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Op-Ed: Latinos Fired Up Over “Economist” Chile Peppers Miss Point

John Berkeley/The Economist

Many Latinos erupted online with the collective groan of heartburn in response to the latest special report in The Economist about the impact Latinos are having on the national economy, as well as the cultural implications of the tectonic demographic shifts undergoing the United States.

While the British magazine's series of articles was as broad and as comprehensive a collection of articles on Latinos one is likely to find in a European magazine - especially one with the Economist's influential, global readership - what drew the greatest attention was the cover picture, an American flag fashioned with red chile peppers for stripes.

Media Matters responded to the cover by calling it "tone-deaf and destructive". Roberto Lovato, founder of a Latino advocacy group called Presente.org, posted on Twitter that The Economists' "Latino edition" was "ugly and racist".

Adolfo Flores of Buzzkill, I mean Buzzfeed, wrote that the chile pepper cover was a "dated stereotype" that encapsulated the diverse Hispanic population.

It's ironic that the response to the cover - focusing on how it encapsulates Latinos into a singular stereotype - was stereotypically whiny about such an insignificant subplot, rather than spurring a discussion about the substance of the articles.

The Economist dedicates a series of articles on the challenges that lie ahead, and a clear message to our country's aging white readership that Latinos are a demographic gift the country should not squander. Yet the response was a temper tantrum about chile peppers.

Instead of a discussion on the state of our education system and its failure to prepare Latinos to be the backbone of this country's economy, Latino intellectuals and advocates got lost in a discussion about the pictures. (By the way, other Economist covers feature cartoons of fiery dragons about to eat the globe in a report on China, and grumpy-looking Arab sheiks and mean-looking U.S. oil workers in a piece on the economics of oil).

Maybe one can't expect much from a group whose median age among American born Hispanics is 18 years old, compared to a median age of 42 years among whites. But if Latinos ever expect to be taken seriously, a better collective response is in order.

Perhaps the best response was from Gustavo Arellano, the sharp Latino editor of the OC Weekly who wrote a book on Mexican cuisine, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. In his book he points out that when salsa overtook ketchup as the condiment of choice among Americans in the 1990s, Latinos reached another cultural milestone in the United States, yet he sharply reminded us that tomato' marriage to chile peppers in holy salsa matrimony was merely the marriage of one Mesoamerican fruit to another. "White America" was "conquered" long ago, they just didn't know it.

Mr. Arellano's book is triumphantly and confidently written, and his "Ask a Mexican" column has poked fun - and highlighted - ridiculous Latino stereotypes for years. I was curious what he might say about the cover of The Economist, so I peeked into his Facebook and indeed, his response was perfect; "I'm only insulted they went with tabasco peppers instead of chile de árbol--just another way to diminish Mexis [Mexicans]…"

The fiery response about the cover of The Economist was as predictable as it was unfortunate. Sure, the cover could have been better and more substantive, but so too could have been Latinos' response.

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