As many African-American or Native-American journalists discover, some editors think we are the sole representatives of our ethnic groups. Latinos pose a particularly difficult problem because most of us are multicultural and belong to many worlds simultaneously. And, in our work as journalists, we are often asked to gloss over the very thing that would actually make us“experts” on our culture: knowing and communicating the subtleties and differences among people within our community. Mixed-blood “coyotes” like me don’t really belong anywhere, so I often find myself in conflict with editors who want me to write what I regard as standard cultural fluff pieces.
In arts coverage, which is my specialty, I struggle to explore the gray areas, diverging from predictable black-and-white patterns. A while back an editor from New Mexico Magazine called to ask if I would write an article on Latin music in New Mexico. The assignment seemed a bit broad, and it was clear from our conversation that this editor didn’t understand that this is an incredibly dense and complex topic. Nonetheless, we negotiated a fee, and I set out to do my reporting.
At the time I was also moonlighting as a Salsa DJ and had developed a theory about the diversity of tastes of Latin music fans: Anglos preferred Afro-Cuban, whereas Mexicans liked cumbia and merengue. Although this simplifies my theory, it hints at a greater complexity involved with Latin culture and those who consume it. I worried such subtleties were beyond the scope of this assignment. Nor did I believe they were included among my editor’s preconceived ideas about the story of Latin music in New Mexico.
Although I did my best to hash out the intricacy and nuance of the subject, New Mexico Magazine went on to botch its presentation. The entire article was laid out in the so-called “fajita” style menu font. I find this an annoying stereotype of Latino culture, conjuring up an image of free-flowing, loose, hot, red-body-gloved salsa dancers. Despite my laboring over ideas and words, the layout transformed the story into a cartoon of all that I’d painstakingly investigated.
Months later this same editor called to ask if I would write about Spanish Market, an annual summer fair held on Santa Fe’s central plaza devoted to Spanish colonial arts of New Mexico and southern Colorado. For Latino journalists in New Mexico, this is our Black History Month, the time of year when regional magazines remember us and offer us assignments. For the sake of diversity, we provide the Latino byline that gives their coverage credibility.
I complained to the editor that I was opposed to Spanish Market. I had already written bitterly in a local arts journal that Spanish Market stifles and inhibits innovation, forcing artisans to work within confining, outdated notions of culture. Furthermore, I explained, I was against designating such a separation between traditional and contemporary artists. A scathing critique of the Market’s practices won’t fly, he told me, but we agreed on a compromise: I was to write about mixed-blood descendents who show their work in an adjacent contemporary market. My idea was to write about “coyote” artists. (In New Mexican vernacular, a coyote is half-Anglo, half-Hispano, as I am.) I focused deliberately on artists who have non-Spanish surnames.
The writer uses the term “Hispano” for several reasons. More progressive Latinos view Hispanic as a term invented by the U.S. government, and it’s an adjective. And traditional descendents of Spanish colonists in New Mexico believe terms such as Latino and Chicano are derogatory. For López, “Hispano” is a compromise and a term he is more comfortable using.Thankfully, the results of this piece were more satisfying. Each artist I was able to interview blew the lid off local stereotypes and drew attention to the fact that many born since World War II are the result of mixed marriages. The story forced readers to ask themselves what Hispanic culture is. Sadly, an editor for any of the regional publications would never think of doing a story such as this, in part because very few editors are Hispano. Consequently, with each new assignment I must do a lot of heavy lobbying to push controversial ideas through.
But to gain the trust of editors, I have to first cover what I think of as safe Anglo-run institutions. For example, after I wrote a piece for a Santa Fe-based contemporary arts magazine about a local arts institution that caters to upper-class Anglo patrons, I was permitted to write a piece closer to my heart. That story concerned the prejudice of Spanish Market rules and how they limit and define regional Latino identity based on romantic beliefs in the Spanish “other.”
Though this magazine published my essay, the publisher was displeased. He felt that a discussion of regional culture had no place in local arts coverage. And when I received letters from artists thanking me for exposing the Spanish Market bias, the editor refused to run them. He did not want the magazine to be a forum for these concerns, even though the publication is ostensibly about presenting dissenting or edgy views of the local arts scene. The impression I have is that the publisher did not get the point of my story, which was to describe how ethnicity always gets relegated to the realm of folk art.
Among my stronger arguments was the one about our need to view Latino artists as contemporary first. However, the net result was that the magazine considered my article to be too “cultural.” For me, this reinforced the view of many academicians that modernist art movements are the realm of the white elite, and those struggling with identity and politics belong in the barrios with the rap artists and gang members who spray-paint walls.
In an effort to escape the Black History Month syndrome, I’ve tried to crack a few local magazines to get on their A-lists. I want to be one of the first writers an editor calls with a story idea, regardless of cultural content. When the new editor for the monthly Santa Fean came to town, a memo was issued to all potential freelancers. She was looking to a create a publication brimming with “local voices.” Prior to this editor’s arrival, I had written a few articles for the magazine, so there was no question about whether I could deliver the story. Yet, since her arrival, I’ve pitched dozens of stories focusing on Santa Fe’s cultural diversity. Most of my ideas are aimed at contradicting Latino stereotypes. So far I’ve seen lots of Anglos write about Hispanic culture, but my phone remains silent.
When I was a staff arts writer for the local daily newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, I found a more open-minded attitude. I suspect it’s because at least half the paper’s reporting staff is Hispano. Still, more than 90 percent of the editors are Anglo, and the publisher lives on the East Coast. And there was a long period when I was the only Latino writer on staff for the weekly arts and entertainment supplement. Often I was relegated to coverage of community (read poor Hispanic) subjects. I didn’t mind, figuring better me than an outsider; also, I find that local Hispanos are traditionally suspicious of the press and feel more comfortable talking with me. Who I am makes an incredible difference in how the story is communicated and translated. In the end, I believe my role as a reporter is more that of a translator of people’s experiences than that of a documentarian.
The arts editors I’ve worked under at The Santa Fe New Mexican (I was on staff for three years and continue to freelance there) tend to be more welcoming of diversity in their coverage. However, there was a time when an editor called me to write a story about the history of mariachi music in Santa Fe. Again, I felt the idea smacked of tokenism, not to mention it being an unimaginative story assignment. A more compelling story: Why do local Hispanics discriminate against Mexicans, but then appropriate products of their culture, such as mariachi music, as their own?
Currently, my editor at The Santa Fe New Mexican is a Latina from the region. She has been very open to new stories that move past stereotypes. In particular, she is tired of covering the standard Chicano artist who does La Virgen de Guadalupe or Frida Kahlo for the 10 millionth time. We’ve collaborated on fun pieces that break down iconographic stereotypes. I don’t want to say that it requires one of “us” being in charge to change the coverage; I give the publisher—who is not a Latino—credit for hiring diverse reporters. But it puzzles me why non-Latino editors can’t (or don’t) make the effort to go beyond their own belief systems and be more open to hearing what writers of different cultural backgrounds have to say regarding story ideas and themes. Moreover, why aren’t more Hispanics, or Native Americans for that matter, in the decision-making rank of editor?
For financial and professional reasons, I’ve also written for publications outside New Mexico. In particular, I’ve attempted to enter the expanding genre of Latino magazines, many of which are based in New York City. I’ve had limited success. Urban Latino is the only publication so far willing to report on events outside the Big Apple. Frontera in Los Angeles is also receptive. More mainstream publications like Latina and Estylo have been unresponsive, and I notice in their pages a bias against rural or regional coverage. Here in Santa Fe, I wonder if I’m a country bumpkin. Many New York publications seem satisfied to work within an urbanized inner circle. Moreover, broadly speaking, there tends to be a big difference between east and west coast Latinos. Those of us in the Southwest generally feel shut out by the dominance of New York-and Miami-centric coverage.
As a freelancer, I haven’t yet encountered my ideal publication. What is of interest to me tends to be considered too “alternative” or “ghetto” for regional magazines. Their coverage tends to romanticize the Southwest and depict Latinos as cute decorative accessories. Despite some limited success with more progressive magazines, I’ve had some problems getting attention for stories covering innovative Latino artists beyond the scope of Ricky Martin or Selena.
I live in this country’s border region; I also inhabit a metaphorical border in my writing. On this edge, resident trends move beyond tight cultural definitions. This can make it difficult for editors to grasp the ideas behind stories I want to write. When conversations with editors take on that familiar pattern of stereotypic assignment colliding with my interest in pushing the boundaries, I wonder if I am condemned forever to keep fighting my way out of the Black History Month barrio.
Antonio López is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He writes for regional and national magazines on culture, art and music. He has written for LA Weekly, Frontera, Hispanic Magazine, Urban Latino, and has been a staff arts writer for Santa Fe’s daily newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican. Currently, he is a nationally syndicated editorial writer for the Progressive Media Project.