Pride and Prejudice
The story of San Diego's ever-growing Hispanic mix is most often told in numbers. Perhaps too often told in numbers. The number of undocumented aliens who cross into the United States from Mexico each year. The number of Border Patrol agents the government has assigned to try to hold them back. The number of crimes we attribute to illegal immigrants. The number of crimes committed against them.
And then there is the number of dollars the undocumented cost our hospitals, our schools, our welfare system, our legal system, our penal system. The numbers on propositions, like 187, aimed at turning back the onrushing tide of humanity. The number of politicians who have been accused of manipulating all of these numbers for their own political purposes.
The numbers overwhelm us. But the numbers obscure the human faces behind them. They also overshadow the real stories of the thousands of Hispanic immigrants-legal immigrants -who contribute so much to San Diego's border culture.
The following profiles tell the stories of three successful Hispanics who have made significant contributions to the San Diego culture. One is an artist. One is a businesswoman. One is a political activist. All have prospered in a society that often scorns them. And all maintain a firm grasp on their Latino roots.
Paul Espinosa: A Camera in Both Worlds
By Rick Dower
Paul Espinosa views himself as a sociocultural archaeologist. In place of trowel and brush, his tools are camera and 16-millimeter film. And rather than unearthing pottery and old bones, Espinosa scrapes through layers of not-so-ancient history in search of stories to excavate.
Human stories, mostly. Stories that might have been lost or overlooked but when brought to the surface help illuminate an often dark portrait of the recent Hispanic experience in America: miscommunication between north and south; families ensnared in geopolitics; the struggle to maintain one's culture in a foreign land; prejudice and racism; ethnic myths and stereotypes.
Espinosa, 46, has labored behind the camera for nearly two decades, deciphering reality along both sides of la frontera while becoming one of its most thoughtful and well-informed chroniclers. Arguably San Diego's best-known documentary filmmaker -Hispanic or otherwise-Espinosa has repeatedly threaded his work with the same essential queries: Who are we as Californians/Mexicans/Americans/Hispanic-Americans-and more to the point, why haven't we got along?
It's a theme as old as 150 years of shaky United States- Mexico relations-or as fresh as this morning's editorials demanding immigration reform.
A professionally intense but personally laid-back sort, Espinosa grew up in the heart of the old Mexican-Indian Southwest village culture, moving with his parents to Albuquerque when he was 4. Though his father taught Spanish at a local high school, Espinosa didn't learn the language until he was an adult. Today, he lives in Kensington with his wife, Marta Sanchez, professor of Latin-American and Chicano literature at UCSD, and their 11-year-old daughter.
Espinosa set out to become an academic. At Stanford in the 1970s, he enrolled in graduate school with plans to become a cultural anthropologist. For his doctoral dissertation he spent a year on the set of the Lou Grant show, interviewing the writers and actors, compiling copious research on how a hit TV series reflects the real world. The experience demonstrated to Espinosa the power of film to get a message to a much wider audience than could be reached in the cloistered world of academia. An internship at San Diego's PBS affiliate, KPBS-TV, completed his shift from academics to journalism.
"I would say I'm still a practicing anthropologist. Only now I'm working to inform different peoples about each other," he explains. "As a filmmaker, I'm sort of a broker, a mediator, a bridge-builder. I'm someone who has a foot in both worlds-in Mexico and the United States-and am able to move back and forth pretty freely."
Having a doctorate hasn't hurt Espinosa in the eternal scramble for funding for his films. A stint at the Rhode Island Department of Education in 1972 also sharpened his grant-writing skills. To date he's won some $5 million for himself and KPBS, where he established the station's Public Affairs and Ethnic Issues office.
Espinosa's films include The Lemon Grove Incident (1986), a review of a landmark-but now nearly forgotten-1930 court challenge of a local school district that tried to segregate Mexican students; In the Shadow of the Law (1988), following the lives of four middle-class but undocumented Mexican families trying to survive in Southern California; Uneasy Neighbors (1990), a look at the growing conflicts between wealthy north San Diego County homeowners and migrant workers living in squalid camps among them; and The New Tijuana (1990), an examination of economic and political changes in the sprawling border city.
He also has written, produced or directed documentaries on Pancho Villa, Mexican-American copper miners in Arizona, border politics and the drama of a single family's journey north to the United States from Mexico. While his films typically cover a broad historical and social canvas, he manages to center them around individual stories. "Right now, the stories that interest me most are here, in my own community," he says.
Espinosa's most ambitious project to date also marked his first full-length feature film, ...and the earth did not swallow him, based on the loosely autobiographical 1971 novel of former University of California Chancellor Tomás Rivera, who grew up in a family of migrant workers and became the highest-ranking Latino educator in the United States. ...and the earth was shown in movie art houses in 1995 and broadcast last June on PBS' American Playhouse to widely positive reviews. Since then it has won awards at U.S. and international film festivals.
His current venture is a three-hour documentary on the causes and outcome of the U.S.-Mexican War. The show is slated for broadcast next summer around the 150th anniversary of the bloody conflict.
After so many documentaries examining cross-cultural clashes, Espinosa admits he isn't optimistic about matters improving anytime soon.
"The debate is just getting more shrill, more intolerant than it was 15 years ago when I started looking at these issues," he says. "Really, I'm not all that hopeful. It's still disturbing to me how far we have yet to go and how little we've come in trying to understand each other."
Editor's note: The Porter Troupe Gallery, 301 Spruce Street, and the Consulate General of Mexico are hosting a Paul Espinosa Film Festival through April 30. For more information, call 291-9096.
Patricia Cohen-Albrecht: Sensitive to Language
By Virginia Butterfield
The name doesn't even hint at Hispanic. And 32 years in the United States have polished her American image. But at heart, Patricia Cohen-Albrecht-owner of the top Latino advertising agency in San Diego-is the same 6-year-old Mexican girl whose father brought her to Los Angeles in search of a better life.
After college at Long Beach and SDSU, Patricia, who had envisioned a career in retail, found herself selling boys' budget clothing at May Company. One day was enough. She promptly took an entry-level position at an L.A.-based Hispanic ad agency run by Dick Dillon, "a 100 percent Irishman," she says.
When her parents moved to San Diego, Patricia followed, commuting for two years to L.A. "In Mexico, a woman doesn't leave home unless to be married," she says now. "I was raised in
a strictly Mexican home. My father and mother finally condoned certain bicultural things-eating a peanut butter sandwich, for instance. But going out with friends without a parent? No. Having a telephone? No. And we were taught certain European courtesies. My mother could never get over friends who came to call and didn't acknowledge her presence, didn't look her in the eye."
In 1986, with the help of family and friends, she launched San Diego's Cohen Latino Communications, targeting the Hispanic community. At the time, most companies believed Hispanics could be reached with traditional English-language campaigns -or with slogans literally translated to Spanish.
But, says Cohen, the Spanish language is the key. Take Braniff Airlines. In pitching its campaign about "the luxury of riding on leather," the English was rendered as "sientese en cuero"-which, in Spanish, means something like "ride around naked in our great airplane."
Most Hispanics, Cohen explains, are more comfortable if approached in the language in which they were nurtured. "The Mexican immigrants of today all think they're going home," she says. "Of course, they won't. Their children will go to school here, and they won't go home, as we didn't. But the mind-set is nothing like the European immigrants who came in the last century. The Europeans were leaving something behind forever. They packed all their belongings and came with as many family members as they could manage. Now our immigrants can pick up a phone, call home, use fax, e-mail. They can function in Spanish." There is not the same push to assimilate.
"The media supports this mind-set. We have two Spanish-language TV stations, five newspapers, three or four radio stations. There are places in San Francisco, Fresno, Chicago, Texas and L.A. where you'd think you were in Mexico. Some spend their lives in Little Cuba or Little Nicaragua or Little Whatever-but some make the leap. They need a lot of luck and a lot of commitment."
In marketing to the Spanish community, it's important to understand not only the language but the culture. One of Patricia's major clients, Union Bank, was having a hard time persuading Latinos to trust United States financial institutions. "After devaluation and other political changes in Mexico, you could hardly blame them. We had to work harder-wage a stronger campaign because of that mind-set," she says.
"The same was true with Cox Cable. We might all need cereal or aspirin or orange juice [Tropicana is another big Cohen client], but every Hispanic doesn't have the means to pay extra every month for TV."
And so Cohen devised a marketing campaign using the Spanish catchword conectate, which means to connect or hook up. But it also means to join or become part of. Cohen's campaign, therefore, aimed at convincing Hispanics to conectate-to become a part of the Cox Cable family.
A client with the name Hispanocare got off on the wrong foot in the Tijuana market, where residents do not call themselves Hispanic but Mexican. You don't become "Hispanic" until you cross the border. Fortunately, the word Latino covers all bases.
Cohen's heritage is Mexican/Jewish. Her children go to the Beth Israel preschool and are being raised to be trilingual. (Her husband is French.) And she's happy the entire family is united.
"The two boys [5 and 3] have what I never had: They see their cousins, their grandparents, every day. If I had opened this agency in Los Angeles, by now it could easily be five times as large. As hard as it is to make a living in San Diego-there is no industry here to support us-I am committed to staying here." Most of her business comes from out of town.
Her plans for the future? To open a new location in Mission Valley and also to establish branches in Texas and Miami. With what she calls ganas-"the desire, but also the knowledge that you can do it" -Patricia Cohen-Albrecht's future looks bright.
Roberto Martinez: A Passion for Justice
By Jamie Reno
One of San Diego's busiest border activists, Roberto Martinez developed his passion for justice while growing up in San Diego's Barrio Logan section, where recurring humiliation and harassment by police and Border Patrol agents gave him a determination to fight back.
"It seems like every other week as a kid, police or Border Patrol would stop me. Sometimes they'd take me to jail just because of the way I looked," says Martinez, 59, a fifth-generation American who acknowledges things are better now between law enforcement and San Diego's Latinos. "But there are still abuses," he says.
As the local director of the American Friends Service Committee, a national human-rights organization, Martinez fights for the rights of immigrants-legal and illegal. In the past 20 years he's often spoken before Congressional committees and appeared at public rallies calling for better treatment of undocumented workers.
The first U.S. citizen ever honored by the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch (for his advocacy on behalf of immigrants on the United States-Mexico border), Martinez initiated an ambitious immigration study in January that will monitor and document the impact of recent border policy changes such as Operation Gatekeeper. The results of the study, to be released this spring, will include any episodes of agent abuses or other violent incidents and will be used by Martinez for Congressional hearings, local hearings and conferences.
He is particularly concerned about what he calls "the militarization of the border. The United States hopes to have as many as 10,000 Border Patrol agents here by the year 2000. It's not a war zone down there yet, but these [government] groups are making it that way."
Martinez, whose amiable, soft-spoken way belies his intensity and fiery commitment, suggests that because of their diversity and divisiveness, Latinos do not have the political clout here in proportion to their numbers: about 10 percent of the population nationwide and more than 40 percent of California's, by some estimates.
But that's changing, he says, citing the recent surprise victory of Loretta Sanchez, a Hispanic Democrat, over veteran Congressman and arch-conservative Bob Dornan in historically conservative Orange County. Martinez says he has worked hard in recent years to raise the consciousness of the Hispanic community in Southern California-and to get Hispanics to register to vote in record numbers.
Married 13 years with four children (and another five from a first marriage), Martinez theorizes that because Latinos are made up of so many diverse groups, historically each group has had its own agenda. But new legislation on immigration, affirmative action and welfare is impacting all Latino groups. "It has begun to bring us together like never before," he says.
That unity was on display last fall in Washington, D.C., at the largest Hispanic civil rights march ever held in the United States. The March for Justice, which Martinez helped organize the past three years, wound up last October 12 at the Ellipse behind the White House. Though considerably smaller in numbers, the event was compared to 1995's Million Man March. But Martinez notes that, unlike that march, which was more a symbolic act of self-affirmation for African-American men, the March for Justice was based on a specific, seven-point political agenda.
That agenda includes calls for continuing affirmative action programs, a $7 minimum wage, an expanded amnesty program for illegal immigrants and more public health services. "Bottom line: Both of the marches were about standing up and being counted," says Martinez, whose participation in the historic march, and its potential aftermath, received virtually no local coverage.
That the Hispanic community in this city is undercovered by the mainstream press is a continuing source of frustration for Martinez. "We need to continue raising our voices in this culture to be heard," he says.
"We decided we really needed to mobilize the Latino community, which has been under attack in recent years and has been used by some politicians as a scapegoat," he says. "We simply want the same things other Americans want. No more; no less. The Latino community is the fastest-growing minority population, particularly in California. It is no longer politically smart to ignore us. The politicians are finally listening."