While the #MeToo movement garnered a lot of attention last year and even ensnared a well-known Latino writer, the sea change felt among some sectors and that continues this year will likely move at a slower pace in the Spanish-speaking world and that’s not surprising, say some observers.
“We haven’t even begun to see how this is in the Spanish-language media. It took a long time in the English-language media and it’ll take even longer in the Spanish language one,” says Pilar Marrero, a journalist living in Los Angeles. “There’s a certain cultural machismo in some Spanish-language sectors, and you see that not only in harassment issues but also in the lack of women in many decision making positions. The majority of people in leadership positions in Spanish-language media are men.”
Marrero, a native of Venezuela who has extensive experience working in Spanish-language media, says an added problem is the pervasive culture among many in the Latino community of tolerating behavior that would be considered unacceptable by others.
“This definitely has to change but it’s going to take longer to because many of us see this type of behavior as normal,” she says. “It may be infuriating and boorish but we think, well, that’s just how it’s been. We come from countries where a woman being a sexual object is considered normal and some of us aren’t sure we can do anything about it. When I first started working in Los Angeles for a Spanish-language paper there was a guy who would get up and stare whenever a woman would walk by and he would say I’m admiring your beauty. That’s just one example of many instances of sexist behavior.”
When Karla Amezola finally gathered the courage to call out her boss at the TV station where she was anchoring the evening news in Los Angeles, the last thing she figured would happen is that they would turn against her for accusing him of sexual harassment. Amezola was an anchor at LBI Media’s Estrella TV in California and says she had endured non-stop comments and humiliating entreaties from an executive who she says would offer to “take care of things.”
“It got to the point that on my way to work I wouldn’t be thinking about what story to cover or follow up on, but what could I say and do to avoid him,” says Amezola.
Marrero adds that Spanish-language television in particular is particularly egregious: “There’s a whole culture of how women look, like they’re almost eroticizing the females on air with the tight clothes, low cut blouses and dresses, high heels, and a lot of makeup, like they’re going out to a club and not reporting the news. They look like cabaret singers, not journalists. What does that have to do with journalism? It’s outrageous and part of a culture that we have to change. How one looks on the air is of course prevalent in both English and Spanish language media, but some Spanish language media take it to a different, undignified level. And then of course there’s the issue of ageism. In some English-language media you see women who have been on the air for decades but that’s rarely the case in Spanish-language media.”
Amezola ended up filing a sexual harassment complaint with the station’s human resources department and was removed from one of the prime shifts she anchored while the executive stayed on. After filing a lawsuit, she left the company, and the lawsuit is still pending. Ironically, Amezola won an Emmy for a special series she reported on the plight of Haitians seeking asylum in the United States. Since that happened two years ago, she had been freelancing in Los Angeles and driving for Uber and Lyft to make ends meet, but in January of this year landed a reporting gig with Telemundo.
“I don’t regret bringing it up and making the accusation. I regret not saying something sooner,” she says, adding that the situation would have gone far different for her had this happened after #MeToo exploded on the scene.
The era of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault has been called a watershed moment that brought to the forefront a long-standing culture of silence that has tolerated this behavior. “Things have changed a lot since I came out with my story. This was before #MeToo. I did this when I had no support or solidarity. It’s different now and companies don’t want to have the bad publicity and they don’t want to get into any kind of problem. We used to put up with it and dismiss it and now it’s different. It’s not tolerated anymore. To say it, to talk about it, it’s a good thing regardless of the consequences because the more we talk about it, the more we will see how it shouldn’t be tolerated anymore. I came to work, not to put up with what I had to put up with. I would do it [file a complaint] all over again.”
But whether what happened to Amezola is a situation that will not be tolerated anymore is still up in the air. Consider the case of award-winning author Junot Díaz, who last year was called out by several women, including writers Zinzi Clemmons, Alisa Valdés, and Carmen María Machado, for behavior ranging from “forceful kissing” to yelling and other degrading acts. Rumors of Díaz’s behavior toward women had been circulating for years and his work contains male characters that behave like wretches towards women, but it was in the middle of the #MeToo uproar that enveloped several prominent men that he became its most notable Latino and the Twittersphere exploded with comments.
At the time and through a publicist, Díaz issued a statement, saying, “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I chose to tell the story of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue. I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural moment. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.” Notably, Díaz didn’t apologize and several months later denied any and all allegations. “I was shocked,” Díaz told The Boston Globe. “I was, like, ‘Yo, this doesn’t sound like anything that’s in my life, anything that’s me.’ ”
The impact of the allegations clearly took the shine off of someone considered by some to be a wunderkind and darling of the Latino community – Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur “genius” awardee, and his accusers would agree with a line from his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that “No one, alas, is more oppressive than the oppressed.”
Before the allegations surfaced, Díaz had written a piece for the New Yorker where he recounted being raped at age eight and how that colored his relationships with women, acknowledging that he had betrayed some. César Vargas, an LA-based writer, tells LATINO Magazine that he’s not buying what Díaz said in the article: “The New Yorker piece sounded like a cover up before it was going to hit the fan. I don’t think his apology was genuine.”
A literary magazine in Boston decided to keep him on as an editor, prompting several editors to resign. Díaz is a professor at MIT, and the university conducted an investigation but later cleared him to continue to teach. “I don’t think he should be teaching. It’s too soon. He should be doing something else, like maybe taking some time off to think. They’re putting him back in the middle of where he shouldn’t be at,” says Vargas. “He left a trail of destruction.”
One of the hardest considerations victims have in coming forward is whether they will be believed and what will be the consequences for them or the accused, said journalist Ana Cabrera at a forum last year focusing on the issue sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists during its annual convention in Miami.
“It is so difficult for victims to share their stories. There are factors that are weighing that decision about whether to come out and share, and they fear repercussions. A lot of the perpetuators are people in positions of authority or power, and there’s also the question of will I be blamed. And in the Latino culture we are expected to tolerate a lot, and to some extent that can influence whether or not we report it.”
“In the Latino community,” adds Vargas, it is something different because we are very touchy-feely and that’s a cultural thing. And we joke a lot. Non-Latinos are a lot more reserved than us, and now it’s different. Now I put out my hand to greet someone and then let the Latina decide if she wants to shake my hand or give me a hug or kiss on the cheek. As men we are all somebody’s MeToo even if we’re not conscious about it. It may not be to the extent that we are assaulting people, but with different things that we do because of the way we are raised and the way society is.”
Kristie Gonzales, President and General Manager of KVUE-TV in Austin, Texas, says several procedures that many companies implement to ensure against harassment are there to protect the company. “And that is a different outcome than stopping sexual harassment. They aren’t geared toward an outcome that we need to not have MeToo be a thing anymore,” she says. “What is the number one thing that helps this? It’s having more women in leadership positions. If I don’t see a lot of women in management I don’t want to be in that company.”
María Peña, an independent journalist in Washington, D.C., says the #MeToo movement was a breakthrough for many Latinas: “What it’s been able to achieve is shine a spotlight on what women face in the workplace and at home and encourage them to break their silence. For Latinas it’s harder to break that cycle because we come from cultures where machismo is tolerated and silence is the norm. It’s a lethal combination to have silence and tolerance; it leads to fear.”
Peña concludes: “There was a big protest on Capitol Hill of Latina immigrants working in the fields because it’s a bigger problem for Latinas who are undocumented because they have the threat of deportation and they’re afraid to speak out and file complaints against their employers. And yet because of the #MeToo movement they found that courage to find their voice and speak out and press congress to pass laws to protect women in those situations. The movement is giving people courage to speak out.”
By Patricia Guadalupe