Latinos are not one-size-fits-all
© Getty Images

Anti-immigration sentiment and the rise of Trump has placed many advocates in a bind, namely,: the desire to present Latinos as upwardly mobile and “more American than Americans” while the concerns of the poor are simultaneously swept under the rug.

Growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which has the 10th largest Puerto Rican population according to the 2010 Census, I’ve always sought to write about the struggles of people in my hometown and in similar communities. Most Puerto Ricans in the city are transplants from New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia who came for affordable housing and safer neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, Allentown suffers from concentrated poverty, under-resourced schools, intolerable housing conditions, slumlords, inadequate employment opportunities and municipal neglect.

While writing about these topics, I realized that many major Latino media organization largely ignored these issues. I have often asked myself: Are people unaware about these problems or are they choosing to remain oblivious?

Both are true.

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Upset with portrayals of dysfunctionality and the stereotype that Latinos are an economic drag on society, since the late 1980s middle- and upper-middle class Latino professionals have portrayed the group as upwardly-mobile, family-oriented, hard-working newcomers. Political advocates have pushed the “coming of age” narrative and argued that Latinos are assimilating just like the Italians. Poverty, some argued, is only high because of the constant flow of impoverished immigrants. Puerto Ricans,, as author Linda Chavez noted in her controversial book Out of the Barrio, were the exception.

Latino scholars have challenged these claims. New York University Professor of Anthropology and author of Latino Spin, Arlene Davila said, “they veil more than they disclose about the status of Latinos in contemporary society.” Indeed, the Puerto Ricans in my hometown are second-, third-, and fourth-generation migrants. They do not fit the sanitized images advocates have promoted.

The reality is that the “coming of age” narrative has failed to acknowledge historically rooted problems in Latino communities that differs based off subgroup and geographic region, particularly Puerto Ricans in the Northeast.  Continuing to see all Latinos as first- and second-generation immigrants makes it appear that immigration is the sole reason for poverty—effectively erasing the history and present-day reality of discrimination and macroeconomic changes in urban labor markets.

Yet, even when confronted with this reality, some have chosen to bury it. For example, in the Latino Spin, Davila noted that in 2004 the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund published a study which revealed that 26 percent of all Puerto Ricans lived in poverty. Rather than address the issue, senior policy executive Angelo Falcon said “Even our own Puerto Rican politicians were telling us to bury the story, that I was making us look bad.”  He was encouraged to highlight the “good news” in the report.

Ignoring the problem didn’t improve it. In 2010, a report by the Community Service Society of New York revealed that Puerto Ricans in New York City had the lowest rates of school enrollment and employment, and had the highest poverty rate among the city’s Latino population. Falcon responded to the report, “It’s getting worse from the perspective that the problems are not being addressed. They’re festering, and it’s going into the second and third generation.”

The plight of Puerto Ricans is profound throughout the Northeast because they arrived in the late 1940s, just when well-paying manufacturing jobs were in decline. Statewide poverty and unemployment rates for Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania, for example, is 36.8 percent and 17 percent, respectively, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. The Northeast also has the highest incarceration rates for Latinos, where they are imprisoned more than three to four times the rates as Whites.

While advocates are quick to note that Latinos aren’t a monolithic group, this perspective is often not put into practice. When the Latino Rebels asked their followers about the state of Latino digital media, one tweet read “my biggest problem is that all Latinx sites lack diversity in the voices we hear whether it's political, experiences, race…pretty much always see white/light skinned Latinxs and all sharing same narratives [sic].”

The possibility for open dialogue about these issues must exist while acknowledging the complicated reality that Latinos face in American society. Is it too much to ask for a more balance portrayal of Latinos?

Fountain Jr. writings have appeared in Al Jazeera America and the Latino Rebels. Follow him on Twitter @AaronFountainJr


 

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