Mainstream media and politicians have sold Latinos short for decades. (Flickr: Beverly & Pack)

I can remember back to 1980 when President Carter was running for reelection against a list of Republican candidates, including Ronald Reagan. Ruben Bonilla, the then-National President of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was being encouraged to endorse the president’s campaign. He backed Carter, but Reagan went on to win easily.

This common, apparently benign scenario, has played out for decades but it’s representative of the underlying problem when it comes to how media and politicians treat Latinos.
From 1980 to the mid-1990s, Latino voters were always referred to as the “sleeping giant.” Our population growth has constantly risen at a rapid pace, thus many in politics and the media have recognized the potential political strength of the Latino community and politicians desired the endorsements of top Latino officials.

But at the same time, the disturbing reality is that we have not yet realized that potential at the ballot box. We continue to have a very young population and we have experienced a great deal of obstacles to voting because of state and local barriers. Instead of addressing these issues head on, politicians and the media have just rolled with the punches. Presidential candidates have made lightweight political overtures to Latinos in nearly every election. And the media only gives scant coverage to Latino issues.

How did this happen?

Every four years, beginning in 1980, I would read the traditional “sleeping giant” article in virtually every major newspaper in the country. It was telling that in non-election years, most media in those days seldom focused much attention on Latino politics or policy concerns. Despite our population growth and political aspirations, one would seldom see a Latino or Latina on any of the established political talk shows, such as Meet the Press. Heck, we were overjoyed if we were simply able to make the nightly news on ABC, CBS, or NBC.

Then, the Spanish International Network (SIN) opened its Washington, D.C. office and we were as close to media nirvana we would ever get. SIN would cover the work of Latinos in D.C. and throughout the nation. SIN would become Univision and through those years, the every-four-year syndrome on the “sleeping giant” changed. We began to see more articles and attention, but at the same time there was little depth and dimension to this coverage. We still weren’t at the tables of the evening news and we didn’t have many Latino reporters, but at least the frequency of attention was growing.

Over the last fifteen years, Univision has become a major player in U.S. media and has helped draw attention to Latino and Latino issues in this country. However, it appears one of the downsides of this development has been that the English-language media has abdicated coverage of Latinos to Latino-centric outlets.

Mainstream media spouts their hypocritical interest in the “Latino vote” and community interests. But they have become quite adept at having non-Latinos speak for Latinos on issues that “you have to be there” in order to provide an honest and informed perspective. But what’s the problem? They mention us, they eat our food, some of the their best friends are Latino, and after all they know our concerns better than we do.

I asked a distinguished Latino journalist recently why the media was completely ignoring Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich campaigns and their outreach to the Latino community since Florida. Despite the caucuses in Nevada and Colorado, and the Arizona primary coming up next week, there was no discussion of how Latinos were being courted or ignored by the campaigns.

The journalist responded that the media’s assumption is that, in a GOP primary, the lion’s share of Latino voters will come out of Florida, where Cuban-Americans live, and not elsewhere. The media thinks Latino Republicans and their minds doesn’t leap to Colorado, Arizona, or New Mexico — even though these states could play a decisive role in the primary and general elections.

With the largest number of Latinos in history expected to vote in 2012 and the constant questions about the importance of the Latino vote during the past 19 Republican presidential candidate debates, one would have thought that, this time around, the interest would be more intense.

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