Cover Story: 2007 Person of the Year: Making a Big Difference

Jason Riveiro speaks for the little guys in the war of words over immigration

Jan 30, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Joe Lamb

2007 Person of the Year: Jason Riveiro

He's the guy who beat "The Big Juan."

It's hard to fathom in 21st century America that a multimillion-dollar corporation would base an advertising campaign on racial and ethnic stereotypes and not expect a backlash. Such is the clout of WLW (700 AM), however, and such are the prevailing attitudes in Greater Cincinnati that led to exactly that type of dubious situation here last spring.

That's when a series of billboards throughout the city reminded residents that perhaps we haven't made as much progress in the realms of tolerance and diversity as we thought. The episode brought back memories of Marge Schott's remarks about blacks and Hitler and of the 1990 prosecution of a Robert Mapplethorpe art exhibition on obscenity charges — events that painted Cincinnati as a backwards burg in the minds of many people nationwide.

The powerful 50,000-watt WLW, known as "the nation's station" because it can be heard across much of the eastern half of the United States and Canada after sundown and is simulcast on XM Satellite Radio, decided to pique the curiosity of local listeners by installing dozens of billboards that featured an image of the Mexican flag and Spanish words that translated as "Radio for Great Americans."

Like many Midwestern cities, Cincinnati has a rapidly growing Hispanic population. Some who viewed the billboards wondered if the region was getting a Spanish-speaking station geared toward that demographic.

Whatever the reason for the signs, however, it obviously was a well-funded effort based on their sheer number and installation in high-visibility areas.

Then the other shoe dropped.

The original billboards were replaced with ones that pictured a stereotypical depiction of a Hispanic man with an exaggerated black moustache who was wearing a sombrero, multi-colored poncho and a bandolier across his chest, with a donkey off to the side for good measure. The billboard proclaimed "The Big Juan," a takeoff on another WLW nickname, The Big One.

Area Hispanic residents were incensed. Already dealing with the fallout from anti-immigrant rhetoric that´s regularly espoused by conservative talk radio hosts such as WLW's Bill Cunningham, they now saw a major corporation reinforcing negative images and clich's about them that were straight out of a 1940s-era Western movie.

That's when Jason Riveiro and several local Hispanic leaders decided to take action. They marshaled a broad coalition of groups — including African Americans, Muslims, Jews, human rights activists and gays and lesbians — to publicly pressure WLW into removing the billboards. Moreover, they wanted to help educate the station's managers about cultural sensitivity, no easy task given WLW's often coarse and unsophisticated programming.

"It was surprising that WLW would put up the billboards but, at the same time, it makes us wonder why we have the problems we do in our community," says Riveiro, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

Riveiro, 27, is part of a new generation of younger Hispanic activists that's involved with developing a pushback strategy against the demagoguery of the anti-immigration movement. A Houston native, he moved to Cincinnati in 2004 and quickly saw the need for an organization to advocate for the rights and issues that affect Hispanics throughout the Tristate — a constituency that's largely ignored.

Riveiro is a key member of this new generation that's simultaneously celebrating the growing Hispanic culture in Greater Cincinnati and standing up for the human rights of immigrants. Although far from the only local person bringing attention to these issues, he seized the billboard controversy as a high-profile teaching opportunity.

For his work making Greater Cincinnati a more diverse and tolerant community, we name Jason Riveiro CityBeat's Person of the Year for 2007.

'It was outright racist'
Imagine if WLW had erected billboards depicting a black man with a bushy Afro in overalls eating watermelon or a Hassidic Jew with a long beard and carrying a bag of cash — it just wouldn't be done nowadays by a Fortune 500 company. But over-the-top imagery involving Hispanics is another matter.

"The reason is because the station thought they could get away with it here," Riveiro says. "They thought there weren't any Hispanics who would say anything about it. They wouldn't dream of doing that anywhere else in the country, but here I guess they felt they had a stronger base of supporters who were anti-immigration."

WLW is the longtime ratings leader among area radio stations, and its parent company, Clear Channel Communications, is an industry giant known for its dominance in most radio markets and letting its right-wing political leanings influence its programming.

With those facts in mind, LULAC and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — yes, there is one in Cincinnati — knew there was strength in numbers. Seeking assistance from groups that represented people who also faced discrimination in the past would turn up the heat on the station.

"It was outright racist, there's no other way to explain it," says the Rev. William Jansen, Hispanic ministry director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. "They were trying to make fools of working people and working families."

Alfonso Cornejo, who heads the Hispanic Chamber, says the incident isn't something that could simply be ignored.

"Attacks like the one by WLW are like putting gasoline on a fire," he says. "It worsens the problems we already face."

The unified strategy worked. A few weeks later, all the billboards were removed and WLW agreed to create a "community advisory board" to counsel the station on Hispanic issues.

Additionally, WLW began posting LULAC's events on its Web site and accepted public service announcements to air during Hispanic Heritage Month. To ensure the ads had maximum exposure, some ran during Cunningham's popular afternoon talk show.

Like the saying goes, though, it's difficult to teach an old dog a new trick.

Just a couple of months after the billboard incident, in August WLW aired two pre-recorded promotional spots entitled "Speaking to An Illegal Alien." They included translations of Spanish phrases like, "Be careful with those hedge clippers around the garden."

At that point, Riveiro and LULAC escalated their tactics: Unless WLW permanently stopped airing such spots, the organization would launch a boycott of Clear Channel's stations in its top 10 Hispanic markets and lobby advertisers to pull their commercials.

The spots haven't aired since.

For its part, WLW says the skits were old and broadcast by mistake — an explanation met with skepticism.

"They played it after a Reds game, when they have the largest audience," Cornejo says. "Give me a break."

Riveiro believes the incidents reveal a deeper attitude that permeates the company.

"They say they were very innocent in their motives and they were naive, they really didn't know the implications," Riveiro says. "I didn't buy that at all. It wasn't completely dishonest, but it wasn't totally the general manager's responsibility. It was something that was institutional; it bled through the ranks of the station and Clear Channel."

Changing local perception of Hispanics
Compared to the high-profile media showdown, most of Riveiro's activities with LULAC are more low-key, designed to help Greater Cincinnati's Hispanic residents in their daily struggles to win fair treatment and acceptance.

Founded in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Tex., LULAC is the oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States. The group works to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health and civil rights of Hispanic Americans through community-based programs operating at more than 700 LULAC chapters nationwide.

The organization is perhaps best known for being a plaintiff in Hernandez vs. Texas, a landmark civil rights case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. The case decided that the equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applied to Mexican Americans and all other racial groups in the United States and weren't confined to just whites and blacks.

Riveiro was active in LULAC's Houston chapter and, after moving to Greater Cincinnati, helped form the chapter here almost four years ago. It's grown to about 100 members throughout Cincinnati, Butler County and Northern Kentucky.

"Fortunately, at the same time, some of the other community leaders were interested in forming a chapter here," Riveiro says. They included people who worked at Procter & Gamble, U.S. Bank and other large area companies that are bringing more Hispanic professionals to the area. "It was just the right time, and we saw a need for it here. It mirrored the influx and growth we're experiencing here in the Tristate."

Estimates peg Greater Cincinnati's Hispanic population at between 60,000 and 70,000 people. The region generally has experienced about a 27 percent increase in the demographic segment from 2000 to 2005, and it continues to climb.

Among LULAC's activities, the local chapter offers legal assistance to undocumented immigrants facing deportation and operates an after-school reading program for children in grades 1-3 at a local school to help children learn English. That program is funded with a $10,000 donation from P&G, and LULAC hopes to expand it to more schools during the next year.

The chapter also is placing a bid to bring the national LULAC convention to Cincinnati in 2011. If successful, it would bring about 15,000 people to the downtown convention center. A decision is expected this summer. Former Mexican President Vincente Fox, who has family connections in Cincinnati, is endorsing the bid.

"Bringing the convention here is important to me because I want the rest of this area to really see the economic buying power and potential that the Hispanic community can have," Riveiro says. "It can help our city in the long term."

Although LULAC's mission nationally in recent years has focused on education and providing scholarships, the local chapter is active in helping people caught up in so-called immigration sweeps.

"Locally, I think our challenge is more about the perception of Hispanics and treatment of Hispanics," says Marilyn Zayas Davis, an attorney who works with the group. "The perception impacts the treatment. People are being stopped by police officers merely for the reason to ask about their immigration status. Immigration status is not a crime, it's a civil offense. And most of the people doing the stops don't have the authority to do them."

Compromising on immigration laws
Nationally, the Hispanic population exceeds 41 million people and accounts for about 14 percent of the total U.S. population. Although the U.S. Census doesn't compile statistics on immigration status, most experts state there are about 10 million illegal immigrants in the nation.

Based on the current population, the United States is the third largest Hispanic nation in the world. With population trends indicating that non-Hispanic white people will be a minority in the U.S. by 2050, some people of European descent are anxious or fearful about the change.

The attitude has caused an increase in anti-Hispanic sentiment, resulting in a spike of hate crimes against Hispanic Americans, according to FBI statistics.

A greater percentage of crimes motivated by national origin were committed against Hispanics in 2007 compared to the previous year. In 2006, almost two-thirds of all ethnic-based hate crimes were committed against Hispanics; since 2004, the number of victims of anti-Hispanic crimes increased by 25 percent.

Also, while most race-based and religion-based hate crimes involved intimidation instead of assault, most hate crimes against Hispanics involved physical violence. Further, anti-Hispanic crimes tend to be more severe, statistics show.

For many conservatives, undocumented immigrants are this year's version of gay marriage or flag burning — a hot button issue that has little effect on the lives of most Americans but is distorted to help mobilize voters to go to the polls.

At a recent debate between Republican presidential contenders, for example, the most contentious exchange came not while discussing what to do with American troops in Iraq or how to fix the U.S. economy but on whether any of them had supported giving amnesty to undocumented immigrants already here.

If you believe TV commentators like Lou Dobbs on CNN or virtually anyone on the Fox News Channel, there's an onslaught of dirty immigrants who are slipping into the nation covertly through gaps in the Mexican border and taking jobs away from U.S. citizens while sapping public services provided by tax dollars, spreading disease and bringing crime to the communities where they settle.

Immigration advocates, though, counter that such problems are wildly overexaggerated and that undocumented immigrants make convenient scapegoats for people frustrated about broader economic problems in society, all of which is exploited for personal benefit by unscrupulous politicians.

Riveiro partially blames the highly charged political climate for the increase in hate crimes.

"It's divisive rhetoric and rhetoric that claims organizations such as ours want open borders, which is not the case," he says. "We are an organization that is founded on American principles. We believe you need to follow the law."

The problem of undocumented or illegal immigrants only can be solved at the federal level, Riveiro says. He prefers a bill proposed in 2005 by U.S. Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy that would have given a temporary, six-year visa to undocumented immigrants and would allow them to request permanent residency after they had paid back taxes, a fine and proved their English language fluency.

"We weren't 100 percent for everything that was in it, but I think that was the best thing that came out and it was something that would work," Riveiro says. "When you're talking about immigration, you have to first be objective. You have to examine both sides and you can't come at it with anger or hate toward the other side, because I believe there can be a compromise on it. That´s where the momentum is headed."

'Changing and improving this community'
Increasingly localized efforts to find and deport undocumented immigrants — like tactics used by Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones — are misguided and won't solve the larger problem, Riveiro says.

"The way I look at it is, if you want to tackle immigration and stop the influx, it's like trying to kill a tree by just pulling off dead leaves one by one," he says. "That's not the root of the problem. The individuals who are here are just the symptoms."

Riveiro is wary of the training that federal immigration agents recently began providing to local jurisdictions like Butler County.

"I like the fact that they're trying to work with the federal government, that's always good because it multiplies their effectiveness," he says. "But what I am mostly afraid of is that there is no oversight, there's no accountability. I'm afraid that what can go wrong will go wrong and that will lead to things like racial profiling and abuse of powers, regardless of how good the intentions are.

"It goes back to why the larger police departments haven't gone after these people. It's because they have enough problems in their local jurisdictions to focus on."

Such localized efforts ultimately can be counter-productive to enhancing public safety.

"Towns that weren't used to having Hispanics or any kind of diversity are seeing this, and they find it a threat to their existence," Riveiro says. "When you look at the south and especially Texas, that type of issue was covered over 60 years ago. That's why local police departments down there stay away from policing or enforcing immigration."

In fact, illegal immigrants are more likely to be the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators.

"What our organization tries to do is make sure we don't dehumanize the situation," Riveiro says. "We want people to realize it's also a human rights issue. This might not be on the same scale as what we see in the Sudan or Darfur, but there is a situation here where families are being affected in terrible ways, where people are being exploited in the workplace or people are being sexually harassed or physically abused."

Riveiro is a first-generation American, born and raised in Houston. His mother was born in Colombia and his father is from Venezuela.

He moved to Cincinnati in 2004 for a job as business development director for The Spanish Journal, a weekly newspaper serving the region's Latino residents. The local edition is based in Blue Ash, and it has sister publications in Atlanta and Detroit.

He lives in Over-the-Rhine with his wife, who works for Delta Air Lines.

"He's a person that you can work with," the Rev. Jansen says. "He is calm and seems to be able to bring himself across different lines and work with different groups. He can work with the authorities and with immigrants, which is not all that common."

Riveiro hasn't personally experienced a great deal of prejudice either in Texas or here, which he attributes to his light skin tone and lack of a noticeable accent.

"Just by looking at me, it's hard to profile me as Hispanic," he says. "So I guess that has helped me and it's allowed me to go into different circles that I wouldn't normally be in."

When Riveiro is asked whether he recommends Cincinnati to other Hispanics, he offers a measured but blunt reply.

"I would tell them this is a good place for you to grow because, even though there are people here who speak Spanish and there are many educated people, at the same time they need to be aware that it's a little backward in its thinking as far as diversity is concerned," he says. "If you come into this community, you need to be involved in changing and improving this community."

2006: Gavin Leonard
Leads Elementz Hip Hop Youth Center to a unique blend of Hip Hop culture and political awareness, street cred and foundation support, fun and purpose

2005: Community Shares
Alternative payroll deduction drive that helps local groups address root problems and find effective, community-based solutions

2004: Jean-Robert de Cavel
Chef, entrepreneur, urban pioneer

2003: Citizens to Restore Fairness
Led grassroots effort to repeal anti-gay Article 12

2002: Todd Portune
Rare politician who stands up for the little guy

2001: Angela Leisure
Mother of Timothy Thomas helped calm tensions after her son's death sparked riots

2000: Victoria Straughn
Active in AIDS education and political reform movements

1999: Sister Alice Gerdeman
Human rights and economic justice activist

1998: Broadway Commons Supporters
Had radical idea that taxpayers should have a say in how tax money was spent on stadium projects