When does one dead Hollywood actor trump another? When does one fierce dead organizer against social injustices trump another? In fact, when does a dead chimp responsible for a hideous attack catapult himself above the life of a dead Mexican anthropologist with over 150 books and articles filled with archaeological and cultural studies about Mayan civilization? For the New York Times, the answer seems to be whenever the second option is a Latino.
Travis the chimp was one of the few fortunate deceased to get star billing in the New York Times 2009 annual issue devoted to the passing of important people. Travis, you may remember, was the Connecticut chimpanzee, raised by a woman in Stamford, who was killed after he mauled the face off of his caretaker’s friend. This annual Times compilation included twenty-three essays on this year’s deceased. Like in most years, not one single Latino made it onto this lamentable list of the departed famous and not so famous.
Many Latinos died this year, arguably many of them having led interesting and notable lives. They were not interesting enough for the New York Times. This newspaper highlighted the death of Karl Malden but not Ricardo Montalban. The latter was the debonair Mexican movie and television star best known for his roles on the Star Trek series and his commercials for promoting the “soft, Corinthian leather” in Chrysler Motors car seats.
The Times also wrote about the death of Crystal Lee Sutton, a fierce labor organizer in the South. But it ignored the death of Esther Chavez, a Mexican accountant who was one of the first to discover a pattern of murders in the 1990s against Mexican women working in U.S.-owned factories in border cities. Chavez helped to draw public attention and government prosecution against men who kidnapped young Mexican women off the streets, raped and killed them with impunity. Her advocacy led the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to rule that Mexico had violated the human rights of women.
The Times also wrote about Robert Rines, an MIT scientist who spent most of his life pursuing evidence to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. It ignored Dennis deLeon, a former New York City human rights commissioner, who created the foremost advocacy group against AIDS. A Mexican American, deLeon created the Latino Commission on AIDS in 1994 and made it into a very effective tool against the spread of AIDS in the Latino community.
Why should we care that the Times ignored so many of Latinos in death? Some say it is because this slight is one more example of the invisibility Latinos experience in life in the U.S. Death, apparently, does cannot redeem the living. Some Latinos, like Montalvan, did get obituaries in the Times’ daily paper at the time of their death. These annual compilations are done for many, often valid, editorial reasons.
Some of the people the Times choose to celebrate led unusual lives, enough to have books or movies done about them. The Times also specifically selected each author to write these obit articles. Some were Times writers while others came from outside the paper. Who they chose to write about sprung from their individual “passions, quirks and curiosities” as writers and editors. The Times, in that sense, did not attempt to provide a comprehensive listing. All of this, however, simply underscores an even more troubling reality for Latinos. It’s one thing to be invisible, to not be seen. It is quite another to be in plain sight and yet not spark much interest or curiosity from others.
Public recognition of the dead provides a rough indication of the difference that person made in life, how much they were able to change the way other people thought, behaved, or felt. Rines, the scientist who spent a large part of his life chasing the Loch Ness monster never found her, at least conclusively. He inspired others by his failed quixotic efforts, however. He pushed the limits of how much we know and how much faith is warranted in the myth of her existence.
Omitting Latinos from this kind of recognition carries a message – that Latino lives do not really matter and did not have an impact. Is this a legitimate conclusion? The Times also omitted any recognition of Canadians, Jamaicans, Muslims, and many others. But they did include two African Americans, Naomi Sims the model, and Reverend Ike, the irrepressible minister who built a church based on greed and hope. They also included a Trinidadian, the chili restaurant owner Ben Ali. Are these choices the product of simple editorial decisions, the play of curiosity, or pure whimsy? Are these news sources simply responding to audiences whom have little interest in Latinos?
Latinos, obviously, did make a difference in this world before they passed on. We don’t need the Times to tell us so. But do we need the Times to tell others? How much do other Americans know about Latinos, the “fastest growing minority group” in the country? The Times treatment of Latino deaths is symptomatic of a wider neglect of Latinos in the media. Most mainstream newspapers and magazines also systematically ignored Latino accomplishments in their end of year appraisals.
The Chicago Tribune list of notable deaths in 2009 listed two Latinos out of 104 recognized dead. This included Mercedes Sosa, the Grammy Award winning and Argentinean singer, and Alex Arguello, the Nicaraguan boxer. If we wanted to be generous, we could give them a third in Gidget, the Taco Bell dog featured in their commercials. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, listed about 120 notable deaths and only 3 Latinos. This included Arguello, Montalban, and Ismael Valenzuela, the Mexican horse jockey. One last example is the Baltimore Sun. It listed only Montalban, Rafael Antonio Caldera, the two-time Venezuelan president, as well as the baseball manager Preston Gomez among the 134 notable deaths in 2009.
The wide reach of this neglect is probably driven by the current media structure. Most newspapers in the U.S. are part of a handful of media monopolies that share the same sources of information or rely on syndicated sources like the Associated Press. In this vein, the AP listed only Montalban among the 91 notable deaths it chose to feature in 2009. Five or six media conglomerates control the majority of newspapers in the United States. Editorial decisions, thus, tend to accumulate and spread with this kind of centralization. Most of the end-of-year reviews of the deceased were simply replicated by each newspaper in the chain. Recent research simply confirms this disturbing reality.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Hispanic Center reported recently that, in one six-month sample period, only “2.9% of the news content studied contained substantial references to Hispanics.” Most of that coverage was focused on the nomination of Sonio Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Otherwise, the media attention focused on Latinos only in the context of discussing issues like immigration and the recession. Clearly, a population that is now almost 16 percent of the population deserves more widespread and direct media attention focused on Latino lives and accomplishments.
The complaint here is not just about recognition and publicity. It is, to a great extent, also about power. Nothing happens simply because any one group or person has taken action. The world does not function so linearly. The success of health care reform or the results of the 2008 elections have many contributors. A group that is either not seen or that draws little interest will find its contributions minimized or dismissed. But this is about power in an even more important way.
I believe that any success at influencing or changing how others think, behave, or feel depends directly on our ability to offer something that others value. Those who attribute power to objects like money or weapons can’t easily explain why these things sometimes fail to deliver power. The rich don’t always get what they want and, historically, much poorer-equipped opponents have often defeated the largest and best-equipped armies. Vietnam for the U.S. and Afghanistan for the U.S.S.R. are the best examples of the latter. The “War Against Terrorism” may, eventually, prove to be another.
Power is a transaction, an exchange between parties in which each side has input. This is true no matter the situation. A mugger can get me to turn over my valuables only because my health and life mean so much more to me than my watch and money. The key here is that the threat of assault gets victims to move only because I, like the vast majority of us, fear getting hurt or killed. When that is not the case, when I am reckless or suicidal for instance, the mugger’s threat often falls flat. The mugger’s attempt to extract valuables from me then gets stalled, jeopardized, and, possibly, defeated. I may get killed but the mugger will have failed to influence my behavior.
I cannot teach my students, change the way they think, unless they want knowledge or grades or something else from me. I cannot influence how an elected official decides policy issues unless I can provide the votes, money, or information that they need. The ability to influence becomes extremely difficult, however, if the others around me do not see me or have no interest in me when they do. The exclusion of Latinos from the list of notable deaths reflects a community whose life remains lived apart from the main cultural, economic, and political currents of this society.
Latinos lag behind other groups in voting rates, average age, high school graduation, college attendance, employment rates, corporate and professional employment, income, housing conditions, two parent families, and residential integration. These conditions not only produce deprivations and obstacles to individual mobility. They also produce a community that still lives, despite all the progress, largely apart from the rest of society. This life apart results in very limited opportunities for Latinos to develop power with and influence other sectors U.S. society.
The neglect of Latinos in death is, thus, a reflection not just of how much Latinos are neglected in life but also of how few opportunities they have for power while alive. The Times is, thus, justified to omit any Latinos from its annual “How They Lived” magazine compilation. It would be hypocritical to pay attention in death to a group that they and society have mostly ignored, overlooked, dismissed, and brushed off in life.
Jose Ramon Sanchez
Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of Urban Studies at Long Island University – Brooklyn; Chair of the Board of the National Institute for Latino Policy, Inc.
January 2, 2010