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News: Strangers in Our Midst

Hispanic leaders call on media to be more culturally intelligent

By Margo Pierce · July 2nd, 2007 · News
  Neil Comber Valdespino, a member of the board of Bridges for a Just Community, addresses the media forum on Hispanic culture.
Joe Lamb

Neil Comber Valdespino, a member of the board of Bridges for a Just Community, addresses the media forum on Hispanic culture.

Some people call it pandering or special treatment. Others, with a sarcastic tone, call it being politically correct.

But those who care about inclusion, diversity and embodying the principles of freedom on which our country was founded call it being respectful, considerate and inclusive. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Bridges for a Just Community and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) call it education.

On June 21 these organizations, Fifth/Third Bank and individuals from the Hispanic community hosted the Press and Media Forum on Tristate Hispanics to do just that: educate the media. The meeting fulfilled a commitment made last month by Jason Riveiro, president of the local LULAC chapter, at a press conference criticizing WLW (700 AM) for its racially offensive "Big Juan" billboards (see Porkopolis, issue of May 9).

The stated goal was to open channels of communication and build partnerships. Panelists and journalists took on the difficult and controversial topics, avoiding the temptation to ignore the tough stuff.

Someone asked a question about "black/brown" friction.

"The same misconceptions that you saw before desegregation when whites were saying, 'We're going to lose our jobs, they're going to go to the African Americans' -- the same thing is happening with the African-American community saying the same thing," Riveiro said.

Mitchel Livingston, chair of Bridges for a Just Community and an African American, continued the point.

"I heard someone make the comment earlier, 'We are now the largest minority in America,' " Livingston said. "Just in the way that is framed, for some, imposes a threat. There's still work yet (to be) done with respect to needs, interests and concerns within the African-American community. Does that now mean that agenda now gets suspended for this new, preferred minority? A lot of people think that. We've got to resist that."

'Illegal' kids
Resisting the well-worn patterns of hate and prejudice is going to be difficult, according to Marilyn Zayas Davis, an attorney who specializes in immigration law.

She used her experience as a transplant to explain why.

"I'm a New York-Rican who relocated to Cincinnati in 1988," she said. "It was interesting because back then most people who were native Cincinnatians had no exposure to Hispanics. My husband, for example -- it was Cheech and Chong, bouncing cars. That's what he asked me about. What's interesting to me is that we've progressed from that being Cincinnati to where we are today ... a culture in which 'Hispanics' equals 'illegal.' "

She went on to talk about the diverse number of countries from which Hispanics come and the many reasons they emigrate to the United States, including individuals who are running for their lives to escape politically motivated execution. When given a choice between illegal entry or death, the choice is an easy one, Davis said.

Frequently replayed media images from border-states such as Arizona and California can be misleading, she said.

"Not all Hispanics are illegal, and not all illegals are Hispanics," Davis said. "Illegals come in all different forms and sizes and shapes and countries. The concept of 'illegal' is much broader than someone crossing the southern border."

Davis pointed out that 68 different languages are spoken in the Cincinnati Public Schools but that level of diversity hasn't resulted in acceptance. A client told her she couldn't count the number of times kids in school had asked her children if they were illegal. Davis conducted an informal survey, asking other clients if their children's legal status challenged by other kids.

"Every single one of them said yes," she said. "It got to the point where I stopped asking because I was getting depressed."

Throughout the presentations, panelists nodded in agreement with the stories about discrimination and incomprehensibly rude behavior born of ignorance and fear. Alfonso Cornejo, president of the Hispanic Chamber and a U.S. resident for 18 years, expressed his incredulity.

"We're here because we love Cincinnati," he said. "This is our home. We want this to be a city that has a good standard of living, that greets everybody. To do this, the only option that we have to grow is to welcome and attract Hispanics. Some people are not with us in this case. Their particular self-interest in ... attacking a minority, is disgraceful."

The Butler County Sheriff's Office came up as an example. Riveiro described a meeting with the sheriff's office in which he received a memo asserting zero tolerance for racial profiling.

"I think that's great, but we didn't find any commitment to do anything other than that," Riveiro said. "Very much in the same way you apply it to the media, you need that relationship with the community, whether that's an advisory board, somewhere the Hispanic community feels they have a stake within that police department. Just an opportunity to meet and gather with the leadership -- that's what we're trying to push for."

Looking alike
Mike Robinson, a founding member of the Cincinnati chapter of LULAC (lulacohio.midwestlatino.com), shared a counter-example.

"The chief of police of Fairfield has publicly stated, 'I am not in agreement with the sheriff of Butler County. The Fairfield Police Department needs to welcome the immigrant population,' " Robinson said. "We have personally taken them on many trips into the community to create and forge those relationships. The worst-case scenario is a business owner who is unwilling or afraid to contact the police because they're afraid of retribution."

That fear within the Hispanic community has prompted LULAC to set up a toll-free number (877-775-8522) for people who have encountered discrimination. Stories have been pouring in but there's a reluctance to go public, making it impossible for the media to present the truth about what's happening, according to the Rev. Bill Jansen, director of the Hispanic Ministries/Su Casa of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reluctance to speak out is as much about becoming a target as it is about cultural differences, he said.

"It's a tough situation," Jansen said. "Once an illegal person makes himself public, accusations against the sheriffs in Butler County for example, he is a target by the sheriffs of Butler County. They can be picked up for any reason, put into jail. It's a very delicate situation.

"We have a hard time, when something actually happens, getting them to communicate with the police. We have to go with them ... to make sure they get the right description of the crime. A secondary issue is teaching the recent arrivals how to describe a crime and how to describe a criminal. They don't know how they do that. They say, 'Everyone looks alike.' "

The challenge of communicating, appreciating differences and finding common ground isn't going away any time soon. Livingston closed the forum with that thought about the future.

"The so-called combined number of minorities will constitute a distinctively new American majority," he said. "That is going to happen ready or not. The demographics are there. As we struggle with these issues today in this current environment ... I wonder if we're ready for that reality. I refer to it as the tidal wave that's coming. We have much work to do, and I hope that serves as an imperative to each and every one of us."

To review the findings of the 2006 Human Rights Indicator Survey, visit the Porkopolis blog at citybeat.com.


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