Belonging in a New Home: Discursive Othering of Latin American Immigrants in U.S. Print Media

By Bill Kakenmaster
Clocks and Clouds
2016, Vol. 7 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |


If the former section meant to provide a descriptive portrait of the U.S. print media's representations of Latin Americans in 2015, this section is more akin to a traditional, qualitatively oriented discourses analysis, where I attempt to describe, analyze, and contextualize several themes that appear within the discourse of study. In that spirit, several themes arise out of the texts that do not necessarily give negative portrayals of Latin Americans, but nonetheless represent problematic findings. Those themes include tokenism, patronizing and paternalistic representations, and victimization.


Much of the media's discursive representation of Latin Americans in the U.S. involves using Latinos, immigrants, and Latin Americans as tokens to achieve a symbolic or contrived idea of ethno-racial equality, empowering the tokenizing group and oppressing the tokenized. Consider the following passage:

Starting in the 1980s, as civil war tore the country apart, thousands of Salvadorans uprooted their families to start life anew in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs around Washington. As their numbers swelled over the years, so did their restaurants, which introduced many of us to the masa cake at the center of Salvadoran life: the pupusa, a handmade round dedicated to frugality and deep corn fragrance.

Often compared to a gordita or an arepa, the pupusa has a personality all its own, less flashy and more workmanlike. At least it is in Washington, where the masa pocket has proved immune to fashion, its flavors and ingredients seemingly locked in place, as if Salvadoran immigrants decided long ago that one thing would remain constant in their chaotic exodus from the mother country (Carman 2015).

This reference to the Salvadoran Civil War—and the reference to "their restaurants"—tokenizes Salvadoran Americans. In other words, mentioning the country's civil war does not pertain to the article's context—a culinary review. Moreover, after mentioning this complex historical event, the article quickly devolves into a traditionally stereotypical representation of Latinos and Hispanics in the U.S., namely that of the hard working cook or restaurateur. Other articles similarly represent Latin Americans' hard work in relation to traditionally stereotypical careers in manual labor. For example:

The new residents, crucially, were not from East Los Angeles, where Mexican-Americans had developed an activist political tradition since the 1960s. Instead, they were Mexican, straight from the ranchos – small villages on Mexico's frontiers, far from the center and from government. Most came here to work in jobs they believed, even after decades, would be temporary. They focused their lives on returning home someday. They packed into cheap housing and spent their savings on building homes back in Mexico (Quinones 2015).

The following passage interestingly employs two distinct strategies in its discursive representation of Puerto Ricans.

But the surge of Puerto Ricans does not always make for an easy transition. Increasingly, it is also having an impact on schools and government service agencies, both of which are working to help absorb the latest arrivals, particularly those with children in schools.

As a result, schools are scrambling to hire more bilingual teachers (some of them also from Puerto Rico) and expand dual-language programs that can best suit Puerto Ricans. In the last month alone, the Osceola County School District […] registered more than 1,000 new students, many of them Puerto Ricans, said Dalia Medina, the director of the multicultural department for the school district.

"We are a mini-Puerto Rico here," she said. "We are now 58 percent Hispanic in the schools, and every year we have increased" (Alvarez 2015).

On the one hand, this passage tokenizes Puerto Ricans in a manner similar to the previous two articles; it uses Puerto Rican nationality to provide a surface level example of the school's diversity. On the other hand, however, it appropriates Puerto Rican nationality, claiming that the school itself represents "a mini-Puerto Rico."

Moving beyond the initial analysis of media portrayals of Latin Americans thus reveals the nuances behind both positive and negative results. These three passages returned positive results—they imply that Salvadorans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans do work hard. However, presenting their hard work in stereotypical and tokenizing ways represents a superficially positive portrayal of Latin Americans that nonetheless maintains the previously existing stratified social structure. Tokenism maintains unequal social hierarchies by expanding diversity and inclusion on a surface level, thereby trivializing them. In other words, claiming that a school in Florida is a "mini-Puerto Rico," or that Salvadorans contribute to the United States' ethnic and culinary traditions speak past concerns over the substantive nature of intercultural relations, such as discrimination, intolerance, bigotry, and so on. This representation of the hard-working Latin American is, furthermore, intertextual in that it calls to mind historic, racist U.S. government policies such as Operation Wetback, which sought to forcibly deport mass numbers of Mexican and Latin American immigrants (Korte 2013). It is also self-referential in that it perpetuates problematic media discourses. The term "wetback"—meant to refer to Mexican and Latin American immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande River to find work in the Southwest U.S.—first appeared in the New York Times in 1920, indicating how extensively the hard working Latino trope has been (re) produced, legitimized, and internalized in media discourses (Breitigam 1920).

Furthermore, if Latin Americans' identities have been fixed to the concept of hard work for the better part of a century, then abandoning any negative connotation with Latin Americans' ambition does little to fundamentally alter the representation of those identities. Essentially, not disparaging Latin Americans while still linking them to traditionally discriminatory identity features maintains the current discursive balance of power between Latin Americans and non-Latin Americans while absolving any culpability by powerful discursive actors—like dominant U.S. media sources—to problematize that balance of power. Within this paradigm, Latin Americans are implicitly, perhaps unconsciously, portrayed as hard working, but only in making arepas, on the rancho, and in assimilating to U.S. culture, suggesting little change in media (re)presentations of their identities.

The point, lastly, is not that diversity does not exist in the previous three passages, nor that those passages necessarily represent consciously prejudiced depictions of Latin Americans. Rather, these three passages represent an unconscious, internalized sense of cultural dominance, which feeds into the dominant media portrayal of Latin Americans that typifies them according to their ambition in the manual labor and service industries instead of resisting such a discourse. While tokenism appears as one problematic theme in media representations of Latin Americans in the U.S., patronizing and paternalistic themes also arise out of the text.

Patronizing and Paternalistic Representations

Common among U.S. media's discursive representation of Latin Americans is a patronizing, and oftentimes paternalistic, sense of superiority. Patronizing representations of Latin Americans may seek to expose bad government policies or facilitate acculturation, but they nonetheless establish a hierarchical power structure where Latin Americans are subordinated to other U.S. citizens. On the one hand, this discursive strategy differs from the above in that more directly defines the identities of Latin Americans in relation to U.S. culture, whereas tokenism only co-opts Latin Americans' identities without necessarily requiring their relative cultural definition. In a New York Post feature on Cuban-American baseball player Yoenis Céspedes, for example, the author describes how Cespedes [sic] was completely enamored with the new technology, experiencing unfamiliar luxuries while training in the Dominican Republic with former Packers running back Ahman Green.

"He was like a kid in a candy store," said Green, who connected with Cespedes [sic] through mutual friends. "He was really drawn to my iPhone, with all the games and apps. He was censored from a lot of stuff, so just going online and going on Facebook, it was all brand new. He was eager to know about adapting to everything in the United States" (Kussoy 2015).

Similar to above, the point is not so much that this representation of Céspedes is divorced from his "true" identity. Perhaps, as this passage suggests, he had never seen or used an iPhone before. However, this nonetheless reinforces the dominant understanding of Cuba as "a society so closed, full of prejudice and discrimination, [and] with state control over every step of its [citizens' lives]," including limiting their access to technology (Masjuán 2010, 108). Of course, governments should not prohibit their citizens' reasonable use of technology, but this subtle commentary on Cuba's lack of technological freedom essentially politicizes Céspedes' identity, and subjugates him to an oppressive dictatorial regime, which itself appears subjugated to a supposedly freer and morally superior United States.

This association of Latin Americans with technological or cultural illiteracy extends beyond Cubans. Consider a Washington Post article, which describes the history of the Spanish language TV show Línea Directa in Washington, D.C.:

The earliest version of the program took two years to come to fruition. Working with a young Colombian broadcaster, Arturo Salcedo, and using borrowed equipment and family members as actors, the partners began recording 30-second public service announcements in Spanish on everything from fire prevention to counseling for alcoholism.

The spots covered how to use seat belts, enroll children in school and access publicly funded health care – information that was hard for new immigrants to obtain in an era when government agencies rarely had materials written in Spanish, or employees fluent in the language. The spots eventually were broadened into a half-hour news show that the local Univision station included in its prime-time lineup on Wednesdays and Saturdays (Hernández 2015).

If the passage referring to Cespedes represents the paternalism of the discourse, to the extent that highlighting his technological illiteracy as a product of his nationality establishes a power structure that subordinates Cubans to other nationalities, then the Washington Post passage similarly patronizes Latinos generally. Implicitly, the identities of Latinos are constructed as inferior both in terms of technological literacy and cultural competence given their status as immigrants. However—and with specific regard to technological literacy—these identity constructions contribute to a dominant discourse in which Latin America "has been seen as dependent, exploited, and institutionally weak" (López-Alves 2011, 243). Even if patronizing elements of the media discourse have good intentions to help correct perceived deficiencies in Latin American immigrants' technological literacy and cultural competence, they betray a distinct air of superiority that nonetheless casts the role of immigrants as consumers of technological and cultural knowledge, and non-Latino residents of the U.S. as either knowledge producers or gatekeepers.

Victimization and Politics

The representation of Latin Americans in relation to ethnic and identity politics is somewhat unsurprising given the increasing convergence of ethnicity and politics in contemporary U.S. political discourse. As observed earlier, 2016 U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stated: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. […] They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people" (TIME Staff 2015). Perhaps unsurprisingly, 66% of prospective Hispanic and Latino voters said they would vote for Hillary Clinton in a Pew Research Center poll, while only 24% would support Donald Trump (Pew Research Center 2016, 49). Other polls indicate an even more apparent convergence between ethnicity and political preference; a Wall Street Journal and NBC News poll suggests 82% of registered Hispanic voters would vote for Clinton, while only 14% would vote for Trump (O'Connor 2016). Therefore, the connection between Latin American identity and politics in media discourses is unsurprising. It does, however, present a pervasive and problematic view of Latin Americans as victims of a corrupt political system, which ironically places their political identities outside that system and degrades their political agency.

The primary point of departure for connecting Latin American identity to U.S. politics seems, unsurprisingly, to be Donald Trump. Two discursive strategies characterize the U.S. media discourse surrounding the country's Latin American diaspora. First, it produces and reproduces the same or similar politically charged narratives of Latin Americans. The Washington Post alone reprinted the sound bite of Trump labelling Latin Americans as "rapists" a total of 92 times. For reference, the Daily News and New York Times reprinted it nine times each, and USA Today reprinted it three times. At first glance, this finding helps orient the papers' political perspectives. At the one end of the spectrum, the New York Post did not reprint the "rapists" sound bite whatsoever, which seems easily explainable. If the "guilt by association theory" of Trump's politically damaging rhetoric is believed, then we should not react with shock when right-leaning sources like the New York Post fail to reproduce such rhetoric (Clement 2015). At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, that the Washington Post reprinted rhetoric that would clearly damage Trump's standing with U.S. Latinos by a factor of 10 times the next highest figure likely indicates the Post's left-leaning stance (Blake 2016). Of course, none of this suggests that either side is wrong for distancing themselves from beliefs they do not necessarily hold, or for holding Trump to account for his inflammatory and racist rhetoric. However, the scale of discursive reproduction employed by certain media sources serves to clarify their political leanings.

At the same time, such identity reproduction normalizes destructive representations of Latin Americans' identities, paradoxically empowering such representations while attempting to resist them. In a deeply ironic moment of self-reflection, the Huffington Post asks: "Has The Media Become Comfortably Numb to Donald Trump?" (Linkins 2016). Indeed, a fine line exists between supposedly honest reporting and reproducing "divisive and hateful rhetoric toward Mexicans and Latinos" ad nauseum (Parker 2015). Recall Figure 3, which theorizes that as identities are (re)produced, they reinforce and reify the specific historical structures, institutions, and social norms of any given discourse. Paradoxically, then, attempts to expose negative representations of Latin Americans render themselves ineffectual past a certain threshold where they simply contribute to a seemingly endless stream of hate-fueled rhetoric.

If, in the first place, the constant reproduction of Latin American identities involves determining their position relative to non-Latin Americans, then it secondarily involves an oftentimes implicit normative bias against perceived injustices against Latin Americans. The Daily News, for example, called Trump's suggestion that he would win the Latino vote "loco," going on to state:

Even as he slimed Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and drug pushers, Oval Office hopeful Donald Trump says he's still confident he'll carry the Latino vote – because Hispanics just "love" him.

"I'll create jobs and the Latinos will have jobs they didn't have, I'll do better on that vote than anybody," The Donald boasted Wednesday on NBC News.

But on CNN, the mouthy mogul admitted he "can't guarantee" there are no illegal immigrants in the ranks of his own workforce – and if there are he'd fire them.

Trump has sparked outrage – and won himself some supporters – with a series of screeds on immigration and Mexico that began the very first day of his campaign for the GOP nomination last month. A backlash ensued, with NBC, Macy's and a parade of others soon refusing to do business with him.


Nonetheless, Trump said of Latinos, "They love me. I love them" (Hastings, Katz, and Fermino 2015).

Labelling Trump as a "mouthy mogul," the sarcastic scare quotes in the first paragraph, and the characterization of his remarks as having "slimed" Mexican immigrants suggests a negative stance towards Trump and a positive stance towards Mexican immigrants. The victimization extends beyond the discursive realm, however, with articles from the Washington Post detailing how Trump's rhetoric affects business interests and legal rapport with Latin Americans:

During one of the two news conferences Trump held in Texas, [Telemundo anchor] Diaz-Balart reminded the candidate that 53,000 Hispanics turn 18 each month and that many are offended by his suggestion that Mexicans crossing the border are rapists or criminals.

"No, no, no, we're talking about illegal immigration and everybody understands that. And you know what? That's a typical case – wait – that's a typical case of the press with misinterpretation," Trump shot back in response. […] And I tell you what – what's really going to be fun? I'm suing Univision for $500 million and I'm gonna tell ya – we're going to win a lot of money because of what they've done."

"You're finished," Trump told Diaz-Balart.

"He never allowed me to finish asking my question," DiazBalart told his viewers.

Notably, neither network included Trump's reminder to supporters that he's suing Univision. The network dropped plans to air the Miss Universe pageant – one of Trump's dozens of business interests – because of his comments about illegal immigrants. In response, Trump has said he will sue the network for breach of contract (O'Keefe 2015).

The victim narrative further extends beyond Trump (whom we might identify as the lynchpin for this narrative). For instance, following a gathering of "Democratic Hispanic Leaders" in Nevada, the Washington Post reports:

[A]head of tonight's GOP debate in Las Vegas, photos of Cruz and Rubio were plastered alongside Trump's picture, as all three were criticized as anti-Latino. A press release noted, "While Trump continues to grab headlines with his hateful anti-Latino, anti-immigrant language, the positions and records of the two Latino presidential candidates in the race are equally dangerous for Nevada communities."

Dolores Huerta, an influential labor leader and civil rights activist, called Cruz and Rubio "sellouts" and "traitors" at the gathering and said the Hispanic candidates "are turning their backs on the Latino community" (Jordan 2015).

In what can only be considered supreme irony, this Post article reproduces the identities of Latin Americans as victims of themselves. Or, rather, that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio betray the U.S. Latin American community and show their true natures as "anti-Latino" candidates, as if the Latino experience and political identity could be so reductively and singularly defined.

The problem with this bully narrative of Trump does not lie in its falsity. Again, this paper is not concerned with media constructions of politicians' identities, so discursive representations of candidates are irrelevant. The problem, rather, lies in the necessary opposite role the media constructs for Latin Americans— namely, that of the victim. Constantly reproducing Latin Americans as victims defined by their relation to a political bully accomplishes the singularly important function of legitimizing the role of the media in exposing perceived injustices against Latin Americans, and thereby reducing their ability to define and address social problems themselves. In other words, reproducing Latin Americans as victims within a corrupt system of elite politics disregards their role as political agents, and helps keep U.S. newspapers in business.

Othering and Problem Definition

These three themes serve both to other Latin Americans and degrade their political agency. Recall from the section 3 that othering consists of establishing an "in-group/out-group distinction" through the conscious or unconscious manipulation of discourse, which both validates a group's own sets of beliefs, practices, values, and symbols and "becomes clearer as we try to eliminate the ambiguities" between groups (Weaver 2013, 203). To the extent that media discourses fix Latin Americans' identities to certain nodes—whether drugs, theft, assault, education, success, or hard work—those reproductions reinforce either dominant or alternative discursive representations of Latin Americans and clarify any potentially extant in-group/out-group distinctions contained therein. Furthermore, in clarifying these intercultural boundaries, the extent to which the nodes fixed to Latin Americans agree with the nodes fixed to the dominant U.S. culture is irrelevant. In other words, perhaps fixing Latin Americans positively to hard work agrees with the dominant American work ethic, but that does not necessarily suggest agreement between the types of ambition conceptualized and subsequently valued.5 Therefore, the media discourses investigated in this paper serve to other Latin Americans in relation to the dominant U.S. culture.

Beyond simply othering Latin Americans in the U.S., media discourses also degrade Latin Americans' political agency. In The Politics of Problem Definition, David Rochefort and Roger Cobb outline how political conflicts can arise from disputes over "(1) whether a problem exists, (2) what the best solution is, and (3) what the best means of implementation are," with the definers of any given socio-political problem invariably influencing these three steps in the problem definition process (1994, 5). If we apply othering theory to The Politics of Problem Definition, we can begin thinking about the ways in which those with the greatest amount of cultural capital—the in-group—come to dominate certain discourses, thereby framing any given problem one way or another. Simply by defining the problem of, for example, Donald Trump's racist rhetoric against Latin Americans, the existence, potential solution, and implementation of that solution becomes laden with the values, symbols, and meanings inserted by the dominant U.S. media culture. Thus, no matter how the problem of Latin American immigration comes to be defined, the dominant U.S. media definition of that problem excludes and diminishes the ability of the Latin American diaspora itself to define the problem and manipulate the discourse according to that definition.

Within the dominant U.S. media discourse, Latin Americans are othered by tokenism, patronizing and paternalistic representations, and victimizing definitions of Latin Americans in relation to their political positions and contemporary U.S. politicians. The dominant discourse further degrades Latin Americans political agency by defining the problem of their immigration for them, rather than allowing the community to define the problem itself.

Conclusions and Avenues for Further Research

How does so much inflammatory, prejudiced rhetoric exist in the U.S., while the dominant media discourse seemingly give an overwhelmingly positive representation of Latin Americans? This study offers as a solution that symbolically and surface-level positive representations obfuscate more nuanced discursive themes that tokenize, paternalize, and victimize Latin Americans on a deeper level. At an abstract level, these themes other Latin Americans and degrading their political agency. Superficially positive representations of Latin Americans help clarify the distinction between immigrants and the dominant U.S. culture and shift the ability to define the socio-political problem of their immigration from the Latin American population to the dominant U.S. cultural agents, such as print media.

Exposing false-positive representations of Latin Americans in media discourses is a product of this study's partial employment of quantitative data. Critical discourse analysts often assume discourse is essentially non-quantifiable, but in mapping the power relations between one or more discursive representations of any given group, problem, or practice, quantifying discourse offers equal—if not necessarily greater—concrete evidence. Moreover, quantitative data acts as a bulwark against attempts to take CDA too far and "reveal racism," using only a few select examples. I maintain CDA's normative mission in this study, but challenge its methodologists to reflect critically on both their reliance on qualitative data and assumptions regarding the extent to which CDA can address certain normative questions.

Further research could follow two paths. First, future research could apply alternative methodologies to the study of Latin American identity construction in media discourses. While this paper avoided hypothesis testing, neo-positivist research might advance several hypotheses to understand if, for instance, media sources disproportionately index prejudiced, anti-immigrant policymakers compared to non-prejudiced, pro-immigration policymakers. This would broaden subjectarea knowledge on several theoretical and methodological levels too lengthy to discuss here. Second, future research could follow from this study and investigate the practical effects of othering and political agency degradation on Latin Americans' success at political, economic, and social integration. Such research would broaden subject-area knowledge across disciplines, perhaps influencing media practices, social justice activism, and so on.

In all of this, we must reflect critically on the specific discourses, narratives, and worldviews that enable oppression. Media discursive othering practices can reflect serious and disguised senses of cultural dominance, and—whether or not these translate into "real-world" oppression—I remain wary of the ways in which non-dominant cultural groups are constructed as tokens, patrons, or victims. Nonetheless, the tension between constructing Latin Americans as hard working model citizens in one sense, and belittling them in another, underscores the importance of the media's self-legitimation mechanism. As exposing hardships that befall U.S. Latinos' cultural, political, economic, and social integration, then, the major newspapers in America authorize themselves as reporters. Doing so degrades the ability of Latin Americans as political agents to define the problem of their immigration themselves. The self-legitimation of the dominant U.S. media sources creates discourses on immigrant communities that are—on the one hand—superficially positive, but frankly disempowering on the other hand.


Bill Kakenmaster is a student of International Studies and Spanish. He graduates in May of 2017. School of International Service (SIS) and College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), American University. Email:


I acknowledge and am thankful for the generous funding of this project by American University's School of International Service, and by SIS Dean's Council Member Dr. Sherry Mueller. I am further indebted to both Dr. Jeffrey Bachman and Dr. Aaron Boesenecker for their constant support, time, mentorship, and expertise.


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  1. See Appendix A for a complete list of search terms.
  2. Discourse theory considers linguistic signifiers "empty" until filled with meaning by different discursive actors. For an example of this, see (Ziai 2009).
  3. See Appendix A for a full coding rubric.
  4. See Appendix B for tabulated data.
  5. Recall the "Tokenism" section, where Latin Americans' ambitions were fixed to manual and service labor industries. Cf. (Camarota and Zeigler 2009). Furthermore, empirical evidence exists to suggest that U.S. culture does value hard work. On this, see (Weaver 2013, 135).


Appendix A: Search Terms and Coding Rubric

Appendix B: Tabulated Data for Figures 5 and 6

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