Wednesday
Feb102016

Family Far and Wide

So I was at the ophthalmologist's office, getting my yearly exam to make sure glaucoma hasn’t kicked in, or that my retina hasn’t detached (again).

In any case, the nurse looked at my chart and said, “Hey, we have the same last name.”

Now, the only people I’ve ever met with my last name are cousins or aunts or some other semi-immediate family member. So this was a little surprising.

The nurse made me go through my family history, and we discovered that we have the same great-grandfather (!). Yes, I too am impressed that I was able to remember the name of my great-grandfather. Try it sometime — it isn’t easy.

According to my subsequent Google research, the nurse and I are second cousins. She was California-born, which makes sense in that the largest population of Salvadorians (outsider of El Salvador, of course) is right here in Los Angeles. And she assumed, naturally, that I was also a SoCal native.

“No,” I said. “I’m from Wisconsin.”

Consider her mind blown. 

Yes, the nurse was impressed that our family name had made it all the way to the American Midwest. But then she added that some of her cousins (my third cousins?) moved to Melbourne a decade ago.

“I talked to them on FaceTime a few weeks ago,” the nurse said. “They have these El Salvadorian kids who have thick Australian accents.”

Well… crikey.

Later, I told my mom about running into my second cousin, the nurse. Mi madre really wasn’t that surprised.

“Your great-grandparents had eighteen children,” my mom said.

“I’m guessing they were very Catholic,” I said.

“Yes, so you were bound to run into a cousin someday.”

OK, that’s true. But I still thought it was kind of cool.

 

Wednesday
Feb032016

The Urge to Merge

I know what you’re thinking.

“Hey, Hispanic Fanatic, wouldn’t this country be better off if huge corporations called more of the shots?”

Yes, I’m nothing if not a shill for the benefits of global conglomerates having even more control over our society. I mean, when has big business ever screwed us over?

While you ponder that most rhetorical of questions, I will draw your attention to a recent study that looked at media company mergers.

Researchers at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race analyzed media company mergers after 2008, but they focused on the Comcast-NBCUniversal deal because it was the largest and well documented.

Now, remember that one of the many arguments that media groups make when merging is that their new tentacled beast of an organization will increase racial and ethnic diversity. These new companies will also make the internet free, cure cancer, and teach your dog to speak, but I digress.

So how did the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger do?

Well, the researchers found that “despite a pledge to increase Latino representation in programming, there was no significant increase in diversity behind the camera.”

The percentage of Latino directors went up a meager 0.8% after the merger. But the percentage of Hispanic producers, executive producers, and writers all actually decreased.

Yikes — that ain’t so good.

To be fair, the study also found that the percentage of Hispanic actors onscreen increased from 6.6% before the merger to 7.3% afterward. That’s good news, right? Well, even that mild improvement comes with a caveat, as deeper analysis shows that this increase “was accompanied by a significant rise in Latino stereotypes on NBCUniversal. Latinos who appeared as maids, janitors, [and] inmates” nearly tripled from 2008 to 2014.

Basically, more shows were hiring more Hispanics to appear as servants and thugs.

Yay for progress!

By the way, before the merger, Comcast and NBCUniversal had no Latino executives. But today, 4 out of 130 senior executives are Latino, accounting for 3.1% of upper management. However, only one (yes, one Latino executive in the whole company) holds a position outside of Telemundo.

Now, one can look at this study and link it to the current uproar that Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans are a combined 0-for-40 when it comes to recent Oscar nominations for acting.

When we do that, we must come to the conclusion that, as the researchers so diplomatically put it, “The agreements and promises made before the merger [aren’t] really panning out."

But I’m sure things will be different when the next big media merger happens. Next time, all their promises will magically come true.

Yup.

Wednesday
Jan272016

Funny Ha Ha

We Latinos are known for many positive characteristics, such as our strong family bonds, fierce work ethic, and inherent sexiness (really, it’s a thing).

However, we don’t have the reputation of being particularly funny people. As I’ve written before, Hispanic equivalents to Jon Stewart or Chris Rock or Tina Fey are tough to name.

But maybe that has less to do with culture than with access.

Historically, there has been no hub for Latino comedy. To fill that niche, Broadway Video Enterprises (founded by SNL creator Lorne Michaels) recently launched Más Mejor, a new online comedy studio powered by Latino voices.

The site will feature content by Hispanic comedians and/or about Latino themes. Among the big names involved are SNL alumni Fred Armisen and Horatio Sanz, who joined together to contribute one of Mas Mejor’s most popular videos so far. Other early hits include a takedown of Mexico City’s tourism campaign and a jab at every Latino’s favorite presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Future content will include topical sketches, cultural and political satire, and original web videos.

One of the site’s partners is Batanga Media, which will distribute premium content to its 70 million monthly users. 

Rafael Urbina, CEO of Batanga, agrees that few Latino comedians have broken through to the mainstream. But he sees that as less of an issue — and even less of a goal — going forward.

“Crossing over into the mainstream is great,” Urbina says. “But Mas Mejor isn’t so much about breaking through to the traditional media. It’s more about engaging with the audience directly.”

Urbina points out that Latinos in general, and young Hispanics in particular, are voracious consumers of online media. For example, Hispanics watch 62 percent more digital video than non-Hispanics.

To a Latino Millennial, therefore, it doesn’t matter if a comedian has his own Comedy Central show or was featured in a Judd Apatow movie. All that matters is whether the guy makes them laugh when they click on a video downloaded to their phones.

“We can reach exactly who we want to reach, and not have to water down the content in hopes of reaching a mass audience,” Urbina says. “If we do that well, we will create our own mass audience. A new mainstream.”

It’s an ambitious goal, and one that goes beyond proving that Hispanics can be funny. If Mas Mejor is successful, it could indicate a new model not just for Latino audiences, but for an increasingly digital world.

Urbina adds, however, that one element will always be essential when it comes to great comedy.

“Authenticity is a key pillar,” he says. “Young Latinos love comedy, and if people are authentic and talented, we now have a way for them to build a dedicated following.”


Wednesday
Jan202016

A Permanent Upside-Down Frown

Most of the people in my family are fairly cheerful people. My mom, in particular, is the most upbeat and optimistic person I’ve ever met.

It’s a little odd, in that nobody in my family is a millionaire, and we’ve all had our fair share of traumas. And yet, here we are, apparently happier than your average stressed-out American.

And a recent study found that Latin America is arguably the happiest place on Earth. Yes, even with all the region’s socioeconomic problems, residents of Latin America don’t sweat the small stuff.

Why is this?

Well, I’ve written before about the Latino tendency to be positive, even in the face of grim news and dreary statistics. But I recently came across a scientific theory for this relentless smiling.

Now, it’s old news that research “suggests an association between mental wellbeing and a mutation of the gene that influences the reuptake of serotonin, which is believed to be linked to human mood.”

Basically, much of our happiness, or lack thereof, may be traced to our genetic makeup.

Scientists have found that the Scandinavian population is most likely to have this gene. This may be one reason why Denmark, Finland, and other counties in that region perennially rank as the happiest nations on Earth.

Of course, a progressive government that ensures a high standard of living for their citizens may have something to do with that perpetual singsong attitude. But let’s not dwell on that because it’s, you know, socialism.

In any case, additional research has found that like the Scandinavians, Latin Americans are “more likely to contain a specific allele involved in sensory pleasure and pain reduction.”

As such, people from Latin America and Scandinavians are more likely to be chipper than, say, the Chinese or the Iraqis (of course, there are very real non-genetic reasons for their unhappiness too).

Is it possible, then, that as more Hispanics intermarry and intermingle and inter-you-know-what, they will spread their happiness genes among more and more Americans?

Hey, there’s only one way to find out.  

Wednesday
Jan132016

Who Will Be the Great Latino Writers of the 21st Century?

It wasn’t until 1990 that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction first went to a Latino (Oscar Hijuelos). But today, Hispanic writers routinely have awards and book deals thrown at them from passing cars.

OK, that’s not quite true. Latino writers, like all ethnic-minority writers, continue to have problems breaking through and finding a large audience for their works.

The founders of the YouNiversity Project, Jonathan Marcantoni and Chris Campanioni, are well aware of this. Both are award-winning writers busy nurturing their own careers, yet they’ve taken the initiative to launch a program to educate promising authors on the unique challenges of 21st-century publishing.

The program helps writers establish a social media presence, build an online platform, and engage their communities. YouNiversity also helps writers learn the craft of editing and improve their writing. Marcantoni says that Hispanic writers face a unique challenge when it comes to tackling these concepts.

“A key issue for Latino writers is that they are grouped under this umbrella of ‘Latino stories,’ which not only homogenizes the kinds of stories that are expected of them — namely, identity and immigration narratives — it also homogenizes the writer's particular culture,” Marcantoni says. “The YouNiversity project offers Latino writers a chance to get out from that umbrella, embrace their unique experience, perspective, and interests, and build an audience through that prism rather than adjusting their voice to fit the status quo.”

So how does YouNiversity help Latino writers accomplish this goal? Well, the program accepts promising artists who understand an essential, often overwhelming truth: modern publishing is global publishing.

“Your work has the potential to reach people on the other side of the world instantaneously,” Marcantoni says. “So how do you effectively do that? For starters, you need to know who you are as a writer. This is why YouNiversity doesn't accept brand-new writers. We need people who already know what their brand is, or have an idea of what that brand is. Once you know what you write about and why, you can figure out who your audience is.”

Campanioni adds that the ideal candidates for YouNiversity are “women and men who are critical thinkers and want to contribute to the cultural dialogue with their art and how they represent themselves in the culture.”

The most recent version of YouNiversity accepted two writers — Nami Thompson and Vivian M. Chabrier — who received hands-on training in author branding on several different platforms. Thompson and Chabrier learned about the creative uses of the cover letter and pitch, how to interview with publishing professionals, how to organize author events, and how to create multimedia artist statements, such as projects on YouTube or Vimeo.

“We want our students to learn the practical aspects of life as a writer, not just how to construct plot and dialogue in their stories, but what to do with a story once it’s drafted and revised, and how to start a dialogue with other writers and editors to find the right market for their work,” Campanioni says. “I like to think that YouNiversity is situated at the intersection of literature and technology and publishing, and this is where we meet our students and where they meet us.”

The program is not limited solely to Latino writers, but Marcantoni says that YouNiversity can help Hispanic writers in a number of ways, such as showing them how to create their own paths beyond the “Latino” label. 

“What truly makes writers distinct is the richness and fullness of their command over their art,” Marcantoni says. “That confidence makes for marketing that grows out of the artistry, rather than compromising the art to fit an ad campaign.”

Or as Campanioni puts it, “The more alternatives there are to an overpriced, overvalued factory-stamped MFA, the better off our future writers will be. Regardless of what route they choose, at least they will have options.”