Cisneros Post Not Necessarily Good News for Latino-Americans

Many Latino advocates are cheering outgoing HUD secretary Henry Cisneros' appointment to head up Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-speaking TV network, as one giant step forward for Latino America. La Opinion, Los Angeles' Spanish-language daily, called the appointment "great news" for Latinos. The Southwest Voter Research Institute issued a press release commending Univision and expressing the hope that his presence in such a visible post would improve the nation's understanding of its fast-growing Latino population. But Cisneros' move is more likely to narrow the public's perception of Latino-Americans than to broaden it.Cisneros not only reached higher rank in government than any Latino in U.S. history, he has also long been a promising symbol of the future of Latino-American identity. His marital difficulties notwithstanding, he has been the all-American son any Mexican-American mother would be proud to call her own. Tall, athletic, dark-skinned, bilingual and unapologetically Latino, his political ascendance made many Latinos feel they, too, were finally making headway into the American mainstream. Cisneros himself apparently sees his new public role as bridging the hyphen between Latino and American -- in a statement last week, he spoke of plans to position Univision towards the center of U.S. popular culture. But as important as the Spanish language has become in the United States, it will never be the nation's lingua franca. True, bilingualism has become the norm for Latinos in regions where they are well represented, but English is the language of an ascendant, and rapidly diversifying Latino-American culture. It is the language in which Mexican-American poets remember their childhoods, and Dominican American novelists describe their barrios. It is the language in which the children and grandchildren of immigrants, born in the United States, explore their Americanness.Los Angeles-based Univision, which is owned by a group of investors that include media barons from Mexico and Venezuela, views Latino-American culture as merely an extension of its Latin roots. For the most part, it offers American viewers recycled Latin American programs. This is why the network, and its lagging competitor Telemundo, have been under fire from Latino organizations for years as not responsive to U.S. Latinos. In trying to appeal to advertisers, Univision -- like all Spanish-language media -- tends to misrepresent the Latino population as linguistically unidimensional. But U.S. Latinos speak English to a greater extent than Univision's promotions would indicate: the network, which owns 18 stations in the U.S. as well as hundreds of cable outlets, likes to boast of reaching 92% of U.S. Latino households -- but the percentage of Latino households in which Spanish is spoken is nowhere near that high.In California, which has more immigrant Latinos than any other state, two thirds of adult Latinos say on census forms that they speak English "well or better." Nearly one-fifth speak only English, while only one-eighth speak no English at all. Their children are usually bilingual, but most often speak the language of Shakespeare better than that of Cervantes. Ironically, even as the surge in the popularity of Spanish language media has attracted investors to the "Latino market," it has stunted the growth of English-language Latino culture. Hollywood executives reject proposals from Latinos on the grounds that Spanish-language media cover all Latinos. Book publishers have been known to reject books about Latinos on the grounds that they don't speak English. Publishers of a new magazine for "Generation Mex" can't sell space because Hispanic-oriented ad agencies are set up to market to Spanish speakers only. Cisneros says he took the Univision post, in part, because it would let him continue to be a major player in U.S. Latino affairs. But instead of helping move Latino America into the mainstream, Cisneros' selection may symbolize a cultural step backward.Unlike most retiring cabinet members, who speak of wanting to spend more time with their families, Cisneros does admit he is leaving his government job because he wants to make more money. Whatever the symbolic implications of his new job may or may not be, that's about as an American a thing anybody could do.

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