Two years after I began my career at what is now CSU-Pueblo I was invited to become a member of a Hispanic Advisory Committee for the Children Television Workshop (CTW) that offered the famous Sesame Street program for children. This very popular program was conceived by producer Joan Ganz Cooney and an executive of the Carnegie Corporation in 1966 and began offering programming in the fall of 1969.
CTW wanted to develop bilingual programming and the committee went to San Antonio, to assess some initial taping in the area. There was a scene where Big Bird put on a Mexican hat, played a guitar and sang part of what appeared to be the song Cielito Lindo.
The reaction from members of the national committee was predictable in light of the stereotypical and somewhat racist images. Given that the Chicano Movement was very much part of social and political life of the time, the voices heard around the table could only be drowned out by cutting the meeting short.
When I got back to Pueblo, I found myself reflecting on these images, the stories my father told me particularly about the Texas Ranger repeated lynchings and killing in South Texas during the 1910-1920 period, my own recollection of No Mexican and Spanish Allowed signs during our family’s migrant travels and the quiet acceptance by our group of the segregation rules of the time.
We were, and in a sense, are a very conservative family that believed during that time that it was God’s will that we were second-class citizens. We also “knew” that the stoic suffering of our class found favor in God who one day would reward us in heaven.
The stereotype that made me the most angry during my reflection was an image still current at the time of a fat lazy Mexican with a sombrero and a serape sleeping under a giant cactus. It still grinds on me that the hardest working people that I have ever known could be depicted in that fashion.
The Chicano Movement did a lot to fight the underlying lack of social and economic equality as its activists were willing to challenge authorities to gain what was rightfully theirs. In the process, the image of the lazy Mexican has been largely erased.
There are new stereotypes about Latinos coming on the scene. These images however, are produced by fear rather than the arrogance that describes previous uses of social and legal standards to keep a people down.
The images that tie Latino immigrants to rapists, criminals and even animals is a poor attempt to disguise, especially the Boomers’ fear that they are less and less the reigning majority that has dominated the country’s social, political and economic life during the last 50 years. The current attempt to take advantage of this fear by mounting a new set of stereotypes on the back of Latinos will not hold because this community has achieved its own sense of power and mainstream authority that will not allow words and stereotypical images that can lead to marginalization.
The Latino community has come a long way from its initial loss to conquest, lack of voice and acceptance of the stereotypes and practices that made them strangers in their own land. The fact that they are a major subject in the current presidential campaigns is a long way from the forgotten minority that characterized its 19th and 20th Century plight.
Stereotypes about Latinos are not dead. However, they no longer work as intended.