An Interview with Ilan Stavans

What Hispanic and mainstream media needs to do:
Find sportswriters as good as the sportscasters
Fix the typos

An Interview with Ilan Stavans

What Hispanic and mainstream media needs to do:
Find sportswriters as good as the sportscasters
Fix the typos

An Interview with Ilan Stavans

Oscar Villalon
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There’s a joke, told by comedian Paul Rodriguez, about Latinos in the United States: Remember when Time put Edward James Olmos’s face on the cover of their magazine and proclaimed the ’80s “The Decade of the Latino”? It turned out to be more like a weekend sponsored by Bud. The sighing disappointment tucked into that punch line—of a people coming up short, failing somehow to achieve and maybe even reshape the American Dream—calls to attention how Latinos have been waiting more than a century for a time when their voices might be listened to and not merely heard.

The work of Ilan Stavans bears this out. A prolific author, editor, and essayist, Stavans is originally from Mexico City, where he grew up middle-class and Jewish. Stavans (who is nimble with Spanish and English) not only edited the Library of America’s I. B. Singer collection and The Shocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, but he also wrote a novel-like biography of Oscar “Zeta” Acosta—the Chicano civil-rights lawyer who wrote gonzo journalism long before his pal Hunter S. Thompson did—and authored a study on the evolving, uniquely American dialect of Spanglish. He’s written about his long love affair with words in a memoir, Dictionary Days, coauthored a graphic novel, Latino U.S.A.: A Cartoon History, and edited a Penguin Classic edition of the works of Nicaragua’s stellar poet Rubén Darío, not to mention his soul-searching The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America (1996). Along with Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, Stavans’s book Hispanic… points to the new circumstances that frame the question “What does it mean to be American?”

Late in 2005, I had dinner with Stavans near the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. Over braised beef ribs we described our respective visions of the future for Latinos in the U.S. What came out of that conversation, as we segued between Spanish and English, was the way our concerns seemed absent from the pages of newspapers and the programming on television—really, from mainstream media altogether. What follows is the continuation of that conversation, carried out mostly by email. Many assertions are made here, and they all are open to debate. In fact, more questions are raised than plausibly answered. But one thing is indisputable: “The Decade of the Latino” will last long past ten years.

—Oscar Villalon


OSCAR VILLALON: By 2010, according to census projections, Latinos will account for more than fifteen percent of the U.S. population, and by 2050, fully a quarter of it. Not only that, but within ten years their numbers will render whites as a “non-majority” in our most populous states, such as California and Texas, putting whites in the category of “minority” in major urban areas such as Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Houston, Miami, et cetera. Who will be covering this seismic shift in our culture—Univisión or the New York Times?

ILAN STAVANS: Let’s put it this way. For the past thirty years the nation has been in the middle of the largest wave of immigration ever to reach its shores, but the English-language media is in a state of utter denial. Whenever a story is published in a major newspaper on these new immigrants—not just Ecuadorians, but Ethiopians and Egyptians—and I’m focusing exclusively on the letter e, as in “exotic”—the impression is, invariably, that the reporter is on a visit to the zoo.

OV: A cultural safari, sure. The irony being, of course, that what the reporter is witnessing is not an exception but rather the dominating reality.

IS: But as your question suggests, the ethnic media is the one at the cutting edge. Take the case of the two largest Spanish-language newspapers. La Opinión in Los Angeles is the largest, with a circulation of 485,000 daily readers and 1.2 million unique readers. El Diario/La Prensa in New York is the oldest, with a circulation of 243,000 daily readers and 567,000 unique readers. Their audiences are loyal. They are also diverse in age, from teenagers to seniors. Plus, each of them has a growing base of advertisers.

OV: Meanwhile, major metro newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, or my own paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, have been getting hammered when it comes to readership. There are a bunch of reasons for it, too. The internet, TiVo, PlayStation, whatever. But I believe it’s because—and this gets back to your point about cultural safarism—the English-language media still tailors its content to what they stubbornly perceive to be their core audience: white Americans in their fifties and older. That’s about the slowest-growing demographic you can aim for now. Yet what are publishers doing to remedy the situation? They’re in denial, like you were saying. Maybe it’s because they don’t read Spanish.

IS: Or know their history all that well. The ethnic press has been a fixture in the United States since the sixteenth century. Already in New Amsterdam, at the time of Peter Stuyvesant, Dutch newsletters disseminated information among the non-English-speaking population. For the most part, these newspapers survive for a single generation, maybe two, or for as long as the immigrant language remains healthy.

Take the case of Forverts, also known as the Jewish Daily Forward, the most dynamic Yiddish newspaper ever. Under the command of Abraham Cahan, it greased the entrance to the U.S. of poor Jewish Eastern Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first third of the twentieth. Its mission wasn’t only to inform but to educate the masses in the American ways. However, once Yiddish ceased being an active vehicle of communication, the publication died off. Younger Jews chose English as their tongue. In other words, Forverts became a victim of its own success.

To a large extent, this is the life cycle of ethnic newspapers. They last between three and four decades. The Spanish-language press is an exception. The first issue of La Prensa appeared in 1913. La Opinión first saw the light in 1926. Judging by their revenues, they’re healthier than ever. Neither of them is showing any signs of exhaustion. The nationwide marches motivated by the debate on immigration that took place before and on March 1, 2006, are proof that the Spanish-language media, including newspapers, have a tremendous force—a political force—at the moment. That’s the way people generated participation and spread the word around the issue.

OV: With these changes in demographics, I wouldn’t think so. So how did the media of that time cover that first great wave of immigration?

IS: With the usual degree of suspicion. Newcomers— Nordics, Italians, Portuguese, Jews—were received with ambivalence. They were seen as pollutants of the nation’s urbane culture, particularly since the majority arrived from rural areas. They were also taking away jobs meant for Americans. But there were also progressive forces willing to take them in, to help them assimilate.

Depending on the political persuasion of the newspaper at stake, mainstream media oscillated between embrace and rejection. But unlike our current situation, these immigrants were all white Europeans. The xenophobia targeted against them wasn’t based on racial difference but on class difference. Today immigrants come from places in the so-called Third World where the majority of the population is black, mestizo, Asian, and so on. Plus there is the fact that the America at which they arrive is on its last legs as a white hegemony. In other words, in the early part of the twentieth century it was feasible to imagine a mujik from Russia becoming an American after a slow metamorphosis, because people understood the Platonic concept of “the American.” We no longer have that concept in mind, at least not when it comes to race.


OV: I want to get back to what you were saying before about the vitality of the Spanish-language press in this country. There are a couple of things that I want to expand upon, which you alluded to, both to explain why those publications are doing well and also why Spanish-language TV and radio have such an incredibly high viewership and listenership.1 One, the waves of Latino immigration are continual. This has a lot to do with geography and modern transportation. Let’s face it. It was a hell of a lot tougher to keep coming to these shores from, say, the Ukraine in the early twentieth century, than it is today from Sinaloa [Mexico], which is just down the street, relatively speaking. And two, Latinos, whose very cultures embrace variety in a way that white America does reluctantly, if at all, have a different definition of what it means to be American. We don’t assimilate in quite the same way as past immigrant groups have. We’re not trying to lose our tongue at the expense of learning a new one; we’re not trying to shed our “old” ways for “American” ones. We’re straddling both worlds.

And it’s a shame that English-language newspapers don’t do anything persuasive to get these bicultural readers as subscribers. They don’t recognize that we read Spanish and English. That we’re not some inaccessible group that “sticks to their own,” so to speak. And, not to get off topic, but the same could be said about how other Americans are perceived, like Asian America. All of which leads to the million dollar—or billion dollar, actually—question: How do we, the media—because what we’re talking about does encompass more than just newspapers—how do we go about fixing this?

IS: It won’t happen until and unless these media outlets are staffed by nonwhite employees.

OV: I agree. Diversity is key. But that’s only a start. We need to rethink whom we’re serving.

We’re moving into new and, I think, thrilling times. Our country is finally going to be part of the Americas, which is an amazingly varied region, as you well know. The Spanish language, and Latino cultures, may have to be accommodated culturally in the same way Canada accommodates the Quebecois. The trick will be to avoid political fragmentation. So not only is this a seismic shift that papers need to be covering the hell out of, but it’s a cultural reality they need integrate in what they offer. The audience is now different. You need now to reflect the world for them as well.

IS: That redirection isn’t likely to happen soon, I’m afraid. In my view, the core mission of the American media will change before newspapers focus on nonwhite communities and, along the way, our understanding of who is or isn’t white.

OV: How so?

IS: For one thing, impartial reporting is already on the way out. That is the effect of Fox on the horizon. It’s no longer important to report; the objective now is to persuade. But what I’m fascinated with isn’t the trite, repetitive tête-à-tête between liberals and conservatives. That tension goes back to the founding of the republic. I’m concerned with the ethnic wars.

Mainstream media doesn’t inform nonwhites—it simply typecasts them. By the time they realize this segment of society also wants a piece of the pie, it might be concluded that the dissemination of information cannot be unrestricted. I realize how outrageous this statement might sound. Of course, ours is the age of speed-of-light information. TVs, cell phones, iPods—these items are our permanent companions. They make us believe anything is reachable at any time. Or, better, that we, as depositories of data, are accessible all the time.

Today the haves and the have-nots are defined by that accessibility. If you’re part of the modern world, you’re in power—you’ve “whitened” yourself. Americans today don’t get the news from a central source. Ours is already a fractured world. The New York Times might be the paper of record, but for whom? In fact, my impression is that ethnic media will increase its status as a counter-establishment source. Under the First Amendment banner, I foresee cloning Al Jazeera, maybe not as politicized, although certainly as pride-shaking. In some ways, Univisión serves that function already. While entering the American living room without restriction, its programs regularly portray the white status quo as racist and anti-Hispanic. Sooner or later, that message will agitate people.

OV: Exactly. There’s so much at stake here. We’re talking about the probability of a Balkanization of America along class, ethnic, and racial lines, where we continue to be strangers to each other. Major newspapers, with all their clout and organizational abilities, in terms of reporting and analysis, can help prevent that, I think, by showing us a true picture of who we are, what our hopes and fears now are, what our political and material needs might be.

We need to see that no matter how much the culture is changing, it remains American, unique to this planet. If you’re Mexican American, you find out as soon as you set foot in Mexico just how American you really are, in the same way that you’re reminded in this country how non-Anglo you are. Notice I didn’t say “non-American.” “American” does not—should not— equal “white.”

My fear is that we’re going to wind up with a bunch of outlets that tell us only about a single frame of the big picture, and that people aren’t going to bother, or simply can’t put together all those frames by themselves by either reading dozens of different publications or hunting for all of this on the Web. We can’t afford that as a democracy. I guess I’m talking about creating newspapers that are both the New York Times and El Diario.


OV: For a variety of reasons, Latinos aren’t as wired as white America, though I believe that’s changing quickly. But let’s say it doesn’t. OK, well, at some point in the near future, major dailies will forgo paper. There’s technology in the works for this to happen, where people would download the paper from their PC on something that looks like a plastic placemat. If this technology happens, newspapers will be saving themselves hundreds of millions of dollars each year. My hope is that this will allow papers—or plastics, I guess—to spend more money on broadening and deepening the range of what they cover. But my fear is that, because there won’t be as much financial pressure to find new audiences, they will instead continue to focus on that same white readership. Talk about a missed opportunity.

IS: But there are missed opportunities in the ethnic press today, too. Not long ago I edited a three-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Collected Stories for the Library of America. The endeavor was fascinating: it allowed me to go back in time to the ’40s and ’50s and on to the ’80s, and to understand the role of Forverts, the newspaper in which Singer published the majority of his oeuvre in Yiddish before it was translated into English. He wasn’t only immensely talented but also immensely prolific, and his recurrent appearance in the Yiddish daily allowed him to build a large audience base.

As that audience—the Eastern European immigrants and their children—moved from the periphery of culture to center stage, Singer, too, made the movement, going from Forverts to the New Yorker, in English translations, of course, on many of which he collaborated closely. Aside from him, there were scores of other Yiddish writers, prominent and not, who wrote for Forverts. This collaboration intrigues me. The majority of “ethnic” authors today (say, Amy Tan, Jessica Hagedorn, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz) don’t write for the ethnic media among other reasons, because they write only in English. But is the ethnic media publishing other literary voices? Not as far as I know.

Ethnic newspapers are quite topical: they concentrate almost exclusively on what their audience wants: sports, police abuse, and gory news (better known as “yellow journalism”: crime, drugs, and sex in the community). The space that used to be devoted to more aesthetic pursuits is gone. Almost none of these papers publish any fiction or narrative nonfiction. News is delivered in snippets. There is no room to develop an artistic style.

OV: But that problem isn’t exclusive to ethnic papers. Just about every newspaper has seen its pages shrink, both in number and size. And though you do see longer pieces of journalism rather routinely, you’re rarely going to find any fiction.

IS: The point remains, though: a couple of paragraphs is never going to awaken ideas in the public, to make it reflect on what’s being printed on the page. The difference between reading a brief, objective report on a presidential election and a focused meditation on it à la Joan Didion or even Hunter Thompson is that the latter will force you to contemplate the event as part of a larger context.

I’m particularly appalled with the dryness of sports reporting in Spanish-language newspapers. On Univisión, newscasters are nothing if not idiosyncratic. Just think of the legendary “goooooooooooooooool” we hear around World Cup time. The same might be said of radio. Spanish-language audiences not only listen to a soccer match, they’re hypnotized by the way newscasters narrate the action. These newscasters are verbal wizards: they indulge in the most fanciful use of adverbs and adjectives, and the nicknames they give players are hilarious. The whole shebang is a feast to the mind. However, when it comes to reading La Opinión or El Diario, excess turns into timidity. Summaries of soccer matches aren’t only inane; they are downright soporific. I have yet to come across a single sports reporter in Spanish with a distinctive style.

I realized this last year, when I edited Lengua Fresca, an anthology on verbally exuberant writing by Latinos. Much as I tried, I couldn’t come up with a single example of sports writing that could fit the book. I confess to have been struck by the absence. Latinos are passionate athletes and even more passionate fans. Shouldn’t they have a first-rate tradition of sports reporting? Well, surely there’s no evidence of this in print. Maybe this is because, in spite of our florid magic-realistic literature, we’re still very much a culture defined by oral tradition.

OV: How about the quality of the writing elsewhere in these newspapers?

IS: Therein lies another mind-blowing topic. Let me return, albeit briefly, to Isaac Bashevis Singer. When he emigrated from Warsaw in 1935 and first read Forverts, he was dismayed. Its language wasn’t Yiddish, he thought; it was Yinglish. From what I gather, the experience today’s immigrants have when exposed to, say, the Arab American News, published in Dearborn, Michigan, or Sing Tao out in San Francisco, is quite similar: the language these ethnic papers use is heavily contaminated with English. And likewise El Diario; and the amount of typos and mistakes on any given page is enormous. Indeed, Spanglish is often on display. I once asked its editor if the newspaper had a manual of style, if they used the same one as El País in Madrid or Reforma in Mexico. He answered me that they don’t have one and that they improvise as they go along. The barbarisms one encounters in these outlets isn’t surprising, of course. After all, their newsrooms are made of immigrant reporters who are themselves at the crossroads where English and their ethnic languages collide. You can’t be a language purist in one of these spaces.


OV: Have you written for the ethnic press?

IS: Oh yes. I write almost weekly for the Jewish Daily Forward. And for years I wrote cultural pieces for El Diario and La Opinión. Recently the editor of El Diario approached me with the invitation to write a weekly editorial column of no more than seven hundred words. Do you know how much money he offered? Twenty-eight dollars per column—that is, a monthly salary of 112 dollars. I would earn more working a day a week polishing shoes in Hartford’s Bradley Airport.

OV: Well, someone’s making money there, because as you’ve pointed out, the amount of advertising they carry is healthy. Let me add this, though. Spanish-language TV, despite all its revenue, also pays insultingly low wages. My sister worked for a station down in San Diego for a while, and I remember her telling me that the other journalists there urged her to go to the English-language media, where she could get paid a fair wage. “You’re lucky,” they told her, “you speak English.” Meaning that she doesn’t speak with an accent.

Having said that, I’m guessing that, pretty soon, having an accent on the air might not seem so jarring. It didn’t slow down Arnold Schwarzenegger. But then again, he’s not Mexican, is he?

IS: The issue of accents is worth addressing. In the ’50s, when Ricky Ricardo entertained middlebrow America with his Cuban lingo in I Love Lucy—a show way ahead of its time in addressing music, assimilation, interethnic marriages—he broke a pattern. Prior Latino stars—think of people like Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch—needed to hide their ancestry, to sacrifice their verbal cadence, in order to make it on TV and in Hollywood. From there to Antonio Banderas (whose accent as Zorro is so thick, I sometimes have no idea what he’s saying), obviously the cultural climate has been transformed… although it’s still a long way to Tipperary.

As a newscaster, a light Hispanic accent isn’t only socially acceptable; it is even becoming desirable. It isn’t seen as a sign of foreignness but of what W. E. B. DuBois called “the double consciousness.” Indeed it has become cool to show off your Latinidad in speech, but only if you’re speaking el inglés. Conversely, speaking Spanish with an Anglo accent, the way gringo tourists do, makes you look stupid. But Spanish for Latinos is crucial: look at how the current Mexican-American mayor of Los Angeles needed to relearn Spanish in order to make it to office.

OV: Talk about providing a lesson for the rest of us.

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