SAN DIEGO – The latest controversy to spice up America’s culture wars involves a magazine cover, chili peppers and a dash of overreaction.
To add flavor to the discussion, let me say upfront that it was a mistake for the London-based magazine, The Economist, to showcase a story about the Latino population in the United States using the image of an American flag where the stripes are composed of red chili peppers.
For a magazine that is often required reading for smart people, using a food item to define 57 million people – whose ancestral roots can be traced to dozens of Caribbean islands and countries throughout Latin America – was a dumb thing to do.
And given that the feature itself could be seen as a show of respect for the profound influence that Latinos have on just about every facet of American life, it’s ironic that the magazine’s editors would disrespect this demographic by reducing the experience of such a diverse group of people to a spicy fruit – one that, incidentally, not all Latinos eat.
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The feature – which was titled “Firing Up America: A Special Report on America’s Latinos” – had plenty of useful information. It explained that, notwithstanding the rants of nativists and politicians who pander to them, “America needs its Latinos.” The story also pointed out something that many of us have said and written for many years – that Americans are fortunate to have a constant influx of immigrants, with the hope, optimism and work ethic they bring with them. As The Economist put it: “America has been granted an extraordinary stroke of luck: a big dose of youth and energy, just as its global competitors are greying. Making the most of this chance will take pragmatism and goodwill. Get it right, and a diverse, outward-facing America will have much to teach the world.”
This is good stuff, and it also happens to be exactly right. Yet many Latinos – including those who normally read the magazine – might avoid this issue because they find the cover offensive.
I’m reminded of that funny skit from “Seinfeld” where Jerry thinks that his dentist is converting to Judaism so he can tell jokes about Jews. When Jerry is asked if this offends him as a Jewish person, the funnyman responds: “No, it offends me as a comedian.”
Likewise, the fact that apparently no one – not a single journalist – at The Economist raised an objection to this stereotypical cover before the issue went to print doesn’t offend me as a Latino. It offends me as a journalist. What were those folks thinking?
If The Economist does a subsequent feature on Asians in America, will it replace the chili peppers with grains of rice?
Still, having said all that, you have to pick your battles. And this ruckus isn’t worth the effort that some Latinos – particularly those in politics, business and publishing – are putting into it.
This is a debate among elites. Wealthy Latinos might care what The Economist thinks of them; working-class Latinos couldn’t care less.
In fact, the great chili-pepper controversy harkens back to an earlier skirmish in the culture wars – over language. In 2003, Vanity Fair’s fictional advice columnist Dame Edna got crossways with Latinos for telling a reader who was thinking about learning Spanish not to bother. After all, the columnist said, the only people you could talk to are “the help” and “your leaf blower.” The magazine later apologized.
Back then, my Mexican-born wife thought the whole thing was silly. And the people most upset with the crack about Spanish were the same people who often don’t speak it very well – assimilated U.S. born Latinos. As people who don’t feel completely at home in either this country or the one our immigrant ancestors left behind, it’s part of our built-in insecurity. We’re always waiting for someone to treat us as if we’re inferior – or, in this case, as if the language of our ancestors is not as good as the King’s English.
I’m tired of that game, and so I’m not playing anymore. Just because someone else is being juvenile doesn’t mean you have to join them in the sandbox. Latinos in America should know who we are by now, and we’ve earned the right not to care what anyone else thinks.
Across the pond, the editors at The Economist might have expected to get a rise out of me. Instead, all I have to offer is a shrug.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.