The recent death of Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera underlines an enduring cultural gap dividing Hispanics from every other group in the United States. Indeed, it seems like we’re living in parallel universes.
Rivera, who was mother of five, was killed earlier this month following a concert in Monterrey, Mexico. She and six other people died when the private jet she was traveling in crashed while en route to Mexico City. As soon as the news of this tragedy broke, Spanish-language media organizations in the U.S. jumped to cover every detail about Rivera’s last days — what the beloved icon of Mexico’s “banda” music had eaten for her last meal; the age of the Learjet she perished in; why the stage she performed on in Monterrey was shaped like a cross. Grieving fans across the country wanted to know everything.
Meanwhile, English-language media organizations were left asking: Who is Jenni Rivera?
There was no excuse for this. After selling more than 15 million albums, Rivera should not have been an unknown in the English media, especially to entertainment reporters.
Born in Long Beach, Calif. — “Playa Larga,” as she used to call her hometown — Rivera may have sung in Spanish, but she spoke English perfectly and had her own reality TV show. Her highly successful career was closely followed by millions of people who bought every album she recorded and packed her sold-out performances. Her successes were thoroughly chronicled in the Spanish-language media.
But in the English-language media, Rivera scarcely warranted a mention. It seemed that she didn’t exist, in much the same way that millions of Hispanics don’t exist for some media outlets. Many journalists simply don’t see us.
Immediately after her death, some reporters in the English media scrambled to get a sense of who Rivera was and why she was so important to the Hispanic community. Some wrongly compared her to singers like Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift, although Mexico’s “nortena” music is hardly the equivalent of American country music. Then the media quickly moved on to other things.
But these journalists never really grasped why Rivera was so beloved by the Hispanic community. They did not understand who Rivera was beyond her music that she was a feisty woman who was never cowed by machismo, and that she tirelessly campaigned on behalf of victims of domestic abuse. They did not know that many Hispanic women considered Rivera a role model, or that she was a strong advocate for causes close to her heart. During the last interview I conducted with her, in 2010, she spoke out against anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, and said that she hoped her success would be inspirational to people and help them stand up for what’s right. That’s why people loved her so much.
The cultural gap that divides Hispanics from other groups in the United States was also evident after the tragic death of boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho, who was shot in November outside a bar in Puerto Rico. For many non-Hispanics it is incomprehensible that an athlete who had trouble with drugs and many run-ins with the law could be so adored. Yet millions watched Camacho’s funeral procession in New York on TV, as his casket, mounted on a horse-drawn carriage, was drawn along a route lined with thousands of fans.
While his death got very little coverage in the English-language media, Camacho’s personal story was one that resonated strongly with many Hispanics: He started at the bottom, faced many obstacles and challenges, but nevertheless became a success against all the odds.
The cultural gap can also be seen in the reportage about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s health. Since he traveled to Cuba recently for another surgical procedure to treat a recurring cancer, speculation about Chavez’s future has been big news at all the Spanish-language media outlets in the U.S. But the possibility of his sudden disappearance from Venezuela’s political scene after 13 years of iron-fisted control has warranted only a few brief mentions in some English-language newspapers and TV newscasts. One would think that links between Chavez’s government and Iran would be, at least, a continued concern to U.S. national security and, therefore, to the English media. But no — news of the Venezuelan leader is consistently absent from the top headlines.
When TV journalists lament to me about their sinking ratings, I often ask how much of their news reporting is geared toward the Hispanic audience. “Very little” is the most frequent answer, which is unfortunate given that Hispanics make up the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. There are 50 million of us in this nation today; by 2050 there will be 130 million. And we all watch a lot of TV.
I do not exaggerate when I say that many English-language media organizations arrived late to Jenni Rivera’s funeral. They also arrived late for her life. Far too late.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos.
(December 11, 2012)