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Minorities' TV Presence Draws Fire

By Maria Padilla

January 31, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Last year, minority groups demanded a greater presence on television, and the networks promised more. Well, sometimes you get what you ask for, but not the way you envisioned.

That’s what happened with last week’s TV episode of Law & Order, a reality-based crime and courts series. It focused on the mayhem that occurred after last year’s Puerto Rican parade in New York. Groups of young men assaulted young women in Central Park, while police stood by, according to news reports.

Saying the episode was rife with stereotypes, the Washington-based National Puerto Rican Coalition called on NBC not to air it. The show aired anyway, but NBC subsequently apologized to Hispanics and agreed never to re-air it.

Speaking as a focus group of one, the episode wasn’t a disgrace. As a Puerto Rican, it wasn’t offensive. As a reporter, the suppression of the episode is a concern. The coalition could have saved its political capital for bigger battles.

However, the coalition’s overreaction is understandable. Wherever there’s a sizable Puerto Rican population, there’s a Puerto Rican parade.

In the Orlando area, there are more than 150,000 Puerto Ricans. The city’s Puerto Rican parade is going on its ninth year. Last year it drew 20,000 people to downtown. Parade organizers pay for police presence.

A TV episode like the one in Law & Order, seen by more than 18 million viewers, can create ill will. People forget that many Puerto Rican women were victims, and many Puerto Ricans were as outraged as anybody else.

Television has used Puerto Ricans as a punching bag before. Remember the Seinfeld episode in which the characters "accidentally" burned the Puerto Rican flag? Elaine’s character sniffed, who are these people? -- as if Puerto Ricans emited a stench. Now, that was gratuitous and offensive.

But Law & Order didn’t come close on the offense meter to Seinfeld, although as episodes go, it wasn’t a very good one. Producers used the wilding in New York as a backdrop for the high-profile slaying of a white woman. Fact: There was no homicide at the real parade.

The show portrayed the assailants as Hispanics or Puerto Rican. Fact: Many were not. There were 1 million people at the parade. Fact: There aren’t 1 million Puerto Ricans in New York. Arrest reports showed non-Hispanics were involved.

However, Law & Order was realistic in how it portrayed the pressure from brass to nab a perpetrator, even if it meant pinning it on an innocent Puerto Rican. The characters resisted.

In addition, there were Hispanics on the law-abiding and law-breaking sides. The defense lawyer was Hispanic, although he gets no points for cutting a bad deal for his client. In a plot twist, the killer was Brazilian.

Perhaps fearing a boycott or more bad publicity, NBC has sent the episode to the video dust bin, where it will keep company with the Seinfeld episode. It also agreed to work with some Hispanic groups to create more positive Hispanic images.

That gets closer to the heart of the issue. There is little balance among the Hispanic images that flicker across the screen. There is a shortage of everyday people doing everyday things. And no, the thugs, maids and gardeners on TV don’t count.

But it’s just as troubling that a group may filter what we see and hear, and suggest what we should think. Therein lies a loss of free expression. And that’s a good enough reason to turn off the tube altogether.

Maria Padilla can be reached at or 407-420-5162.

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