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Brown Tide Rising

Brown Tide Rising
Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse

Applying the insights of cognitive metaphor theory to an extensive natural language data set drawn from hundreds of articles in the Los Angeles Times and other media, Santa Ana reveals how metaphorical language portrays Latinos as invaders, outsiders, burdens, parasites, diseases, animals, and weeds.

January 2002
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424 pages | 6 x 9 | 2 figures, 20 tables |

"...awash under a brown tide...the relentless flow of waves on a beach, these human flows are remaking the face of America...." Since 1993, metaphorical language such as this has permeated mainstream media reporting on the United States' growing Latino population. In this groundbreaking book, Otto Santa Ana argues that far from being mere figures of speech, such metaphors produce and sustain negative public perceptions of the Latino community and its place in American society, precluding the view that Latinos are vested with the same rights and privileges as other citizens.

Applying the insights of cognitive metaphor theory to an extensive natural language data set drawn from hundreds of articles in the Los Angeles Times and other media, Santa Ana reveals how metaphorical language portrays Latinos as invaders, outsiders, burdens, parasites, diseases, animals, and weeds. He convincingly demonstrates that three anti-Latino referenda passed in California because of such imagery, particularly the infamous anti-immigrant measure, Proposition 187. Santa Ana illustrates how Proposition 209 organizers broadcast compelling new metaphors about racism to persuade an electorate that had previously supported affirmative action to ban it. He also shows how Proposition 227 supporters used antiquated metaphors for learning, school, and language to blame Latino children's speech—rather than gross structural inequity—for their schools' failure to educate them. Santa Ana concludes by calling for the creation of insurgent metaphors to contest oppressive U.S. public discourse about minority communities.


Best Book of 2002 on Ethnic and Racial Political Ideology and/or Political Theory
Organized Section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics of the American Political Science Association

  • Foreword by Joe R. Feagin
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Why Study the Public Discourse Metaphors Depicting Latinos?
  • Part I: Theory and Method
    • Chapter Two: How Metaphor Shapes Public Opinion
  • Part II: Analyses
    • Chapter Three: Proposition 187: Misrepresenting Immigrants and Immigration
    • Chapter Four: Proposition 209: Competing Metaphors to Construct Racism and Affirmative Action
    • Chapter Five: Student as Means, Not End: Contemporary American Discourse on Education
    • Chapter Six: American Discourse on Nation and Language: The "English for the Children" Referendum
  • Part III: Conclusions
    • Chapter Seven: Disease or Intruder: Metaphors Constructing the Place of Latinos in the United States
    • Chapter Eight: Insurgent Metaphors: Contesting the Conventional Representations of Latinos
  • Appendix: Tallies of Political Metaphors
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Otto Santa Ana is a founder and associate professor of the César Chávez Center for Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA.


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When I moved to California in 1994, Proposition 187 was the inescapable topic of conversation. This referendum would have prohibited state and local governments from providing education, health care, and other social services to undocumented immigrants and their children. Its backers, the "SOS" (Save Our State) Committee, were conducting a massive campaign. They were met by a vigorous countercampaign. I was startled by the language used and reported in the news, as well as in heated discussions which I heard everywhere. As a newcomer, I had not been desensitized to the public discourse, which was extraordinarily adverse toward immigrants, as well as toward Latinos, who were readily equated with immigrants. A general anxiety about immigration to the state was palpable in almost all discussions of the period, even among people who found the actual referendum to be reprehensible.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times published a number of scathing editorials against the referendum, calling Proposition 187 "half-baked," "ridiculous," and "wrong morally...wrong politically." In spite of such commentary, the Times texts also resonated fear and anger. This made me wary. I undertook a routine content analysis of the newspaper to test my suspicions. I was surprised to find little or no bias, by the typical measures of content analysis. The Times aims at the highest current standards of journalism. As a partisan who knew to my dismay that California's voters would ultimately approve Proposition 187, I wondered whether I was somehow conjuring a phantom.

Still, certain phrases stayed in my mind for days after I read or heard them—massive northward influxes, great waves of immigration, a sea of brown faces, and so on. At first, I scoffed, until the implications of such public discourse metaphors became clear. Cognitive science instructs us that human thinking, at base, is not mathematical code or logical expression. Human thought is constructed with images that represent reality. These images are metaphors. We first invent, and then rely almost exclusively on, metaphors to make sense of the world we live in. To the extent that this finding of cognitive science is the case, it follows that with a turn of phrase, such as foreigners flooding the country, the Latino community was portrayed as a force that is destroying California. Yet, this fear-provoking message was being transmitted by means of an only seemingly harmless figure of speech that is never examined in journalism, and only rarely in academic discourse analysis. As will unfold in the course of this book, metaphor is the mental brick and mortar with which people build their understanding of the social world.

Accordingly, in this book I examine the metaphors used in American public discourse in the last years of the twentieth century. These metaphors are not merely rhetorical flourishes, but are the key components with which the public's concept of Latinos is edified, reinforced, and articulated.

For forty years, Mexicans in the United States were characterized as a Sleeping Giant. During that long period of time, the community was viewed as an immense, and inert, population. In 1993 the metaphor changed. When this discourse changed, so too did the public's perception, and its electoral responses to this population. In 1994 Proposition 187 was overwhelmingly approved by California voters because the public discourse reaffirmed historic dominance relations at a time when the largely Anglo-American electorate felt threatened. The key to this change in public discourse was the commonplace, unobtrusive prose metaphors of immigrant, citizen, immigration, and nation.

During the 1990s the passage of two additional anti-Latino referenda eliminated both affirmative action and bilingual education in California. To make sense of the anti-affirmative-action referendum, Proposition 209, I analyze the metaphors used to construct racism and its legal remedies at two points in time: in the 1960s, when affirmative action was instituted, and in the mid-1990s, when it was outlawed in the state. Cognitive science provides an explanation of the electorate's consistent approach in these two periods, which led to diametrically opposed responses to the use of race to remedy institutional discrimination. The difference: how racism was metaphorized.

As for the anti-bilingual-education referendum, Proposition 227, I examine the public discourse on U.S. public education and, from this cognitive science frame of reference, the public's understanding of how children learn, and how teaching takes place. On these latter counts, the public continues to be informed by hoary nineteenth-century metaphors. Because the public understands education in terms of these outmoded metaphors, it can only act to sustain the current antiquated system, which is particularly detrimental to language-minority students. Metaphor theory provides a new account of why the nation fails to build innovation into its public school system.

Thus, focusing the lens of cognitive science on everyday American public discourse is very revealing. In this book, the emphasis is on contemporary public representations of Latinos. However, this combination of theory and method can open a new window of insight onto social trends and policy prospects across the panorama of national current events.

As I write this preface, the United States is experiencing a remarkable moment of domestic ease, as the economy surges to its greatest output in thirty years. The country is content, in contrast to the anxious times of the mid-1990s. As a result, nativist anxieties about the brown population of the United States have also subsided. This economic bubble, however, may burst at any time. History teaches that when hard times return, Latinos and immigrants will again be falsely blamed. Thus it is worthwhile to study the public discourse of the agitated Anglo-American electoral majority when it lashed out at the Latino communities in the 1990s.


“This is a highly significant contribution to scholarship in several fields—e. g. sociology, sociolinguistics, cultural studies, political studies, ethnic studies. . . . The combination of lucid and rational theory, rich data set, and carefully reasoned analysis results in an unusually powerful book.”
Ronald Schmidt Sr., author of Language Policy and Identity Politics in the United States