Segregados: Why it is OK to Ignore Spanish-Speaking Television

by: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

2006 World Cup

2006 World Cup

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 and 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.

ESPN Logo Andres Cantor

ESPN Logo (left) and Andrés Cantor (right)

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.

Image Credits:
1. 2006 World Cup
2. ESPN Logo
3. Andrés Cantor

Please feel free to comment.


  • Hector has definitively turned into a master of paradox! The first one is that, except from folks who have already lost grip with reality, no one, in his right mind, fancies himself a soccer connoisseur if he does not know that, when it comes to the World Cup, Univision put on, by far, the best informed and exciting show.The second one pertains to the difference between communication and information. Folks who are allowing themselves to become active or passive participants in “segregating” Spanish-speaking media are in large part, equally, victims of the society of hyper-communication and uber-consumption which entirely rely on emotional manipulation and false needs. A real information society, instead, is based on knowledge, experience and driven by the need to tell you what you need to know in order to have a transformative experience. In this case, real informed people know where to find it, be it converting themselves into Spanish-speaking medias’ listeners because language is no longer viewed as an antagonistic proposition! To prove the point, there were many of us Africans, Europeans, Asians watching Univision during the world cup, a real creative, fun and melting experience even if my team did not win. See y’all in South Africa 2010!

  • Yeah, how else can I learn Spanish?

    I think that this article almost makes a good point: that television can provide an excuse not to interact with people.

    Spanish language television provides a remarkably prescient and interesting insight into the broader cultural divide between the Spanish and English speaking populations of this country. It relies upon programming that goes sharply against trends in english language programming: shows that mimic the Ricki Lake variety of talk show, soap operas durring prime time, and of course Sabado Gigante, a long form television program of a sort rarely seen on any any english language network. When was the last time there was ever a weekly multihour program that was not structured around long form narratives that shifted by the week? Perhaps 30 years?

    My point is that Spanish language television provides a form of cultural memory and perhaps even a reflection of a major part of American culture that is simply out of step with the extreme technological integration and programming segregation that is employed by most English language networks.

    In any case, I find that my understanding of Spanish always improves when I watch a bit of Spanish language television. None of this makes it easy to start a conversation with someone in a second language.

  • Language Barrier

    It seems doubly unfortunate that Univision’s World Cup coverage was not more widely advertised in the main stream (i.e. English-speaking) media, simply because athletic programming is supremely capable of transcending language barriers. You don’t need to be able to speak Spanish to appreciate Univision’s coverage of the World Cup — and, one might argue that the sportscasters on Univision are more enthralling even when one does not speak the language.

    I wonder if ESPN’s disregard for Univision is based in part on their desire to squelch competition for their own venture, ESPN Deportes?

  • the latino dilema

    It is not only the case of Univision, but also Telemundo, Telefutura and particularly Azteca America the four national Spanish speaking networks that seems to be all the time under the radar of mainstream media. The operation of ignoring Spanish media, also has to do with ignoring the many times divergent takes on political and economic issues. The position on immigration in Spanish speaking television seems to hold a total different stand than the mainstream media. However the operation of segregation on Spanish Speaking media seems to have a broader perverse effect particularly to Latinos. When corporate America decides to target Latinos on television, the investment goes to the Spanish speaking networks, but Latinos that are bilingual or monolingual in English are totally disregarded from mainstream media because the variety of nationalities and Latino ethnicity have been constructed having the language as the unifying factor. Then representation of Latinos in television are first some how tropicalized and confined to the Spanish speaking media by portraying them through “intensively traditional” assumed shared Latin-American values, and then later ignored by mainstream media. By imagining and enforcing in commercial operation this “latino television gated community”, Latinos in English has been considered less “authentic” in Spanish television and furthermore and then denied a more visible representation on them in mainstream Prime Time programming.

    Obama pandered al Latinos hoy, decir que él tiene una historia de colocar latinos para votar. Por supuesto Obama no mencionó que cuando él ayudó a Latinos y a otras minorías a votar, él entonces eliminó a sus opositores políticos en una tecnicidad, que resultó con Obama que era el único candidato en la balota… así quitando cualquier opción, excepto se, para el Latinos al voto para.

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