By SANDRA D. RODRÌGUEZ COTTO
What Univision anchor Rodner Figueroa said about First Lady Michelle Obama was not a surprise — it is, in fact, the norm on Hispanic television. His comments comparing Mrs. Obama to an ape are a reflection of the reality, the dark side that, even in this day and age, still dominates Hispanic television, which is deeply racist and discriminatory.
By simply turning on Univision or Telemundo networks, it is evident that Blacks are scarce. For the networks, it seems that being Black is a sin, simply because Hispanic television reflects the typical racial prejudices of those who have power in the Latin American countries they represent. The networks reproduce racial hierarchies that exist in Latin America.
That is why in order to be on Hispanic television, people must be blonde, white-skinned, preferably with blue or green eyes, thin and tall and with straight hair. A little of black hair color is allowed, but all the better if it is dyed to blonde. They might allow some people with brown complexion, but the rest are outcasts.
Those with indigenous features, or with darker or black skin, are relegated to become “tokens,” as the few reporters, and fewer anchors in news, have to become sensationalist objects in the news or even play the stereotypical roles of servants, thieves, prostitutes, witches, handicapped or impoverished people in telenovelas. The new Fusion Network – the Miami-based venture launched to target millennials – is the just latest example of how racism is alive and kicking on Hispanic TV.
This week’s controversy erupted because Figueroa, 42, said the First Lady of the United States looks like someone from the cast of “Planet of the Apes.” Figueroa, who’s known for his biting fashion commentary, made his remarks during a live segment of the entertainment new show “El Gordo y la Flaca,” in which the hosts were commenting on a viral video that shows a makeup artist transforming himself into different celebrities, including Michelle Obama.
“Well, watch out, you know that Michelle Obama looks like she’s from the cast of ‘Planet of the Apes,’ the movie,” Figueroa said with a giggle. When hostess Lili Estefan countered with “what are you saying?” and host Raul de Molina said Obama was very attractive, Figueroa defended his remark, saying “but it is true.”
In a statement, Univision called Figueroa’s comments “completely reprehensible” and said they “in no way reflect the values or opinions of Univision.” Figueroa, who in 2014 won a Daytime Emmy Award, had worked for Univision for 17 years and had been on “El Gordo y la Flaca” since 2000. Yet it wasn’t his first bit of controversy. Previously he faced criticism from Puerto Rican and Dominican audiences in the past for similar comments.
Univision acted quickly because the network is working closely with Obama and the White House on several projects, but also because the last thing it wants to face are the implications of extended negative media coverage on its already battered finances. The network has been consolidating its operations and laid off hundreds of employees last year prior to going to the market in an IPO. Still, Univision is the largest Spanish language broadcaster in the U.S., and the fifth-largest television network, reaching an estimated audience of more than 94 million households in the United States.
Yet, the underrepresentation of blacks and Afro-Latinos throughout the network’s history is evident.
In 2014 a formal petition was made to Univision and Telemundo networks for the inclusion of Latino actors that are brown, dark and black skinned to face the deficiency. The petition was part of the “Proyecto Mas Color” (More Color Project), a campaign launched by Honduran sisters and actors, Victoria and Sophia Arzu, who were tired of the lack of black actors in telenovelas. None of the networks responded to their petitions.
The only way to demand better representation of dark and brown Afro-Latino actors and stakeholders is through the audience that has, so far, been very passive. Therefore, according to the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), the public is to blame for this practice.
The lack of representation dates even to the early days of the movie industry, when Black Hispanic actors were given roles and they were usually cast as African-Americans. That practice remains to this day. For example, Juano Hernandez, who was the first Afro-Latino to become a major star in the U.S. and one of the first Black screen actors, was hardly recognized as a Hispanic or Puerto Rican. Today, actresses like Zoe Saldaña or Rosario Dawson have not become famous for being cast in Latina roles, but they have brought awareness and pride in their African racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Still there is a need for more representation. Black Hispanics account for 2.5 percent of the entire 54 million Hispanics in the United States, according to the 2010 census. Most Black Hispanics come from the Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican populations and other large numbers can be found in people originating from the Caribbean coast of Central and South America. Yet scholars and political organizations are saying those numbers are not accurate and have already complained and signed petitions to push for a new racial category of Afro-Latinos to be added to the 2020 Census.
The lack of accuracy in the numbers is proved simply by looking at the history and the migration patterns of Hispanics. The wide racial diversity of the populations of Latin America is the same as that of its immigrants. In “Black in Latin America,” Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates said: “There were 11.2 million Africans that we can count who survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World, and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States. That’s amazing. All the rest went south of Miami as it were.”
Despite the large numbers in the population, Afro-Latinos — Blacks in general — are still ignored and misrepresented by Hispanic media.
This time the comments turned into a controversy only because it was aimed at Obama. But in the past, derogatory comments and blatant racism has prevailed, much to the complicit silence of advertisers. Much of the ads broadcast in the networks showcase unrealistic images of Hispanics that tend to look more like Europeans than those of the ample Latin American cultural diversity descent. Perhaps that is why each day the younger Latino audiences keep moving away from Univision and Telemundo to mainstream media.
As for Rodner Figueroa’s future, it remains to be seen. There will continue be more people like him unless a profound change is made. He is only an example of a cultural environment that promotes racism. The masquerade remains.
Sandra D. Rodríguez Cotto is a communications strategist and journalist. She is President and Founder of Joy PR, Inc., and Researcher/Investigative Unit Manager for Wapa-TV’s “Ahí está la verdad” in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Sheblogs regularly about media in Puerto Rico, Latin America and the Hispanic US.