SAN DIEGO – Lately, the question-and-answer portions of my speaking engagements have become a contact sport.
People show up not to hear what I have to say from the podium but to scold me for something I’ve already said in print. They enter the room with prepared remarks. They don’t ask questions as much as give speeches of their own. And from the tone, it sounds like they’re not interested in a response because they’re just happy to have told me off.
When you’re a Latino commentator, audiences made up of fellow Latinos can be a tough crowd. A lot of people seem eager to lecture me on how to do my job. They’re also laying out their expectations, and explaining what they think my role should be.
A couple of months ago, after a speech in Sacramento, a Latino attorney stood up and identified himself as a longtime reader who often disagreed with me. He scolded me for a scathing column I’d written about a Latino state senator who was arrested for drunk driving. The politician had professed innocence, then begged for forgiveness. I wrote that he had failed the leadership test, embarrassed himself and tarnished the office.
I explained to my critic that it isn’t my job to baby-sit politicians and protect them from poor decisions and bad behavior. I also said that, if the lawmaker’s reputation had been sullied, it wasn’t my doing. Next time, I said, he shouldn’t have one for the road.
More recently, after a speech in San Francisco, an older man told me I was too quick to hammer Latinos for things they do wrong – like loyally supporting a president who has deported 2 million people in five years, most of them Latino, just because he’s a Democrat. The man wanted to know why I don’t go after powerful white people with the same zeal.
Obviously, this gentleman is not reading enough columns. The folks I target come in all colors. For instance, the immigration debate divides Latinos and whites. From the mail I get, I can see that my columns unite them – in a mutual distaste for my point of view.
As one of too few Latino opinion writers in the country, this kind of criticism comes with the territory. Other Latinos expect me to “represent” them – by that, they mean they want me to give voice to a community that doesn’t have one.
I get it. Latinos are the invisible giant. We make up 17 percent of the U.S. population and spend $1.4 trillion annually. We’re aggressively courted by corporations that want to sell us stuff. And every four years, we’re told that we’ll decide the presidential election.
Yet, every week, we have to stomach the indignity of watching Sunday morning talk shows where commentators – almost all of them white or black – have no qualms opining on the Latino vote, whether they understand the subject or not. We let the political parties pick our leaders for us. We act as bystanders as the media decide what our agenda should be, and even tell us how and when we should go about pursuing it.
Of course, Latinos need a voice. They also need a leader. But that’s not me. It’s not in my job description for me to be a spokesman, or a shepherd.
In that case, people ask, what am I trying to accomplish? What good is a critic who tears things down without building anything in its place?
It’s a fair question. After doing this for nearly 25 years, I’ve just about figured it out. It’s not my job to persuade or petition or do public relations. I’m not a trial attorney arguing a case, a politician asking for votes, or an educator teaching a class. I’m an old school “journo” who still clings to the quaint notion that we ought to cover the story but not become part of it, and that we’re not supposed to serve either political party because we’re busy serving up truth. I’m not here to tell you what to think; I’m just happy if you think at all. My job is to provoke you to challenge your beliefs and assumptions, even when doing so ticks you off.
I clear the fog. And if it is advocacy you crave or you want to build something, by all means, feel free to take it from there.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.