Story and photos by Ashley Barrientos
Innumerable studies have confirmed that Latinos and immigrants— both documented and undocumented— have been heavily criminalized throughout different media platforms for generations. Research also suggests that by using language and coded images, different media outlets have indirectly contributed to the rhetoric against Latines and the immigrant community— specifically, Latino men— portraying them as an inherently criminal threat.
Three Latino students from Middle Tennessee State University offered their thoughts on this narrative.
Media outlets using coded images to convey ideas about Latino immigrants
A Washington Post research study found that through media outlets’ choices of images, there is a reinforced narrative of a “Latino threat,” which frames immigrants as inherently criminal or unwilling to integrate into the U.S.
Marcos Alvardo, a junior at MTSU, recalls watching the news while getting ready for school as a child and making the connection between how media outlets choose to portray Latinos or Brown men like him.
“There’d always be a segment on crime, and every time it would talk about violent crime, the perpetrator or the suspect would always be a person of color,” Alvarado said. “And it was just really weird after you notice it going on for a while. It’s like, how come it’s always somebody of color and not anybody white— even when stats tell you that white people commit more crimes?”
Alvarado’s experience is consistent with research conducted by the FBI— in 2016, white individuals were arrested more often for violent crimes than individuals of any other race, and evidence reveals that immigration is not linked to higher crime rates. Yet, many media outlets still choose to include images that negatively frame immigration at a far higher rate than actually occurs.
MTSU junior Sergio Centeno expressed how news outlets’ choice to use coded images of immigrants locked in facilities can produce negative connotations.
“It’s the way [media] describes [immigrants] when they’re talking about how they are in cages,” Centeno said. He mentioned how the practice of media outlets constantly emphasizing this rhetoric could possibly contribute to the idea that immigrants actually need to be caged.
Experts argue that images like these serve to visually represent elements of the border, crime, and illegality. The Washington Post’s research study found that immigrants were frequently portrayed in detention facilities or as being associated with border crossings and border enforcement.
“When they see that— like anybody who watches the news or anyone who focuses on immigration— it kind of stems out and they have a view of how they perceive us and they might mistreat us in that fashion,” Centeno said.
Jonathan Salazar, a junior at MTSU majoring in video and film production, also discussed how immigrants and Latines have been criminalized in television and film as well. He explains how the television series “Breaking Bad” is one example of how Western media platforms tend to portray Latines and countries like Mexico.
“Every time there’s a scene with Mexicans or the cartel, there’s always an orangeish, hellish tint. And then when it’s back in the U.S., everything is back to ‘normal’ colors,” Salazar said.
This incident is common in the world of television and cinema. According to the Matador Network, a travel and news website, this orange-yellow filter may appear whenever American films or television series take place in other countries like Mexico and can convey certain stereotypes about a particular country, alluding to a combination of gangs, extreme poverty, drug use, or war.
Salazar mentions how the show’s heavy incorporation of this yellow filter to indicate whenever the characters are in Mexico may portray Latino immigrants as “bad people.”
How language and word choice can contribute to negative ideas about immigrants
The language used to describe immigrants can reinforce certain stereotypes or assumptions related to crime.
“In media, when you’re talking about immigrants, if you call them ‘illegal’ versus ‘undocumented,’ I take a mental note of that. Because there’s a big difference between calling someone illegal and undocumented,” Alvarado said.
Using words like “illegal” is an example of framing, an effect that can influence attitudes about certain policies like immigration and evoke strong emotional responses from the audience.
Another example of how language has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes comes from former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has used certain words like “bad hombre” to express an association between immigrants— particularly male Latino immigrants— and violent crime.
“I still hold Trump accountable for what he said about Mexicans coming over and not sending their best people,” Alvarado said. “A lot of his success came off of what he said about immigration— and so, of course, he villainized us.”
Alongside this, the Trump administration has also frequently used images of Latino teenage boys rather than women or children when portraying immigration.
This conscious choice to verbally and visually portray Latino men as more likely to be the default face of immigrants reinforced the Trump administration’s efforts to convey that Latino immigrants are likely to be involved in criminal gangs or engaged in unlawful activity.
Researchers also argue that men of color are more likely to be portrayed negatively, or as criminals, in different media outlets when discussing immigration issues.
The way journalists and other media outlets cover immigration, particularly through photographs and language, carries implications that can also negatively influence how the audience perceives Latino immigrants.