Journalists convened in Haven Hall Tuesday afternoon for a panel to discuss the representation of Latinx issues, perspectives and voices in American journalism. More than 50 students and faculty attended the event, which featured two Knight-Wallace fellows, Luis Trelles and Aaron Nelsen, and two local journalists from Detroit, Serena Maria Daniels and Sarah Alvarez.
The University of Michigan Latina/o Studies Program hosted the panel, in collaboration with Wallace House and the Department of American Culture. Larry La Fountain-Stokes, the interim director of the Latina/o Studies Program in the Department of American Culture, was the main organizer behind the event.
“This event came about as a collaboration with the Wallace House to take advantage of the fact that so many of the fellows this year were either Latino or Latina, or covering topics pertaining to Latinos or Latinas in the United States,” La Fountain-Stokes said.
With President Donald Trump’s administration’s focus on immigration laws and the president’s often generalized negative remarks towards the Mexican population, La Fountain-Stokes noted the relevance of this panel in the current political climate.
“This is a complex, historical moment to be covering Latino/a people and Latin America,” La Fountain-Stokes said. “You could argue that it is a hostile environment.”
The panel opened with a discussion of the term “Latino.” According to Trelles, despite its common usage by media outlets and in news articles, it generalizes the diversity of Latin America and glosses over the cultural and regional differences.
“Latino issues — It can be a very convenient label for politicians and for marketing, but very often the issues that affect a third generation Puerto Rican from the Bronx are very different from the issues that affect Cubanos in South Florida,” Trelles said.
Kinesiology sophomore Kim Morales is a member of La Casa and identifies as Latinx. She said she found the panel to be a fresh take on the modern discourse surrounding the Latinx identity.
“The Latinx community is very diverse and the stories that are told are often not reflective of our community,” Morales said. “And that’s reflective of American society in general.”
But at the same time, according to Trelles, there are shared identities, histories and sometimes problems that affect these communities on a national level. And it is this reason, Trelles said, that it is important to recognize the nuances behind it.
“Beyond country of origin or geographic placement, the different factors that form this broad community has to do with language, ethnicity, race, et cetera,” Trelles said.
Alvarez is the founder and executive editor of Outlier Media and through her focus on a localized perspective, she believes journalism should be responsive to the needs of the people, rather than the needs of a big institutional newspaper. According to Alvarez, the difficulty of finding the proper language to describe such a range of communities is the reason that coverage is so poor.
“Even for those who do have an identity that is rooted in Latinx, we’re not necessarily going to do a good job representing this community because it is so big,” Alvarez said. “We can see it’s being poorly done in American journalism. People are too far away from it, the coverage is too far away.”
According to Nelsen, who was a former Time Magazine correspondent and New York Times contributor in Chile, the way Latin America is covered by the international community is very distinct. And due to a lack of diversity and imagination in newsrooms, there is a limited view of stories.
“You can see it with the caravan stories — they all focus on tragedy and misery,” Nelsen said. “The way the United States views Latino communities is that they try to put everybody into a couple of boxes.”
Trelles explained how the way journalists contextualize their stories has a bigger impact on the world as demographic shifts provide more opportunities. When Trelles was covering Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, he witnessed the particular ways the story was framed on TV and newspaper articles.
“Trump isn’t the story, ” Trelles said. “It has to do with Trump, but it also has to do with the negligence of local authorities, and that was lost because people focused on the bigger Trump story.”
According to Nelsen, elitism in bigger media outlets often makes it difficult for stories to be told with a focus on local politics or the narratives of community members.
“The opportunity to story-tell continues to grow as we convince our editors and the world as to why a story is important,” Nelsen said.
Storytelling was a common theme throughout the panel. Many panelists said it is one of their values as writers and journalists, as well as one of their inspirations.
“The deepest connection that can be made through journalism is storytelling,” Trelles said. “It’s the best way of learning how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes without having to travel to that indigenous community of Mexico.”
Trelles concluded by emphasizing journalists’ duty to dive into stories and bring to light the diversity within the Latinx community.
“Latin America is united by language and the shared history, but divided by the kinds of beans they eat,” Trelles said. “The moral is that there’s a lot more than the surface, and it is our responsibility to recognize that.”