It's Not Easy Escaping Ethnic Labels and Expectations

By Garza, Oscar | Nieman Reports, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

It's Not Easy Escaping Ethnic Labels and Expectations


Garza, Oscar, Nieman Reports


In cultural journalism, Latino critics confront a double-edged sword.

Many of my fellow Latino journalists would surely agree that this dual identity--being a journalist and being Latino--is a double-edged sword. And many of us, seeking to establish independence from ethnic identification, use a common defense to create a boundary: I'm not a Latino journalist, I'm a journalist who happens to be Latino.

Oh, that it could be so.

In my 14 years as a print journalist (and, several years prior, working in broadcast journalism), it has been impossible to separate my ethnicity from my profession. Some of this forced coupling comes from a journalistic community that is eager to find reporters and editors who can provide insight into the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group. Some of it comes from an ethnic community--historically--underserved by mainstream media--that expects those who are Latino to use their position to advance its agenda.

But I have learned not to fret about this duality and to accept that it comes with the territory of my chosen profession. And the fact is, if you're a good enough journalist you can control the situation, and the double-edged sword can be used to your advantage. It's happened this way for me.

In 1987, I was heading a nonprofit media arts center in my hometown of San Antonio, Texas. The arts editor at the Hearst-owned San Antonio Light newspaper called to ask if I'd be interested in doing freelance writing. He wanted me to focus on Latino theater and literature. Much to his surprise I turned him down, letting him know that I did not want to be pigeonholed. He asked what would interest me, and I suggested writing a wide-ranging, weekly arts column. He accepted.

Because I was working in a city in which at least half the population was Mexican American, the column was naturally inclusive of that (dare I say, my) community. And yet I retained the freedom to write about subjects where ethnicity or race did not play a role.

It was in this job that I first felt nicks of the double-edged sword: I was initially embraced by a Chicano arts community that had never enjoyed a critical voice representing its interests in the newspaper, and I was criticized by white readers--who comprised the majority of the paper's subscribers--for seemingly being an ethnic apologist. Attitudes changed when I wrote columns that were critical of some Chicano arts institutions and leaders. Then it was my community's turn to wonder whose "side" I was on.

The freelance column led to a staff job as an arts/entertainment reporter, from which I was promoted to arts editor. In 1989, I was hired as arts editor of the Los Angeles Times edition in San Diego. I didn't write a column in San Diego, but I reviewed both the visual and performing arts events. One review in particular exemplifies the duality of being an ethnic journalist: An African-American husband/wife team of theater artists brought their show to town. They were talented, seasoned performers, but I found some of their material predictable and unoriginal. I wrote this in my review.

Some months later, I had a conversation with an acquaintance who worked at a government arts agency. He told me that my review had caused some rumblings. Chuckling, he said something to the effect of, "Man, you were tough on them." The implication was that it was rare, if not unheard of, for a journalist of color to be critical of artists of color. That kind of response to my review simply speaks to the paucity of ethnic journalists who are cultural critics. (More on that later.) Look at it this way: When was the last time a white critic was told, "Man, you were tough on those white artists?"

In the spring of 1990, I came to Los Angeles as an assistant editor in Calendar--the Times's arts and entertainment section. Here, all these issues related to being a Latino journalist have crystallized. While not my home, this city feels familiar. …

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