, or socioeconomic status.

In the May 15, 1978, episode of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report discussed above, Dr. Howard Hurwitz referred to discrimination based on accent, something that many Latinos have experienced. He stated that if a person has limited or heavily accented English skills, “the mobility, which is the pride and resource of America, will be denied to them because wherever they go, their English will be so poor that they will suffer economically and, I think, socially.”

The type of linguistic discrimination that Hurwitz described has resulted in some instances in limiting for Latinos the affordable housing opportunities that otherwise would have been available to them. In 1999, Thomas Purnell, professor of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and two colleagues, conducted experiments whereby potential tenants contacted landlords by phone to ask about a property. The results indicated that “landlords discriminate against prospective tenants on the basis of the sound of their voice during telephone conversations.” The researchers pointed out that Latinos seemed to experience this form of linguistic discrimination more often than other minority groups.143 A similar 2014 study by economics scholars Andrew Hanson and Michael Santas tested discrimination against Hispanics in the U.S. housing market. In the study, two groups of Hispanics contacted landlords through email asking about a property. One group appeared to be assimilated into American society, while the other group seemed to be recent immigrants. While there were few differences between the treatment of whites and assimilated Hispanics, the group of recent immigrants received 6.89% less positive responses.144

Homeless family, from En Camino: Families without Homes: (KRCB, 1988).
Homeless family, from [*En Camino*: Families without Homes]( (KRCB, 1988).

On February 10, 1988, En Camino aired an episode titled “Families without Homes” that dealt with housing discrimination and its effects on the Latino community. The program was divided into two sections: a documentary on Latino families and their struggles to find affordable housing, and a panel discussing the housing crisis in Sonoma County, California. Members of the panel analyzed circumstances driving many Latino families to live in poor conditions or even on the streets, including lack of access to affordable housing, high rent, unemployment, low wages, steep medical expenses, and domestic violence. Among those most likely to be homeless or experiencing inadequate living conditions were single mothers, veterans, large families, and farmworkers.

En Camino used this opportunity to give members of the Latino community the chance to speak for themselves about an issue that deeply affected their lives. They interviewed many Latino families, each with their own set of circumstances, and aired the voices and lived experiences of those affected by the housing crisis. Those interviewed spoke out against the discrimination many of them felt when they tried to look for a permanent place to settle down. One such case was the story of the Martinez family, who spent four years looking for a permanent residence.

A member of the family described their ordeal: “Hay mucha discriminación, porque nada más…hasta ven a uno y lo ven de arriba a bajo y dicen ‘No. No hay nada.’ Estamos viendo que hay casas, pero no dicen ‘no hay’. Y si hay, nos dicen, necesitamos dos meses de renta y un mes de cleaning. Necesitas casi 2000 dólares para poder entrar a una vivienda.” [There is a lot of discrimination because they look at you up and down and say ‘No. There is nothing.’ We see that there are houses, but they say ‘No. There are no houses.’ If there are, they tell us that we need to pay two months of rent and one month of cleaning in advance. You need almost 2,000 dollars to even get into a property.] Their experience echoes the findings of professors Purnell and colleagues, and Hanson and Santas. The Martinez family’s applications were denied, even though there were houses available for rent. Their story was not uncommon.

In the En Camino program, Maria Rifo, a member of the religious group Caridades Católicas stated the following about Latino families and housing: “En Sonoma County las familias Latinas tienen muchos problemas. ¿Por qué? Porque son familias numerosas. Porque tienen una cierta reticencia, casi todos los dueños, de arrendarles.” [In Sonoma County, Latino families have a lot of problems. Why? Because they are large families. Because almost every landlord is reluctant to rent to them.] The program pointed out that a large number of the people living in the streets were immigrant farm-working families. Some of them without access to housing lived under bridges with their children. At the time, landlords denied housing to many Latino families because they were deemed to be too large.

In 1988, Images/Imágenes, an Emmy-Award winning program produced by New Jersey Network, aired a series of three episodes focused on the housing crisis and the Hispanic community. The first part reported on the problems Hispanics encountered when looking for housing: lack of adequate housing, displacement from urban areas, discrimination, and increase of rents. The second episode focused on state and federal government programs that could help Latinos overcome those problems. The final episode centered on community efforts to gain better housing, one of their achievements being the creation of the National Hispanic Housing Coalition.

Housing under construction, from Images/Imágenes: Hispanics and Housing III: (New Jersey Public Television, 1988).
Housing under construction, from [*Images/Imágenes*: Hispanics and Housing III]( (New Jersey Public Television, 1988).

In the first report, residents of a condemned city-owned tenement building in Newark were interviewed after surviving a fire in February 1979 that killed four children. City officials, they reported, had demanded that the family move out, but refused to help them find another place to live. The grandmother of the deceased children stated: “Ella [su familiar] y yo salíamos a buscar apartamento y cuando llegábamos, aunque los apartamentos estuvieran vacíos, nos preguntaban por los hijos y teníamos que decir la verdad. Entonces, no nos daban apartamentos porque teníamos muchos hijos.” [She and I would go out to look for apartments. We would find one, even if the apartments were empty, the landlord would ask us about children. We could not lie. We tried, but people did not want to rent to us because we had too many children.] The family continued to live in the shell of the building after the fire.145

Workers' Rights and Civil Rights Movements

Latino workers have been part of the U.S. economic landscape for decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2016, there were 26.8 million Latinos in the U.S. workforce, or 16.8% of the working population.146 By 2050, projections indicate that this figure will increase to 47.3 million or 24.3% of the total labor force.147 While Latino and Latina workers have significantly contributed to the economy and are vital to many industries—restaurants, grocery stores, child care, and as custodial staff—many workers have experienced discrimination in the workplace because of their nationality, language, or immigration status. Discrimination has been particularly prevalent in the agricultural and construction industries.

Through the years, public broadcasting offered the Latino community the chance to raise their voices and express grievances in a far-reaching forum. Public television news covered labor strikes and unionizing efforts of the 1960s. Spanish-language public radio and television discussed the underinsurance and lack of insurance of Latino workers in the 1980s. Both Spanish and English-language documentaries exposed the harsh living conditions for agricultural workers in different parts of the nation.

During World War II, the United States and Mexico established the Bracero Program to supply a steady flow of seasonal guest workers to meet the needs of growers and industry leaders in the U.S. Although braceros came to the country legally, they were exploited and mistreated because of their Mexican roots. (See “The Immigrant Experience through Public Broadcasting” section of this exhibit for more information about the Bracero Program.) Braceros suffered physical abuse, racial discrimination, the withholding of wages, and harsh living conditions.148 Los Braceros: Strong Arms to Aid the U.S.A., a 2006 episode from KVIE’s Viewfinder series, provides a general overview of the Bracero Program and its consequences.

The struggles of agricultural workers continued after the end of the Bracero Program in 1964. During the 1960s, migrant farmworkers lived in extreme poverty, some earning as low as $2 a day. It was not uncommon for children to work in the fields with their parents. The “Struggle in the Fields” segment of the acclaimed PBS documentary series Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement explored what it was like to labor in the fields in the 1960s. (See the “Latino Public Television History” section of this exhibit for more information about Chicano!)

The program underscored the lack of fair wages, the use of child labor, and the lack of sanitary working conditions that farmworkers experienced. Lionel Steinberg, a Coachella grower, admitted, “Farmworkers, unfortunately, were considered just another item in producing products, like fertilizers, boxes, and water.” He stated, “Most growers didn’t treat their workers with any degree of respect or dignity.” Ester Hernandez, a Mexican-American visual artist who used to work in the fields, expanded on the discriminatory view that people had of farmworkers: “We were seen as being ignorant, as being lazy, as being stupid, and as being dirty, and that’s why we were farmworkers, and that’s why we were poor.”

The “Struggle in the Fields” segment of Chicano! covered the United Farm Workers (UFW) strikes against grape growers near the town of Delano, California. Led by former farmworkers César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the strikers stood their ground for many years, contributing innovations to the act of protesting that led to “the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States.”149 Ester Hernandez recalled when her family told her that they had to stay and fight even if they starved to death because otherwise, change was an impossibility. The NET Journal documentary Huelga! (NET, 1968) provides a contemporaneous account of the strike. The Public Broadcast Laboratory documentary report “The Invisible Minority” (NET, 1969), chronicled farmworker and political efforts of Mexican Americans in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Denver. The Peabody Award-winning film A Thirst in the Garden (KERA-TV, 1976) documents the horrendous health conditions of Mexican American farmworkers in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, responsible for outbreaks of typhus, typhoid, polio, and leprosy – diseases virtually wiped out elsewhere in the U.S. – due to the lack of clean water available to some of America’s poorest people laboring in one of the most productive farming areas of the world.

Rio Grande irrigation canal polluted with sewage, from A Thirst in the Garden: (KERA, 1976).
Rio Grande irrigation canal polluted with sewage, from [*A Thirst in the Garden*]( (KERA, 1976).

Spanish-language public media covered the struggles of farmworkers. The Radio KDNA collection offers more than 100 programs broadcast to a farmworkers’ community in Washington State’s Yakima Valley from 1982 to 1998. In 1997, the Linea Abierta series produced by Radio Bilingüe aired an interview with Dolores Huerta regarding a UFW strike in support of strawberry workers. The strikers were asking for better sanitary conditions like clean water to drink and wash their hands with, restrooms, and the use of non-toxic pesticides. On June 2, 1987, En Camino aired an episode entitled “Working Conditions,” where they visited several vineyards in Sonoma County to investigate the inhumane working conditions that Latino farmworkers endured. They discovered that the workers had meager salaries for the long hours they labored doing backbreaking jobs. They did not have clean water or sanitary services. They were exposed to dangerous chemicals, denied basic health insurance, and fired from their jobs if they fell ill or injured. One woman described her wish for better treatment of these workers: “Me gustaría que al mexicano, al campesino, al latino, se le respete como ser humano. Es contra la humanidad las cosas que les pasan a los campesinos aquí en Sonoma.” [I would like for the Mexican, the farmworker, the Latino, to be respected as a human being. It is inhumane the things that happen to farmworkers here in Sonoma.]

On February 9, 1989, En Camino aired a documentary episode on the lack of insurance coverage for workers injured on the job. They emphasized that employers would take advantage of the fact that many of their workers did not speak English and would lie to them. Workers often would stop fighting for their rights because of the lack of resources in Spanish available to them.

English-language media also covered the hardships that farmworkers would go through to put food on the plates of the American people. In 2001, Oregon Public Broadcasting aired the episode “Agricultural Workers in Oregon” in The Oregon Story series. The episode highlighted the inequalities that were part of everyday life for Latino farmworkers, with historian Erasmo Gamboa commenting: “Unfortunately, the public understands the importance of the farmer, but not the farmworker. . . . They will put up with working conditions that the rest of us would not put up with. . . . They are the forgotten community within the larger farming sector. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.”

Agricultural workers’ home in Oregon, from The Oregon Story: Agricultural Workers: (Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2001).
Agricultural workers’ home in Oregon, from [(The Oregon Story*: Agricultural Workers]( (Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2001).

“Out of sight, out of mind” seemed to be an apt phrase to describe the treatment of Latino issues in much of the media. Through public broadcasting, the Latino community raised its voice to protect its native language and culture, defend Latino and American identity, argue for the right to education and affordable housing, and fight for fair working conditions. Such broadcasts inspired other Latinos and non-Latinos alike to pursue their piece of the American dream and actively participate in their communities. César Chávez’s rally cry “Si, se puede” [Yes, we can] became a call to action for all Americans, not just those of Latin American heritage, to keep striving in the face of all odds.

Next: Identity and Culture


Alexandra García

Intern, Library of Congress Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) National Internship Program

Gabriela Rivera

Intern, Library of Congress Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) National Internship Program