For me, February was a month about two magazine covers. And the most remarkable thing was that although the two covers were separated by nearly two decades, there's a thread that connects them in a single narrative: the inevitable empowerment of people of color in post-digital America.
The first cover was for the November 1993 edition of Time Magazine, featuring a computer-generated image of "The New Face of America." I used that photo in a February 9 Forbes article about the emergence of new tools and practices for empowering employees in today's economy. The point that my co-authors and I were making is that while empowering people was the original promise of the web, only now do we have a good understanding of how this can be done. The second cover - for Time's March 5 edition - began to circulate toward the latter part of the month. And it was a big sensation. The cover, the first of its kind for Latinos, featured the faces of 20 Hispanics (well, almost 20 - more about that in a moment) for a story about how "Latinos will pick the next president."
While it may seem old-fashioned - a relic of an era when mainstream news shaped our consciousness - the Time Magazine cover can still provoke, excite, and confer legitimacy to a story that's already been told in other venues. Among many other places, the story about Latino power in politics has been told here in this column. And Time's still-impressive reach (a good cover can generate enormous traffic) can help a story gain an audience with people who might otherwise have remained clueless. But more important, from where I stand - as an advisor to businesses, NGOs, and government entities that have been astonished by the rise of Latinos online - the most interesting thing about Time covers is their ability to create big moments for reflection. If Time is right, this is a Latino moment (not the first, but perhaps the biggest one to date). And if that's true, what should we be doing this fine spring (dare I say Latino Spring)?
Embrace the Complexities
One of the great things about the cover story is that even its shortcomings created an opportunity to reflect. It wasn't long after publication that a writer for OC Weekly spotted a flaw on the cover. "A friend of mine, Michael Schennum, is the short-haired gentleman in the top row, center, behind the letter 'M.' He is half Chinese and Irish and Norwegian. Not Latino. Not even a little bit." This, of course, created a major stir, prompting many other writers to ask how Time could have fumbled so big. Marcia Dawkins at The Huffington Post concluded that the magazine confused race and ethnicity, and called for a more "full color" analysis of an obviously complex story (for Time's response to the flap, go here). Esther Cepeda, a syndicated columnist, found something else. She cited an editor's desk letter to readers by Time's Richard Stengel where he wrote, "For the first time in our history, we have a Spanish sentence as our cover line: Yo decido. I decide." Cepeda reacted:
Applause and gratitude to Stengel and his staff of distinguished journalists for choosing to feature the increasing clout of Latino voters, but I wish they had made history differently.
Yes, speaking to someone in their native tongue can be a sign of affection and respect. But here's the problem: Speaking to Latinos in a language other than English promotes the myth that Hispanics don't, can't or won't speak it.
Cepeda, who went on to explain how English is fast becoming the language of choice for Hispanic Americans (a trend that I myself have weighed in on), worried that the Spanish on the cover "fires up the people who look at such a cover and see concrete evidence that their beloved country is on its way to being drenched by a so-called demographic tsunami that will leave anyone who doesn't speak Spanish behind." But each of these above missteps helps leaders to understand the real work that needs to be done in communicating the Latino moment. In short, there are many complexities that need to be addressed when telling the story. But one of these complexities - how despite the differences that exist among many Latinos, we have the capacity to come together around umbrella issues (jobs, education, and civil liberties) - was well illustrated in the Time article. It's the reason why brands and politicians are chasing the Latino market, and why the story actually deserves a cover on Time.
From the Inside Out
But the bigger opportunity is not for brands and politicians who want to court the Latino consumer/citizen, but Latinos themselves. One of the main protagonists in the Time story was Daniel Valenzuela, a Phoenix firefighter who won a set on the city council by organizing a team of 100-plus young Latinos who "walked the streets of west Phoenix five or six days a week last summer, when temperatures topped 118 F. By Election Day in 2011, the group had made about 72,000 visits door to door, returning four or five times to many homes." In a recent column, I asked, "Who owns the Latino narrative?" I answered: "Increasingly, Latinos do; and of course, for Latinos, that's a good thing." Which is not to say there's no opportunity for brands and politicians, but whereas the Latino is the protagonist, the brand and politician must be content to play more of a "supporting" role. That is in fact the role that a number of savvy politicians are playing, but not everyone has seen the script.
Evolve the Brand
But if Latinos own the narrative, what should they do? Here, I believe, is the true opportunity; Time's "historic" cover (see Cepeda) nothwithstanding. As I have tried to show in articles and talks over the past two years, Latinos are not only growing in numbers and growing in influence, they have demonstrated a remarkable facility for creating ideas that inspire others. I have told the story countless times of how a community strategist named Marshall Ganz learned the art of organizing working in the fields of Central California with Cesar Chavez. He later took what he learned and helped Barack Obama get elected in 2008 (translating the words and practice of "Si, se puede" to "Yes, we can"). More recently, he participated in a number of civic experiments that ultimately influenced the Arab Spring. That's an interesting journey…from California to the U.S. Capital to the streets of Cairo. And Latinos played more than just a supporting role in that story. They played a leading role, with many others leading and supporting.
At a time when the country is struggling to adjust its estimation of Latino power, Latinos have the opportunity to change the way people actually think about them. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened with an immigrant population. The Jewish, Indian, and Chinese diasporas have all enabled the U.S. to rethink its attitude toward new citizens - citizens who not only help themselves, but who help others, directly or by example, to achieve the American dream. This may be, in fact, the Latino moment, if not our Spring. And while we may have Time to thank for that, the moment is ours.
Let's not mess it up. This too shall pass.
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Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.
March 19, 2014