Segregados: Why it is OK to Ignore Spanish-Speaking Television
by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University
This summer, soccer fans around the world were treated to weeks of joy and sorrow. The World Cup, the most important sporting and television event in the world, took place in Germany and I, like many of my colleagues, took a month off from my tenuring worries to watch just about every soccer game possible. Because I am a bilingual Latino, I saw most of these games on Univision, the one network in the US that aired every single game. Competing against Univision were ABC and ESPN, which together showed most, but not all, of the games. In the ratings war, Univision easily won. But you would never know this if you paid attention only to English-speaking media. In fact, unless you were already familiar with the track record Univision has with soccer, you may not have even known that all the games were being shown on your television, for free in many locales, including my own. This is because national newspapers like USA Today and The New York Times, as well as the dominant sports websites CNNSI.com and ESPN.com simply did not list Univision as a place where readers could watch the games. If neither ABC nor ESPN was airing a game, these sources would tell readers that the game was not on TV. Not surprisingly, during the tournament I overheard people without cable complaining about wanting to watch a game but not having that option.
The segregation of Univision from the US soccer television landscape is, at least, fastidious. It is part of a larger, and troubling, thorough segregation of Spanish-speaking television from English-speaking media. By segregation I mean the practice of erasing or separating Spanish-speaking TV from general television matters. You would be hard pressed to find any news entertainment item in the English-speaking press, or English-speaking television like Entertainment Tonight or The David Letterman Show, referencing Spanish-speaking television. In the weekly ratings reports in Variety, The New York Times, or Box Office Mojo and IMDB, Univision (the most successful Spanish-language network) is not listed. This is so in spite of the fact that Univision sometimes wins the prime-time ratings war in many urban areas like New York and LA, and typically registers as the fifth largest network in America, way ahead of now defunct WB and UPN. As a result, most non-Latinos in the US do not have the faintest idea of these television locales. This distorted view of our media landscape is further manifested in media studies curricula that often fail to acknowledge the economic and cultural relevance of Spanish-speaking media. The syllabi in this website attest to this fact. Let me briefly try to make sense of this cultural segregation.
First, this segregation speaks to the politics of language in the US. As you may remember, in April, May, and June the notion of America unified under one language, English, came to prominence in light of the challenges by Latino activists wanting to expand our notions of linguistic nationhood. The most frequently reported challenge came in June, when Olga Tañón, Gloria Trevi, Reik, Kalimba, Andy Andy, Carlos Ponce, Pitbull, Aventura and singer-producer Wyclef Jean, put together a version of the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish as a sign of loyalty to the American nation. President Bush and other prominent Republicans criticized this and pushed Congress for a resolution that would prohibit the performance of the national anthem in a language other than English. This concerted effort to interpret an expression of loyalty as a threat to the nation marked the limits of the American community.
Bourdieu’s notion of the linguistic market is particularly useful here. In Language and Symbolic Power, Bourdieu argues that language serves to broker relationships between different habitus and fields. He notes that what today is known as official French came about only through the social and political pushes of people interested in unifying France into a nation. These people were, almost invariably, those who would benefit from a national centralization of power and who had the cultural and linguistic capital to make use of a centralized language. Applying these insights to our context, it’s possible to see the segregation of Univision from English-speaking networks by institutions like Variety, ESPN, and Nielsen as power plays to ratify the idea that the US should have a single official language and that this should be English. Interestingly, this is true also of The New York Times, a media institution that was critical of President Bush and his opposition to the anthem in Spanish. Articles published after the Latino political demonstrations of April and May criticized politicians wanting to ban the US national anthem from being translated into, and sung in, Spanish. This ostensive position was, and is, at odds with the paper’s practice of segregating Univision (and other Spanish-speaking TV) from the television landscape it recognizes.
The constitution of a uni-lingual nation is not only a push toward unification around the abstract principles of the nation, but it is also a movement that pushes away those who would benefit from a diverse pluri-linguistic market: namely, those who speak more than one language. As it stands, viewers of Univision, most of whom are bilingual, cannot fully benefit from their linguistic competence. What should be a robust linguistic capital is turned into a capital deficit by institutions that jointly with the field of power (and academia) are de facto advocating for an official language and language segregation. Es fascinante notar que la mayoría monolingüe que trabaja en las instituciones de medios masivos propaga la idea de que hablar español es un síntoma de desventaja cultural y educacional, cuando en otras situaciones, por ejemplo en la expectativa que nuestros estudiantes universitarios puedan hablar dos languajes, estas mismas personas promueven pluri-lingualismo.
Univision’s segregation from the television market in the US is more than a cultural barrier to Latino integration into American society. It is a power play to reproduce the idea that there is something logical and reasonable about segregating Spanish from our English-centric lives; a power play that can benefit those that occupy locations from which American society can be ruled, in English only. It is a power play that, curiously, constructs those who know more as ignorant and worthy of being ignored.
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