Even though I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S. and I’ve had limited access to Puerto Rican media since I moved here in the late 80’s, I’ve always held Puerto Rican television in high regard. My aunt Martha Hagman was a popular TV personality in the 70’s and 80’s and I have fond memories of growing up accompanying her to most television studios in Puerto Rico. There was a wide range of locally produced shows, some of them a bit controversial, I even admit that some characters were stereotypical, but there were no blatant messages of hate, racism, discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and violence in their content. I returned to Puerto Rico at the end of 2001 and lived there for three years. On my first day back at home I asked a fellow producer if she was aware of any opportunities for writers in local television. She told me that most of the programming on TV was imported, pointed to the show “La Comay” being number one in ratings as an indicator of the decay of the industry, and basically told me that looking for opportunities in television would be a lost cause.
There more I spoke to creative people in the industry, the more I heard complaints about “La Comay”. Bullying a local weather reporter because of her weight, calling local artists “patos” (equivalent of “fags”), slandering public figures, calling black people monkeys, denigrating Dominicans who reside in Puerto Rico; the list of complaints was endless and I wondered what had happened to the yet not perfect but dynamic and inclusive industry in which I had partially grown up? As soon as I got my cable box connected, I watched the show that my peers had described as the disgrace of Puerto Rican television and was left speechless. Puppeteer Antulio “Kobbo” Santarrosa (AKA “La Comay”) and his sidekick Hector Travieso ridiculed a celebrity because of her weight in a crass way, made a racist remark, ridiculed a popular singer because of her age, and made several homophobic remarks within one show. And one show was enough for me. Any writer would tell you that it wasn’t humor; it wasn’t clever, as there was no irony, no sarcasm, and no punch line. Perhaps that’s the reason why production uses pre-recorded laugh tracks during the show; they can’t have a live audience because it’s not funny at all. The show is basically a platform to spew hate, discrimination, intolerance and violence disguised as gossip, humor and a different way of reporting the “news”. I sat upset in my living room not knowing what to do. Whenever I had the chance to speak to my peers in the local ad business the answer was always the same, “We hate the show, but it delivers the highest ratings and my clients demand that we sponsor it.”
I always wondered how clients in Puerto Rico had looked the other way for so long, allowing their brands to be associated with “La Comay” in total disregard of their own corporate social responsibility policies. It was obvious to everyone that Santarrosa, Travieso, and WAPA TV had become bullies and their standing in the ratings had given them carte blanche to behave in any which way they desired without repercussions. It was obvious to everyone in the industry that the show was promoting hate and intolerance but it seemed as if everyone was paralyzed in fear of the power of Antulio “Kobbo” Santarrosa. What had started as a humorous saying - “Cuida’o que te coge la Comay” (Watch out, you’ll end up in La Comay) – had indeed become a serious threat not only to public figures but to the average citizen.
I moved back to the U.S. and had almost forgotten about the ill doings of this show until in late 2009 I noticed that my friends were posting messages on Facebook asking WAPA TV put an end to Santarrosa’s and Travieso’s reign of horror. Santarrosa was justifying the gruesome murder of Jorge Steven López, a young gay man, because he was dressed in drag the night he was murdered. That was the first time WAPA TV got a taste of the power of social media through a grassroots campaign led by LGBT activist Pedro Julio Serrano that forced Santarrosa and Travieso to offer a half-baked public apology. Since then, both men and WAPA TV have been back to their old antics; stirring the pot with innuendo, bullying anyone who calls them out on their hateful remarks against minority groups, and declaring themselves the voice of the people.
Santarrosa thought of himself as a master of provocation and speculation in total control of his audience, but less than two weeks ago he went too far again. This time he didn’t realize there was a time bomb about to go off. This time the victim was a bright young man who worked in advertising, how ironic. Speculating on declarations made by the father of one of the suspects in the murder of José Enrique Gómez Saladín, Santarrosa (acting as La Comay) insinuated that José Enrique might have led a double life and could have been soliciting female or male prostitutes, and if that was the case, perhaps he was responsible for his own demise. It’s a classic Santarrosa quasi-homophobic remark. He thought he could get away with it again as usual, but what followed was too much for him or WAPA TV to handle. The wife of the victim spoke to the media and taught them a lesson in courage and dignity, while simultaneously Carlos Rivera started the Boicot a La Comay Facebook page, and Pedro Julio Serrano alerted his followers that it was time to act again.
This time, social media turned against “La Comay” stronger and faster than ever, giving the issue immediate international exposure, galvanizing Puerto Ricans from all walks of life and garnering the support of reputable community and professional organizations and top Puerto Rican celebrities. While WAPA TV calls the movement censorship and staunchly keeps the show on the air claiming their right under the First Amendment, Boicot a La Comay acts on the same right to gain momentum via social media launching an effective boycott of the show. WAPA TV should have known better; hiding behind the First Amendment was a bad move sure to backfire. Boicot a La Comay, which started only 8 days ago, has over 70,000 followers, counts with the support of key opinion leaders in the Puerto Rican community, and has so far convinced over 37 brands to cancel their endorsement of the show and issue public apology statements. It’s a great example of how the powers of traditional media and marketing have been rendered neutral by social media. Consumers today have the power to engage in direct dialogue with brands, cutting the middleman. It’s a different paradigm and WAPA TV underestimated the resolve of the people of Puerto Rico. This is no longer a little flare up between Santarrosa and the LGBT community, but a roaring fire that has spread beyond their control.
What is WAPA TV going to do next? As major sponsors remove the show from their media buys and the network starts to lose millions, the prospects of “La Comay” don’t look good.
This brings to mind a very interesting conversation I had on Facebook with Lillian Hurst, a respected Puerto Rican actress, part of the golden era of Puerto Rican television, who moved to Hollywood in the 1990s. Amidst all the controversy of La Comay, she mentioned that Puerto Rico no longer has a television network of its own. She makes this point because the only way to change the absurdity of Puerto Rican television is if Puerto Ricans themselves owned the resources to make it better.
UPDATE: On January 8th, 2013, less than a month after Boicot a La Comay started, Antulio “Kobbo” Santarrosa submitted his resignation to WAPA TV in disagreement with the network’s new production guidelines for his show SuperXclusivo. In response to the financial backlash created by the boycott, WAPA decided that the show had to be taped and reviewed before going on the air to remove any content that might be offensive to their audience. There’s a rumor circulating that Miami-based MegaTV is considering to hire Santarrosa and Travieso, but the followers of the boycott have already posted numerous messages on its Facebook page. Any network considering the show would suffer the same fate as WAPA TV, WAPA America and Intermedia Partners.
The GOP needs an urgent dose of multicultural sensitivity if the party ever wants to attract those voters who once again exercised their choice and made a difference in the re-election of President Obama to office this past November 6th: African-Americans, Latinos, and the LGBT community. Watching their campaign evolve for the last couple of years it was impossible for me as a marketer not to cringe.
And just when I thought everything had been said and done, Mitt Romney does it again. On a conference call with campaign donors last Wednesday, Romney told them that President Obama won the election because he offered “gifts” to Latinos like access to healthcare and the promise of immigration reform. It’s amazing how this dude keeps putting his foot in his mouth. His comments make it very clear now that his 47% remark during the campaign was no slip of the tongue.
The GOP has a lot of work to do if they ever want to convince non-white voters that the Republican Party has their best interest in mind. The political rhetoric coming from its most prominent members perpetuates the divisiveness of this country and paints minorities as the cause for their failure. Stop making excuses and accept that your campaign was a mess, your policies don’t resonate with minorities, and your presidential candidate couldn’t hide his contempt for Latino voters.
Latino voters don’t want gifts, they want the same opportunities any immigrant group has had in this country. As an ethnic group, we actually depend less on government assistance than what the GOP leads people to believe. Just look at the facts, the percentage of the Latino population on food stamps is much lower than the percentage of white Americans. But of course, reporting numbers, statistics and data accurately is not important to the GOP.
I am a Latino, I migrated to this country almost 30 years ago and I have never depended on government assistance, and neither has anyone in my family. No one has ever given me a gift for being Latino, Mitt. Everything I have, I’ve earned myself through hard work.
With so many events in October celebrating diversity in advertising, I have been searching for anything published that takes a deeper dive into the issue. While much has been written in the trade media about it, I’m still coming up short on actionable and effective programs in place in the industry that indeed do what proponents of diversity and inclusion promote. Beyond outreach programs targeting young talent through internships and events, I haven’t found anything that connects executives at a senior level with the major shops in the business.
What is the real issue? In general market shops the conversation is focused on staffing. In AA and Hispanic shops the conversation has focused on representation in the media.
Who leads the dialogue?
If we look at the major sponsors of diversity efforts and events in the industry over the years, it’s easy to conclude that general market and AA agencies have lead most of the ad hoc dialogue on the subject, while we in the Hispanic business have remained “above the fray” for too long.
The AA influence is historical.
In the early 80s, AA agencies were talking about Black culture as the prevalent trend-setting force influencing American culture at large, pushing for a multicultural business approach, and pioneering the concept of an ethnically and socially diverse staff. I believe those are some of the reasons why African American executives have historically taken a leadership role on diversity issues.
Our lack of involvement is historical too.
Even though I tried to convince several Hispanic agencies to support the 4A’s MAIP initiative during my career, I succeeded only once. The excuse was always the same “we’re already hiring Latinos, so we’re are contributing to diversity.” I never saw any of the major Hispanic shops participate in MAIP during the years I was actively involved with the program. And frankly, I can only recall being asked to attend diversity events or participate in diversity efforts while working in general market and multicultural shops.
What to do?
1) Lead. Our leading industry Hispanic associations could kick-start a frank dialogue about diversity both internally and externally. What diversity means to the general market business and what it means to us.
2) Engage. Ask to be invited to the table by the 4As and the AAF and follow through. Identify Hispanic advocates and key opinion leaders that could commit and sustain an active role in this dialogue and support them in their efforts to bring the Hispanic POV to the forefront.
3) Educate. Conduct a full assessment of diversity within our Hispanic industry. Address the issues we are facing today and plan a strategy for the future that promotes diversity within agencies and clients.
4) Network. Create events that help Hispanic professionals connect with opportunities beyond the Hispanic industry to provoke change at a larger scale.
What should we really celebrate during Hispanic Heritage Month? That’s a question creative ad teams face every year and one that barely gets the attention it deserves. Latino culture is more than Spanish language and ancestry. It’s rich and diverse because it’s the product of a melting pot of many cultures and races. Along with Latinos of European descent, there are Jewish-Latinos, Asian-Latinos, Arab-Latinos, and Afro-Latinos. But beyond the occasional Caribbean skew in casting, our collective work as an industry is racially pretty uniform.
Early in my career I was forced to replace a model in a Hispanic print shoot because her skin was too dark. Since then, I’ve been vocal with my clients about the true racial and ethnic diversity of Latino culture. It’s an issue I know many creatives continue to face in the casting process. There are still clients and senior agency folks out there who are hung up on what a Latino should look like.
Take for instance, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican cultures - 100% Afro-Caribbean. It’s our identity, our aesthetics, our dialect, our music, our gastronomy, our spirituality, our way of life. But while we are the three most visible Afro-Latino sub-cultures in American media today, we don’t come close to painting the whole picture. When you factor in Afro-Latinos in Brazil, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Peru the number gets close to 50 million. So the African component of Latin American culture and ethnicity is quite meaningful and evident.
From one of the first men to document the contributions of Afro-Latinos and black Americans to U.S. History, to prominent figures in journalism, the arts, entertainment and sports, Afro-latinos have greatly influenced American culture at large for decades, but that influence is greatly underrepresented in U.S. Hispanic media and advertising. In fact, in a country where 45% of the Hispanics responding to the Census identified themselves as Mestizo. Mulato, Multiracial, or Black, such reality is seldom reflected in our work.
In the last decade I’ve seen some progress in the casting process sporadically, but I’m a witness to the many occasions we’re still asked as creatives to be specific about the the type of Latino we’re looking for, “Caribbean or Mexican?” It’s a question I still don’t understand because no one asking it has been able to describe what a Caribbean or a Mexican looks like beyond skin tone and hair texture. It’s a question I do not like because it masks a desire to profile our community racially. It’s stereotyping, it’s wrong, and it happens in advertising and in Hollywood today. I understand looking for a Mexican actor to play a Mexican part, or a Cuban actor to play a Cuban part, but why do we care if they are black, white, or any shade in between?
Nuvo TV , formerly known as SiTV, keeps evolving to attract one of the most underserved segments of the Hispanic market: bilingual, bicultural Latinos. For the past year Nuvo has been aggressively reinventing itself, and the cable network’s latest move could help them attract this segement of the Hispanic population, and perhaps more. Today Fox News Latino announced that JLo has become co-owner, giving the cable network access to programming generated by her production company, Nuyorican Productions. But what’s interesting about the announcement is that JLo will also be involved in distribution and marketing in exchange for a minority stake. I believe this move could help Nuvo reach an audience well beyond the Hispanic market, given JLo’s universal appeal. Smart move for Nuvo and Jennifer.