How Important Is Health Care Act To Latinas?

Ethnic Haitians living in the Dominican Republic are lashing out at the government's decision to strip them of Dominican citizenship. They say it's just another example of the ugly racial tension on the island shared by the two nations. Host Michel Martin speaks with Maria Cardona, Alicia Anabel Santos and Laura Martinez about this week's hot topics in the beauty shop.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to take a visit to the Beauty Shop. That's where our panel of women commentators and journalists get a fresh cut on the week's hot topics. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Maria Cardona. She's a longtime Democratic strategist, a contributor to CNN and Mamiverse.com. She's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from New York, Laura Martinez. She's a freelance journalist and author of the blog "Mi blog es tu blog." And also with us is - from New York also is Alicia Anabel Santos. She's a freelance writer and filmmaker. Welcome everybody. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

MARIA CARDONA: Thanks for having us.

ALICIA ANABEL SANTOS: Thank you.

LAURA MARTINEZ: Good to be here.

SANTOS: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So let's start with, certainly, one of the biggest stories of the week, certainly here in Washington, D.C., and that's the government shutdown. This is what President Obama had to say about this on Tuesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hundreds of thousands of civilian workers, many still on the job, many forced to stay home, aren't being paid, even if they have families to support and local businesses that rely on them. And we know that the longer this shutdown continues, the worse the effects will be.

MARTIN: Alicia Santos, you were talking about the fact that - we've all been following the various effects of the shutdown - but you wanted to point out that you said that people of color are being hit especially hard. Talk about that, if you would.

SANTOS: The sense that I have is that the majority of people of color, Latinos and blacks in the U.S., are in a lot of the service areas, and so how this affects us directly is that we are the working class. We are, you know - a lot of us are in the category of, you know, below, you know, certain wages and poverty. And so this directly affects us because we're, you know - our community is going to be impacted greatly because we're going to be worrying about our income and how we're providing for our family. And a lot of the services that people of color are receiving, such as WIC, being taken from us is a huge blow.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there's some data on this, Maria. According to the Washington Post, they say that 35 percent of federal workers are nonwhite, versus 30 percent of all workers. And this also comes at a time when the unemployment rate for African-Americans and Latinos, in particular, is higher than for the general population. I'm wondering - as a person who's worked in politics for a long time - if that is part of the conversation on the hill. Is that part of the political calculus here?

CARDONA: It's not as much as it should be, and I really do want to underscore that this is hurting minority communities more so than the overall population. But we also have to focus on - this is hurting middle-class families. There's a lot of uncertainty, and there are 800,000 federal workers out there, as you mentioned. I lived through the shutdown in 1996, and I was a young federal worker back then. I was deemed essential. I was working for a cabinet secretary, but none of us were getting paid.

We were living paycheck to paycheck. Now I was single at the time, and so I made it through. But can you imagine, especially now, in a very fragile recession that we're - in an economy that's coming out of a recession, there are many, many families, Michel, that are living paycheck to paycheck. If you are not getting paid, what is going to happen? This economy, I think, is in a very scary state right now for many, many middle-class families, including and especially minority families.

MARTIN: Laura Martinez, you would imagine this is a big story in D.C. I mean, you can even see it in the traffic patterns where there's even less, you know, traffic on the road, but you're in New York. Do you get the sense that people are talking about it as much in New York and in other parts of the country as they are here? Do people feel it yet?

MARTINEZ: I don't really think so, but it's funny that you mention it because I actually made a joke yesterday with a friend of mine. She's Mexican and she works in Washington, and she posted a photo of a train - the train that she takes to go to work. And it was virtually empty at rush hour, and my response was, like, oh, my gosh. I wish people were a bit more aware that this was happening here 'cause my train was packed this morning. I mean, I think it is definitely an important topic.

And I also think that what's at the core of this shutdown, it's also - I mean, let's not forget, it's Obamacare. And what I've been following a lot is, I mean, the lack of access to proper health insurance for the majority of Latinos, and I say Latinos because that's the part of the population that I cover. But it's really - it's outrageous what is going on. And on top of that, you have the government shutdown and affecting, I think, it's about 8 to 9 percent of the workforce - the federal government that will be impacted are Latinos. But on top of that, let's suppose the government goes back to working, and what's going to happen with access to health care? I think that is important, and we should also be talking about that.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about - Laura, about that. Do you feel that, you know - we spoke about this earlier in the program. You know, it emerges that - we were just talking about the millennials. And it turns out that a disproportionate share of the young adults who are uninsured are men, young men of color. And so I was wondering if, among the people that you cover, is there an awareness of the program? Is there a desire to participate because as we see, this is very hard-fought? It's, in part, at the center of the government shutdown right now. What are you seeing with the people you cover?

MARTINEZ: I - to be honest with you, I think a lot of people either don't care yet or they are not well-informed, especially, like you say, the millennials. I mean, I think there is not a lot of political awareness, especially within that group. I wouldn't give you any statistics but...

MARTIN: Sure.

MARTINEZ: ...I believe that they are not as...

MARTIN: Not checked in yet.

MARTINEZ: ...Concerned as they should be.

MARTIN: Maria, what do you think about that?

CARDONA: Yeah, I think there's a certain truth to that as well, but I do think that the word is getting out. And, for example, I spoke to a young Latina yesterday who said, look, you know, probably, if this wasn't front and center in the news, I wouldn't be concerned about getting health insurance, but I'm also seeing my mother and my grandmother and they're telling me that now that I - that Obamacare is coming online, I should go out and get health insurance. And let's be very clear - and Laura mentioned this - Obamacare gives 10 million Latinos access to healthcare coverage that did not have it before. That is a huge amount of people who can now actually be, you know - have security that they're not going to go bankrupt if they get sick. And that, I think, is one of the key messages that the administration needs to continue to push out in our community.

MARTIN: Assuming you can get online to sign-up. Sorry, just had to mention that.

CARDONA: Correct.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having our Beauty Shop roundtable. Our guests are blogger Laura Martinez, commentator Maria Cardona - that's who was speaking just now - and writer Alicia Santos. You know, ladies, it's Hispanic Heritage Month, so I hope you don't mind if we use this time to check in on some topics that might be of particular interest to the Latino diaspora. So we saw this story out of the Dominican Republic. Did you know that lawmakers in the Dominican Republic have ruled that all descendants of Haitians who came to the country illegally after 1929 will lose their Dominican citizenship. Up to 300,000 people born in the Dominican Republic could be affected. The United Nations says that they're going to review this. But, Alicia Santos, you're Dominican - of Dominican heritage. What's your reaction to this?

SANTOS: I am incredibly disappointed in my country as a Dominican woman and a writer who's been studying the African diaspora in the Dominican Republic for over seven years, as the writer for "Afro-Latinos: The Untold Story." And so one of the issues that's very close to me is the Dominican-Haitian conflict. And one of the things that I when - in my travels, when I was visiting in 2009, and then, when I went to Haiti in 2010, was the talks about modifying the constitution. And then I was outraged because I could not believe that Leonel Fernandez - the then president of the country - could actually put in effect a law that would disqualify Haitians 'cause really what it's about is Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, you know, citizenship and nationalization.

MARTIN: But what's the point? Why? Why are they doing this?

SANTOS: I - for me, it comes down to internalized racism. It goes back to 1937 with the Haitian - with the Parsley Massacre that was ordered by dictator Rafael Trujillo, where it was really about a cleansing, you know, about whitening the race. And so I think that since then, there's been this passing down of discrimination and racism towards Haitians. And so I think that this is a huge, huge plot to kind of just remove the masses because there's this fear of an invasion, right, this Haitian invasion.

MARTIN: You know, Maria Cardona, there's been some talk amongst - I would say - certain fringe conservatives about denying citizenship to children who are born in the U.S. if their parents came here without proper authorization. But that has been very much denounced kind of by the mainstream as racist.

CARDONA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And so do you feel that - does the U.S. - should the international community have something to say about this? I mean, do you think this is also racist, and should there be...

CARDONA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Some international discussion over this?

CARDONA: There is no question that it is racism, and it is absolutely deplorable, and I feel for Alicia. And I do think that the United States and the international community should chime in and be, like, look, you know, how would the president of the Dominican Republic feel if we passed a law here that would say that the sons and daughters of Dominicans do not have U.S. citizenship? Let's see how they feel about that. And as somebody who is clearly - and I'm sure that Laura and Alicia, too - is fighting for the rights for Latinos and talking about the need to pass comprehensive immigration reform - and we went through this whole issue about the 14th Amendment, during the Republican presidential election, which was when it came up, and it was, you know, clearly shouted down by the mainstream. It was a very fringe element...

MARTIN: Including Republicans.

CARDONA: Including Republicans.

MARTIN: Including Republicans.

CARDONA: Absolutely, including Republicans. But things like this, you know, if somebody like Michele Bachmann read this in the paper today, I think she would think it was a good idea, and so let's do it here.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CARDONA: And so I think that that kind of discussion should be had because it is the kind of discussion where the U.S., having gone through something like this and feeling very strongly that this is an American value - not just an American value, a human value - that this could be something that we have a lot to say on towards the current president of the Dominican Republic.

MARTIN: I have a related story I wanted to ask Laura about, Laura, if you don't mind. We were talking about this kind of issue of race within - la raza, if you will. A little girl was told last week that she wasn't Latina enough to be Little Miss Hispanic Delaware. Her name is Jakiah McKoy. She's seven years old. She won the pageant, but she was later stripped of her title when she couldn't produce documents showing that her deceased grandmother was from the Dominican Republic.

And the McKoy family says the grandma came to the country without proper authorization and so didn't have the paperwork to prove her heritage. Now you write a lot about pop culture, and I was interested in your take on this. I mean, do you think this would've happened if she had had a more traditional Hispanic name, or if she were lighter skinned?

MARTINEZ: That's a very good question, but I'd like to begin by saying that, first of all, it was a bit crazy to me to see that nobody was really talking about why should we have a little girl taking part in a beauty pageant to begin with. That's something I have a problem with, but...

MARTIN: A fair point. Fair point.

MARTINEZ: I mean, you know, there are countries where you don't even have that for adults, you know, France being one of them. So anyway...

MARTIN: I think France is actually trying to outlaw child beauty pageants, so - to your point. Yeah.

CARDONA: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: I mean, I don't think this is something children should be doing, but this is not the discussion. But having said that, to me, the weirdest part of this so-called controversy or outrage was that the organizer of the pageant said that the requisite was to be 25 percent Hispanic. And this is really crazy to me because I really would like somebody to explain to me what that means exactly. And the fact that she is black, so she's not Latina enough - I really don't understand. I was talking to Alicia before we came on the air about this. There seems to be this disconnect between Latinos and then blacks when you can have Afro-Latinos or you can have Latinos that happen to be black. I've always been very confused about the whole thing. And maybe, as a recent immigrant that I am in this country, it's something that I still find really hard to navigate.

MARTIN: Alicia, do I have it right that you actually participated in pageants...

SANTOS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...At an earlier juncture?

SANTOS: Yes.

MARTINEZ: You did?

MARTIN: I'm sure you did very well.

(CROSSTALK)

SANTOS: You know, I really don't talk about that, but in a...

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

SANTOS: No, it's fine. In a past life, I was in Miss Rhode Island USA, and I was in Nuestra Belleza - the first Nuestra Belleza for Univision in 19 - I don't know - '89, '90, something like that.

MARTIN: Wear your sash, girl. Do not be ashamed.

SANTOS: I represented Brooklyn.

MARTIN: That's right. Yes.

CARDONA: Miss Brooklyn in the house.

SANTOS: I was Miss Brooklyn.

MARTIN: Well, what do you take?

CARDONA: You go, girl.

MARTIN: What's your take on this?

SANTOS: So here's the thing. I have a huge beef with what went down with Jakiah McKoy. First of all, if I go to a pageant like Nuestra Belleza, and I say I'm Dominican, no one is questioning that. I did not have to show proof. I did not have to give a birth certificate. I did not have to show nationalization from my parents. I'm light enough to pass for Dominican. Here, we have Jakiah McKoy, who is of darker complexion, who is identifying as a Dominican girl, being told that she's not Dominican...

MARTINEZ: Hispanic.

SANTOS: Latina enough - Hispanic enough, and I am outraged. I'm furious about that because what this is telling this young girl is that she's not enough. This is an issue of self-worth. It is completely racist what this organization has done to her. And I'm just very concerned for her because when we have young black Latinas who are looking for acceptance and validation to be - first of all, they allowed her to compete. They allowed her to compete, so they allowed for the parents to pay whatever fees it costs for this little girl to run, and once she won, they strip her of it. I find that outrageous.

MARTIN: Has it ever gone the other way? Has either of you ever been - any of you ever have been told that, you know, that if you wanted to participate in an African-American experience...

SANTOS: Oh, I have.

MARTIN: ...That you were not, you know - you were not down...

SANTOS: I have.

MARTIN: ...With the people enough?

SANTOS: I have.

MARTIN: That's happened to you, Alicia?

SANTOS: Actually, I have to add to this because when I first began writing, I told an African-American sister that I wanted to write for "Essence" magazine, which is a black magazine. And one of the things she told me was, why do you want to write for "Essence?" You ain't black. Why don't you write for "Latina"? It's not your place. And that's the thing that spiraled me to really question, you know, where I'm from and my history. And what I discovered was, not only am I Latina, but I'm also African. And so, not only is it my place, but it's my responsibility to really talk about all aspects.

CARDONA: And...

MARTIN: Is it getting better? Anything getting better on this score, or people just need to get...

CARDONA: And...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Maria.

CARDONA: I think it's all up to - and, frankly, I think this is - you know, with racism, it's all up to the parents. I grew up in Puerto Rico, and in Puerto Rico, this is a huge issue because there are Puerto Ricans who are of mixed race. There are lots of Dominicans, lots of Haitians and there is incredible racism amongst all of them. And in fact, there was this awful saying, where if somebody was acting too, quote-unquote, white, somebody then would call them out and say in Spanish, e tu abuela donde esta - which means, well, where is your grandmother? Meaning, let's see how white you are. Let's look at your grandmother and see, you know, if she's white, right?

MARTIN: Yes.

CARDONA: So it's all - everyone's questioning everyone's, quote-unquote, whiteness. And then, I had a friend who was going out with somebody who was darker than her, and her father would tell her, mija, que mejorar la raza - which means, sweetheart, we have to better our race. Meaning, don't go out with him because he's too dark.

MARTIN: Ouch.

CARDONA: It's awful.

MARTIN: Ouch.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

CARDONA: And it all comes from the parents. This was her father telling her that.

MARTIN: This is terrible. OK.

CARDONA: Exactly, also, all up to the parents.

MARTIN: All right, well...

MARTINEZ: May I just...

MARTIN: That's our word of wisdom for today. We have to leave it there for now. More - clearly, there's a lot to talk about here. Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist and contributor to Mamiverse.com, with us in Washington, D.C. With us from New York, Alicia Anabel Santos, freelance writer and filmmaker. Laura Martinez writes the blog "Mi blog es tu blog" - one of my favorite titles ever - both with us from New York. Ladies, thank you.

SANTOS: Thank you so much.

MARTINEZ: Thank you.

CARDONA: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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