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Latest Univision Race Gaffe Shows Culture Gap

Hector Gabino
El Nuevo Herald

It happened again.

Spanish-language, Miami-area-based Univision -- the nation's fifth-largest television network -- has another racial insensitivity mess to clean up.

On Wednesday, Univision talk show host and fashion commentator Rodner Figueroa said first lady Michelle Obama -- America's first African-American first lady -- looks like an apocalyptic ape.

During a segment of "El Gordo y la Flaca," the network's long-running gossip show, Figueroa was discussing a make-up artist who painted himself to look like Obama. Figueroa told hosts Lili Estefan and Raul de Molina, “Well, watch out, you know that Michelle Obama looks like she’s from the cast of 'Planet of the Apes,' the movie.” He made the comment while photos of the first lady were shown.

  El Comentario Racista de Rodner Figueroa hoy en @elgordoylaflaca @univision #racismo #despido #rodnerfigueroa #primeradama #michellobama #tv A video posted by Javier Ceriani (@javierceriani) on Mar 11, 2015 at 9:17pm PDT

Univision released a statement Thursday saying the Venezuelan-born Figueroa had been fired immediately, and that his "reprehensible" comments "in no way reflect Univision’s values or views."

Good, Univision. But you're not in the clear yet.

This is only the latest incident of racism on the network's airwaves. During last year's soccer World Cup, Univision's sports commentators were condemned for referring to Afro-Latino soccer players as simply morenos -- equivalent to saying "the black guy" -- instead of using the players' last names.

During 2010's World Cup, hosted in South Africa, a skit on the network's morning show "Despierta America" had hosts wearing afro wigs and dancing around the set with spears.

Unfortunately, the problem isn't just Univision or whatever careless production team let that skit get past a pitch session. Univision is a U.S. conduit of Latin American culture; and painfully ignorant transgressions like these betray an ugly truth about Latin American culture: It's still really racist.

Credit Facebook
El Negro Mama is a character played by Peruvian sketch comedian Jorge Benavides.

Google it, if you don't believe me. In a matter of minutes you'll fall into an Internet rabbit hole of blackface in comedy shows, a comic strip of a black boy resembling a monkey, and what to me is the most egregious offense: Peru's Negro Mama, a grotesque character I'm ashamed to say is popular in my birth country where I lived for 11 years.

Afro-Peruvian activist Jorge Ramirez said Peru is "where the United States was in the 1950s" in terms of racial equality.

I'm inclined to say he's right. The U.S. civil rights movement did not sweep through Latin America. Efforts to bolster racial minorities have often focused on people of indigenous descent, leaving Afro-Latinos at the edge of the discourse.

But in the U.S., we live in a society where it's unacceptable for a host on a major TV network to compare the first lady's features to a simian. And Univision, again, was reminded of that this week.

Still, Figueroa says he was fired only after Univision received a complaint from the White House. (Univision has not yet responded to that charge.) For his part, Figueroa wrote an open letter that he meant as an apology to Michelle Obama -- but the mea culpa sounded less than genuine after he diluted it with claims that his termination was unjust and that he doesn't deserve to be labeled a racist.

Figueroa also insists he's not a racist because he's biracial: His father is black.

But that only makes his "ape" slur all the more inexcusable -- and all the more indicative of how clueless and outdated Latin America, and Latin Americans like Figueroa, remain about race.

And Latinos in the U.S., especially those of my younger generation, are tired of it. Tired of the way it all too often negatively defines us while we're trying to build a positive image of what it means to be Latin in this country.

That's why we need more than just a legal statement from Univision. We need corporate action -- starting with more racial integration inside its Doral studios and on its network programs.

It's time Univision started rejecting -- and stopped reflecting -- Latin America's racial culture.

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