6.18.2007

The Hispanic Era

The Hispanic Era (by columnist Ruben Navarette, San Diego Union-Tribune - 6.17.07)

For U.S.-born Hispanics, this is the Dickensian era. You know, the best of times and the worst of times.

The nation's 42 million Hispanics are coming into their own and leaving their mark on everything from food, sports and fashion to entertainment, business and politics. They're fawned over by Fortune 500 companies anxious to tap into $800 billion in annual spending. And they're one of the newest obsessions of big media companies -- Time Warner, Viacom, Gannett, et al -- eager to stay relevant amid rapidly changing demographics.

A few weeks ago, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates if they supported making English the country's official language. Now the question on the table is whether any of the candidates will accept Univision's invitation to debate in Spanish.

All this concern about open borders, when what we could really use are more open minds.

But Hispanics are also in the crosshairs. All of this attention is having some unintended and negative side effects. For starters, it is causing resentment from non-Hispanics who feel as if they're being overlooked. They claim that Hispanics are receiving cultural accommodations that aren't offered to others. Why do we have to press 1 for English when making a phone call, they ask. One reader put it this way: "My first language is not English and no one caters to me.

I miss my maternal tongue. I would love to be able to 'press 2 for French' ... but, oddly, it's not something that is offered to me."

Why do you suppose that is? Follow the dinero. Hispanics aren't asking to be pitched soft drinks or credit cards or cell phone service in Spanish. It is the companies that are asking Hispanics to buy their products, and entrepreneurs think it'll help their chances if they make the pitch in what they assume is the population's native language. But these decisions aren't being made at the behest of Hispanics any more than the fish gets to choose the bait.

Also, the extra attention is stoking rivalries over the silliest of things, such as -- catch this one -- whether Hispanic baseball players are pushing African-Americans out of the big leagues. That was the claim by Gary Sheffield of the Detroit Tigers, who asserted that Hispanic players are more compliant than black players and thus more desirable to management. It wasn't long ago that it was whites who argued that all the good jobs went to African-Americans because of affirmative action. That template -- like the one offered up by Sheffield -- is nothing more than a glorified excuse, the sort that you cling to when you fail or fall short. Or in the case of black athletes, simply make other career choices such as football or basketball.

Lastly, the extra attention is causing some to assume that Hispanics are demanding "special treatment" when really all they're asking for is fair treatment. That's what happened when Hispanics protested a planned World War II documentary on the Public Broadcasting Service that initially ignored the contributions of Latinos to the war effort. When I wrote about the controversy, I got angry mail from Americans who sarcastically demanded equal time for other groups. They all seemed to be asking the same question: Why are Hispanics so special? They're not special. That's the point. They're Americans like everyone else. No better and no worse.

That itself represents a radical departure from where our society was a generation ago, when Hispanics were subjected to their own rendition of Jim Crow a couple of generations ago, including segregated schools, restricted swimming pools and signs in restaurants in the Southwest that read "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed."

Today, it's a new world. Most U.S.-born Hispanics work hard, pay their taxes, try to raise good kids and strive for whatever they consider their version of the American Dream. They're not perfect, but neither is any other ethnic group.

But here's the important part: They're also not going away. The sooner other Americans accept that and recognize the benefit in a rich and diverse and vibrant society such as ours, the better off we'll all be -- and the more civil our interactions.

One person who gets that is George W. Bush. The president told McClatchy Newspapers that he has "seen firsthand the beautiful stories of people being able to take advantage of opportunity and make solid contributions to our society." The key, Bush said, is living in diverse surroundings where "if you're open-minded, you get a great sense of how (diversity) invigorates the society."

There you have it. All this concern about open borders, when what we could really use are more open minds.