What do a vice presidential candidate, lipstick and a Disney princess have in common? They’re all being used to pander to Latino communities.
Latino consumers’ dollars are abundant—an estimated $1.8 trillion dollars by 2020—and have been sought after for years in the form of advertising and crossover music, food and comedy. More recently, those dollars have expanded to votes—27 million votes, mas o menos.
It is little surprise that no party is more interested in those votes than the Democratic Party. Billionaire George Soros and other Democratic donors will be investing $15 million in Latino-focused voter mobilization efforts. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has promised to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority if elected. And in the days leading up to Clinton’s big announcement of her pick for vice president, the names of several prominent people of color were floating around like dreams, including Housing Secretary Julian Castro, a Chicano who grew up organizing in San Antonio, Texas.
When Clinton announced her pick, many Latino pundits were disappointed, but there was a silver lining offered: Tim Kaine speaks Spanish! Rather than address the lack of people of color running for and winning higher office, Latino communities were expected to be content with the fact that Kaine speaks both English and Spanish.
Big deal. So do I. So does my family. So do millions of Latinos. So did Jeb Bush, now the long-forgotten Republican presidential candidate hopeful. The U.S. has the second most Spanish speakers in the world, following Mexico. Roughly 11.6 million people in the U.S. are bilingual.
The larger issue is that the Latino vote is important when there is someone to elect. But for the remainder of the time, our community is not tapped for leadership opportunities. Nor are we taken seriously as power players.
In terms of our buying power, there are 55 million Latinos in the U.S. from various backgrounds (Mexican, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, etc.) who work in different industries. That means collectively, we have a lot of money to spend. Latinos spent an estimated $1.3 trillion in 2015.
I remember visiting my grandmother on Saturday nights as a child. She had the TV on Sabado Gigante, a variety show on Spanish-language television. After the comedy bits or musical acts, the host, Don Francisco, and a glamorous model would advertise American products: Colgate toothpaste, Mazola vegetable oil, McDonald’s.
I always enjoyed hearing them speak about the products in Spanish but pronounce the product name in perfect English; it felt as though I was in on a joke that American television didn’t understand. Since then, there are various Mexican and Latin American products available in the U.S.: Fabuloso (cleaning product), Pan Bimbo (bread and cookies), Jaritos (soda) as well as anything Jennifer Lopez is selling (currently, her brand of clothing for Kohl’s).
Lopez, a Puerto Rican dancer-turned-actress-turned-singer-turned-pop culture icon, got her big break portraying slain Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla. Selena, who had a huge following across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, was a singer who was murdered just as her crossover career was beginning. A role model for thousands of young Chicanas like myself, Selena was everything we wanted to be—beautiful, talented, with a handsome husband and impeccable style. Her style was classic mid-90’s Chicana: long dark hair, black liquid eyeliner and dark red lipstick. I felt robbed when she was murdered and have always kept a spot for her in my heart.
When MAC makeup announced its Selena line, after a fan petition gathered 37,770 signatures, at first I was ecstatic. But then I learned that MAC had released a line of shades a few years ago that were named after Juarez, a city on the U.S./Mexico border. The names, which were highly offensive (“factory” “del norte” “quinceñera”), were criticized and eventually pulled by the retailer. This was a reminder that companies targeting Latinos are focused on profit, not culture.
Likewise, Disney’s newest princess, Elena of Avalor, is being hailed as a breakthrough for diversity. But we must pause and consider the fact that Elena, as beautifully as she is drawn, is from a mythical “Latino kingdom” that seems to mirror Spain, and her story predates European invasion of the Americas. That makes her European, not Latina.
Soon there will be Elena backpacks, dolls, t-shirts, tea sets and beach towels, marketed to young brown girls and their parents, hungry for any kind of representation in mainstream media. Putting all the obvious problematic aspects aside (including princess culture and its effect on young girls), Elena of Avalor represents the expectation that Latinos are one, big culture and our origins are unimportant.
To be sure, Latino communities deserve to see ourselves represented in mainstream media, and our stories are important—in any language. The problem is why and how Latino engagement is pursued. The goal is to sell us something—a candidate, a lipstick, a princess—without taking our history, diversity and modern issues into consideration. And the tactics mimic pandering.
Rather than view us as a desirable demographic only with dollars to spend or votes to cast, we need at all times an equal space to lead, create, build and discover the intersections between our own communities.
This column originally ran in TIME.