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Univision Race Gaffe Shows Culture Gap

It happened again. The Spanish-language, Miami-based Univision — the fifth-largest television network in the U.S. — has another racial insensitivity mess to clean up.

On Wednesday, Univision talk show host and fashion commentator Rodner Figueroa said that first lady Michelle Obama looks like an apocalyptic ape.

During a segment of El Gordo y la Flaca, the network's long-running gossip show, Figueroa was discussing a makeup artist who painted himself to look like Obama. Figueroa told hosts Lili Estefan and Raul de Molina, "Well, watch out: You know that Michelle Obama looks like she's from the cast of Planet of the Apes, the movie." He made the comment while photos of the first lady were shown.

Univision released a statement Thursday saying the Venezuelan-born Figueroa had been fired immediately, and that his "reprehensible" comments "in no way reflect Univision's values or views."

Good, Univision. But you're not in the clear yet.

This is only the latest incident of racism on the network's airwaves. During last year's soccer World Cup, Univision's sports commentators were called out for referring to Afro-Latino soccer players as simply morenos — equivalent to saying "the black guy" — instead of using the players' last names.

During the 2010 World Cup, hosted in South Africa, a skit on the network's morning show Despierta America had hosts wearing afro wigs and dancing around the set with spears.

Unfortunately, the problem isn't just Univision or the production team that let the skit get past a pitch session. Univision is a U.S. conduit of Latin American culture, and painfully ignorant transgressions like these betray an ugly truth about Latin American culture: It's still really racist.

Google it, if you don't believe me. In a matter of minutes you'll fall into an Internet rabbit hole filled with blackface in comedy shows, a comic strip of a black boy resembling a monkey and what to me is the most egregious offense: Peru's Negro Mama, a grotesque character I'm ashamed to say is popular in my birth country where I lived for 11 years.

Univision is a U.S. conduit of Latin American culture, and painfully ignorant transgressions like these betray an ugly truth about Latin American culture: It's still really racist.

Afro-Peruvian activist Jorge Ramirez Reyna said Peru is "where the United States was in the 1950s" in terms of racial equality.

I'm inclined to say he's right. The U.S. civil rights movement did not sweep through Latin America. Efforts to bolster racial minorities have often focused on people of indigenous descent, leaving Afro-Latinos at the edge of the discourse.

But in the U.S., we live in a society where it's unacceptable for a host on a major TV network to compare the first lady's features to a simian. And Univision, again, was reminded of that this week.

Still, Figueroa says he was fired only after Univision received a complaint from the White House. (Univision has not yet responded to that charge.) For his part, Figueroa wrote an open letter that he meant as an apology to Michelle Obama — but the mea culpa sounded less than genuine after he diluted it with claims that his termination was unjust and that he doesn't deserve to be labeled a racist.

Figueroa also insists he's not a racist because he's biracial: His father is Afro-Latino.

But that only makes his "ape" slur all the more inexcusable, and all the more indicative of how clueless and outdated much of Latin America — and many Latin Americans like Figueroa — remains about race.

And Latinos in the U.S., especially those of my younger generation, are tired of it. Tired of the way it all too often negatively defines us while we're trying to build a positive image of what it means to be Latin in this country.

That's why we need more than just a legal statement from Univision. We need corporate action, starting with more racial integration inside its studios and on its network programs.

It's time Univision started rejecting — and stopped reflecting — Latin America's racial culture.

This essay originally appeared on the website of member station WLRN in Miami, where Maria Murriel is digital editor. She tweets immigration news, community engagement and street photography at @mariamurriel.

Copyright 2015 WLRN 91.3 FM

I manage WLRN's multimedia and engagement projects, including work on WLRN.org, all our social media platforms, and community events.