THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


THE LATINO INVISIBLES, UNTOUCHABLES

by by Daniela Postigo

While most entertainment blogs were abuzz with speculations on Chris Brown and Rihanna's whereabouts at the 2009 Grammy Awards, LA Times arts commentator Reed Johnson was asking, "Where were the Latino musicians?" America's community of Latino and Latin American music producers, promoters and record label owners have long accepted their awards off-air, on the untelevised portion of the show, and many Latino artists don't opt to even attend this off-air ceremony. This month's televised portion, though, made critics take note that not one Latino musician was among the presenters. On Johnson's blog, commenters assert "the Latin Grammys are nothing but pure 'ghettoizing of Latin music culture' by not letting Latinos compete in the 'real' Grammys." The Latin Grammys, a cultural event deeply rooted in discrimination and Latino-on-Latino infighting, takes part in a broader trend of troubling recent developments Latino-targeted entertainment and consumption.

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The National Academy of Recordings Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which produces the Grammys, released the following a statement from President and CEO Neil Portnow: "Since the Latin Grammys has been around the last 10 years, there have been more Latinos on the telecast in the last 10 years as opposed to the 40 before that." But Portnow's statement obscures the question of Latino presence in the mainstream Grammy awards by shifting the focus to the Latin Grammys.
Supermarket fragmentation
Discrimination starts within the Latin Grammys itself. The Latin Grammys are forced to encapsulate two opposing discourses of Latino identity in the US, of unity and of difference. J.Lo croons "music will always unite us," but the myth of unity among Latinos in the US is sorely mistaken if not sometimes ideologically offensive. Their disunity is apparent in the suppression of cultural and regional authenticity in favor of the hegemony of Ricky Martin, whom UCLA ethnomusicologist Steve Loza has called "racist" and "classist." In non-musical contexts, Latino identity is ruptured when they take political sides, which complicates the coming together for the sit-down Kumbaya pipe-dream J.Lo has in mind.
The largest independent Latin music label in the US, Fonovisa, publicly protested the Latin Grammys in 2000. In an interview with the Spanish-language LA daily La Opinion, the label's general manager, Gilberto Moreno, alleged that the Latin Grammys held a bias against Mexican regional artists. Mexican regional genres like ranchera, banda, and norteño make up around 60 percent of sales in the US Latin music market, only five out of 200 nominees in the 40 Latin Grammy categories represented Mexican musical styles. The Latin Grammys, which Moreno called a party between Emilio Estefan and Sony, encourages shiny pop artists like Ricky Martin, who have been prepped for the American palate. Meanwhile, Mexican regional genres are overlooked as quaint, corny, and associated with working-class Mexican immigrants. Fonovisa boycotted the 2000 Latin Grammys, and when Fonovisa artists struck three Grammy wins, all the awards were refused.
In 2001, the Cuban American National Foundation led vehement opposition to the Latin Grammys (in Miami that year) on the basis that the event recognized and even awarded groups and individuals who had not renounced Castro. The show was allowed to go on after months of diligent poetic waxing about unity on the radio airwaves and a blessing by golden boy Mayor of Miami-Dade County Alex Penelas, who kind of makes the Hispanic mamis say yeah (he was "America's Sexiest Politician" in 1999 according to People Magazine). However, the Cuban exile group, Presidio Politico Cuban, representing 39 exile organizations, held a press conference to announce its standing opposition to the Latin Grammys, as did Miami mayor Joe Carollo.
The Latin Grammys is only one example of what is becoming a widespread compartmentalization of Latino culture as Hispanic populations rise in the US. Entertainment fare like the Latin Grammys is largely the social realization of the Latino presence in the US, represented culturally. All over America, radio channels are devoted to the dizzying number of genres in Latino music: pop, rap, hip-hop, reggaeton, boleros, ranchera, marichachi. The same year the Latin Grammys launched, HBO put out its Spanish-language premium cable network, HBO Latino, to mention only one example of growing Latino-interest television programming.
Go back to your supermarkets
The specialized programming of the Latin Grammys, HBO Latino, and special-interest radio channels promotes a type of fragmentation. The need to create these alternative types of programming presses the question of Latino visibility in the entertainment business that Reed Johnson first posed of equal representation in the mainstream. Latino visibility is currently restricted to a lone token character on a TV show, an average of one Spanish language radio station per media market, the Goya brand products tucked away in a corner of the supermarket.What happens when the practices of the entertainment industry are applied to grocery shopping?
In Georgia, where Hispanic economic clout has grown by 1,037 percent since 1990, the supermarket chain Publix unveiled a fully Latino-friendly franchise this month in Norcross, GA, zeroing in on its sizable Mexican population. Sombreros and piñatas on sale abound, with Jarritos soda stocked next to the Coke cans and mariachis welcoming patrons at the door. Fresh conchas, flan, and paneton are available every day.
Delicious, but these specially catered opportunities for Latino consumption just masquerade under the goodwill of an 'American melting pot.' Like the Latin Grammys or HBO Latino, these supermarkets are a product with specifically Latinos in mind. With the sudden burst of growth in Hispanics inhabitants of the US, American culture is increasingly pressed to acknowledge the influx. And as Hispanics climb the socioeconomic ladder and market analyses document the rise in Hispanic purchasing power, businesses are salivating and piling on the guacamole. The Norcross Publix is accompanied by other recent Latino-targeted business ventures across America. Recently in Texas, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce funded a billboard at two locations along I-35 stating, "Tap Into Austinw's $8 Billion Hispanic Market," and all across the country, businessmen are taking note. In Arizona, developers are funding the $25 million Mesa Ranch Plaza shopping center in the city of Mesa. Construction will be completed by the end of the month.
A customer reacting to the Norcross supermarket said "I find it to be insulting to Hispanics and divisive to the community," but added, "I will not support any business that is trying to elevate Spanish to a level equal with English," as if the US had an official language (it doesn't). One could venture to perceive the ethnic intolerance of this customer and her rejection of equal rights for cultural others under the guise of "language."
The specification of public places like the supermarket, so suggestively adorned in the accoutrements of Latino culture, is taking the compartmentalization of American's disparate cultures too far. Industries keep up this tendency to coordinate Latino presence out of entertainment, sending them to the back of the figurative Grammy bus. In a way, the perpetuation of Latino-targeted consumption like the Latin Grammys, HBO Latino, and the Norcross supermarket parallel earlier practices of segregation in American history. Channels like HBO Latino market themselves sympathetically, offering a 'niche' as refuge from an American culture that does not allow equal participation. HBO Latino and the Latin Grammys are sold and celebrated as evidence of our inclusion of Hispanic populations in the American traditions of star-studded award ceremonies and high production values. But more than anything they're an exclusion, a relegation to another grocery store, the other channel, the other Grammy awards. This kind of segregation of Latinos continues and is even lauded under the banner of industry target demographics and 'special interest.' With Hispanics assigned to their specific, pre-approved media districts--cultural playpens where they can play their merengue as loud as they want, --they lose reason to demand representation in the mainstream, as equals.

DANIELA POSTIGO B'10 has lived La Vida Loca.