Misrepresenting the Valley’s Latino Youth

Really 2This post was written by Dr. Carlos Aleman.

A local television news station recently contacted the SV-SLI so as to interview  high school scholars on the value of mentorship.  The interview was going well, then unexpectedly turned to mentorship as an intervention to gang involvement.  The questions of gang involvement hung silently in the air for several seconds.  With mouth agape, high school junior, Raul, redirected his responses to how college mentors of SV-SLI serve him personally.  Later that evening, the news story appeared on television and online with the tagline, “A mentoring program that keeps Latinos in school and out of gangs may help keep your family safer. Go ahead….Read that tagline again.

Nearly 15 years ago, Trinity University professor, Dr. Raul D. Tovares, began publishing work on local television news stories of Latino gangs.  In a book on the subject, Tovares (2001) wrote, “By selecting the most sensational and dramatic stories and allowing authority figures, such as the police, to provide interpretation of the events involving youth members of minority groups, news reports can be slanted to favor mainstream stereotypes and prejudices.  A consistent pattern of such reporting, in the absence of more favorable reports, can serve to reinforce stereotypical images about minority group members” (p. 7).

The aired local news story arguably followed Tovares’ predictable dramatic narrative:  A hardworking Latino teen is presented as having been given a chance to be the first in his family to work toward his dream of college, with the support of his teacher and guidance of a college mentor.  An interviewed local police authority is then introduced to confirm the value of mentorship and positive role modeling as one way to combat the disproportionate number of Latinos drawn into gang membership.  The tone of the story quickly shifts as the news reporter speaks directly to the viewing audience from the center of a Latino neighborhood that she describes as heavily impacted by Latino gangs.  Alarming numbers of individuals listed by authorities as affiliated with gangs and who presumably live in the neighborhood are displayed on screen.  The story closes by returning to the hardworking teen as he talks about his college dream.  “For Raul, gangs are out of the question, and college is his only goal.”

Clearly, the aired news story can be evaluated as depicting SV-SLI high school scholars in a positive light.  But is it accurate to suggest that teens like Raul are really just one mentor away from breaking bad, joining a gang, and threatening local families?  Or to suggest that Raul is an anomaly among Latino teens, remarkably different than his otherwise gang inclined  peers?

It would seem that very little has changed in 15 years with regard to how local television news  stories that capitalize on the discourse of “gangs” also work to reinforce negative stereotypes of Latinos and produce feelings of anxiety toward youth in our community.  And so I look forward to working with organizations and individuals to help SV-SLI share the positive stories of our valley’s Latino youth.

Work cited: Tovares, R.D. (2002). Manufacturing the Gang: Mexican American Youth Gangs on Local Television News. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT.

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