Arlene Davila, author of Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race, takes a look at the way popular culture changes its perceptions of Latino values to suit its own narratives.
Chances are that you have come across the news: Latinos are the largest ethnic minority group in the United States; they are taking resources and jobs from Americans; they are “browning” our racial makeup — among other scenarios of doom that have accompanied the immigration debate. But with the 2008 presidential campaign season, Latinos have suddenly become the belles of the ball. We are told that they are the swingiest of the swing voters: the one decisive constituency. Pundits claim that, unlike African-Americans, Latinos are not married to any political parties. Anyone can get them. Some commentators predict that Latinos’ votes will elect the next American president.
It won’t be long now before arguments about how Latinos voted for president begin to circulate, along with theories about what their voting patterns suggest about their characters, values, and political dispositions. The conclusions are up for grabs. What we can be sure of is that the Latino vote will be spun in different directions — each attesting to the contemporary workings of race in the popular imagination.
Arguments that reach the mainstream about Latinos are most productively seen as public spin rather than as statements about the complexity of Latino dreams, aspirations, and realities. As such, they are most revealing of the contradictory place that Latinos are increasingly given in the public imagination as both America’s political darlings and its scapegoats.