The Albuquerque Journal recently faced widespread criticism for a cartoon in its pages depicting “Dreamers”—or beneficiaries of DACA—as members of the violent MS-13 gang. The stereotype of Latino immigrants as dangerous criminals has persisted despite a wealth of evidence showing that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born residents. For example, in his speeches, President Trump has often referred to immigrants from Latin America as criminals in order to build support for restrictive immigration policies. In his January 2018 State of the Union address, he stated, “We have sent thousands and thousands of MS-13 horrible people out of this country or into our prisons.”
A recent paper by RSF author Jessica Vasquez-Tokos (University of Oregon), published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, examines the effects of such stereotypes on Latinos and how Latinos respond to them. As Vasquez-Tokos notes, stereotypes of Latinos—or “controlling images”—help perpetuate racial inequality by “instructing people on how to perceive and treat racial groups and, in turn, constructing a racial order.” Drawing from in-depth interviews with over sixty middle-class Latino men between the ages of 15 and 84, she examines how controlling images of Latinos as gang members or athletes affected not just other groups’ perceptions of Latinos, but also Latino respondents’ views of themselves. Controlling images of Latinos as athletes, for example, dampened some younger respondents’ aspirations to pursue education and instead encouraged them to pursue sports. Similarly, other younger respondents discussed how exposure to controlling images of Latinos of gang members shaped their perceptions of masculinity and suggested that their futures were limited.
However, respondents also described multiple ways that they resisted or rejected these stereotypes. As Vasquez-Tokos shows, these reactions often changed with age: Younger Latinos were more likely to use emotional resistance to combat negative controlling images, such as asserting an unapologetic racial minority identity through the Chicano Movement or other groups. On the other hand, older Latinos with more social power than their younger counterparts often countered controlling images through leadership activities in the professional realm, such as becoming mentors and teachers to Latino youth. “By investing in the younger generation,” Vasquez-Tokos explains, “these Latino educators ‘give back’ by broadening students’ vision and demonstrating that they can unlock the shackles of negative imagery.”