SAN ANTONIO — What does a Latino look like?
That question has puzzled advertisers, academics, recruiters and political strategists across the USA for decades.
As U.S. Hispanics grow in number as well as political and financial clout — Hispanic voters were credited with helping President Obama win re-election in 2012 — deciphering their racial, cultural and geographical diversity is of mounting importance. About 54 million Latinos live in the USA, or 17% of the total population, and they have a staggering $1.3 trillion yearly spending capacity.
At a recent National Association of Hispanic Journalists gathering here, the question of what Latinos look like and how they think ricocheted through the halls of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. It's a question being debated not just among Anglo power brokers but also among Latinos themselves.
At the crux of the debate among Latinos is how dark-skinned Hispanics are often overlooked — for jobs, media coverage and overall opportunity — in favor of their lighter-skinned brethren. Yvonne Latty, documentarian, author and clinical professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, said she first encountered racism while growing up in New York City — from Puerto Ricans. Latty is an Afro-Latina whose mother is Dominican and father, Jamaican.
That disconnect continues today. "The voices of Afro-Latinos are not being heard," she said.
Placards propped up throughout the gathering tried to put a face on the issue, with photos of participants appearing over the hashtag, "#WhatLatinosLookLike." Faces ran the gamut: young, old, white, black, mulatto, Asiatic.
I've personally witnessed the complexity of Latino identity. My Anglo-sounding surname does little to help explain how my mom fled Cuba as a 15-year-old girl five decades ago, how I spoke only Spanish until I started kindergarten in Miami, how my iTunes library is stocked with concert albums of Cuban entertainer Álvarez Guedes. Over the years, I've repeatedly had to explain my heritage.
One person rapidly learning who Latinos are and how to reach them is Lance Rios, a digital entrepreneur and founder of the "Being Latino" website and Facebook page. A conversation at a bar with a friend four years ago about being Latino — Rios is of Puerto Rican descent — prompted him to start a Facebook fan page asking friends what it meant to be Hispanic. That page exploded from 200 "likes" overnight to more than 20,000 within two months.
Today, a total of 3 million U.S. Hispanics a day view the "Being Latino" website and Facebook pages.
"Hispanics online are the most engaged across the board," Rios told me between sessions. "Their numbers are destroying the general market across the place: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube."
One of the livelier exchanges at the conference came at a luncheon discussion featuring Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, appearing on stage across from Alex Nogales, diversity watchdog and head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
Griffin apologized to the crowd for an insensitive — and infamous — morning TV segment performed on Cinco de Mayo by MSNBC staffers, who wore sombreros and pretended to swig from a tequila bottle. Nogales challenged Griffin to hire more Hispanics and use more Latino experts on-air to help dispel such stereotypes.
During the Q&A session, one audience member took it a step further and urged Griffin to hire more Afro-Latinos, not just the fair-skinned personalities populating TV today. "You should hire Latinos that look like all of us," she said.
The TV executive assured the audience his network is working to diversify its studios.
"It's not just the responsible thing to do," Griffin said. "It's good business."
He may be on to something.
Jervis is an Austin-based correspondent for USA TODAY