Journalists must guard against perpetuating stereotypes

Chris Cobler By Chris Cobler

April 23, 2014 at 5:02 p.m.
Updated April 22, 2014 at 11:23 p.m.

Few in Victoria love the American Book Review reading series more than Advocate reporter Carolina Astrain.

She reads the authors' books, interviews and writes about them before they arrive and reports on their appearances at the University of Houston-Victoria.

In that spirit, she prepared for Thursday's talk by Domingo Martinez, author of "The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir." She was struck by his prologue about Vicente Fernandez's song "El Rey" ("The King"), which was tremendously popular in South Texas during the author's youth.

The author wrote that the song described the machismo culture that prevailed along the border when he was growing up in Brownsville. Astrain, a Latina who grew up in Houston, thought this song also would work well as the illustration to accompany her preview story Tuesday about Martinez's reading.

She pitched the idea of using irony by putting the author in the traditional mariachi outfit worn by Fernandez to illustrate the stereotypes Martinez rails against in his book. The Advocate's presentation editor, Kimiko Fieg, who grew up in Japan and later became a U.S. citizen, agreed and created the artwork.

About an hour before deadline Monday, copy editor/page designer Jose Enriquez, who grew up in Corpus Christi, raised a concern about the stereotypical imagery of a sombrero and a mariachi outfit used in the illustration.

Features editor J.R. Ortega, who grew up in the Texas border town of La Feria, agreed with the concern but said he thought we could address that by adding a caption explaining the Fernandez song.

This editor, an Anglo who grew up in Topeka, Kan., said that sounded like an acceptable solution and allowed the package to move ahead. We have created dozens of illustrations for the reading series, some also examining racial and ethnic themes, and received extensive praise from the university community for them and our articles.

Martinez, though, found the illustration offensive and completely contrary to the message of his book. This reaction prompted a 45-minute discussion Tuesday among editors about what we missed in our thinking and our processes.

We all agreed we don't want to perpetuate harmful racial or ethnic stereotypes. Most agreed the illustration could be seen as doing this, however unintentionally.

We also agreed we need to try to consider the complex issues of race and ethnicity earlier in our processes and with more clarity and precision in our coverage. We regret failing to do that with this illustration.

In a phone call Wednesday, Martinez explained his disappointment to me but was quite gracious in accepting my apology. He talked about his background in newspapers and his appreciation for what the independent press tries to do.

We hope this experience improves our journalism while promoting a constructive community conversation about cultural identity and what that means in South Texas and beyond.

Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at or at 361-574-1271.



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