Dudamel’s great, but he’s not the whole show

It’s not unusual for a global city to recruit an international talent like Gustavo Dudamel to conduct its symphony orchestra. (Alan Gilbert, the new conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is the first native New Yorker to hold the post since the institution was founded in 1842.) What is unusual is how the Los Angeles orchestra is using the high-culture, Venezuelan-born wunderkind to build a rapport with this city’s native-born Latino masses. Gauging from the widespread, deliriously upbeat hoopla -- and taking into account Dudamel’s exceptional qualities and charisma -- maybe it’ll even work.

But L.A.'s cultural elite shouldn’t mistake the Dudamel phenomenon for a solid strategy to reverse its historic negligence toward the city’s Latinos.

The fact is, American elites have always been more comfortable hobnobbing with foreign-born Spanish-speakers who match them in income and class (and, dare I say, color) than they have been with the local Latinos they’ve lived around for years. Yes, at least part of the joy over Dudamel, particularly for the regulars at Disney Hall, can be explained by this familiarity. Historically, foreign-born elites generally escape the social prejudice that burdens even their relatively well-to-do native-born co-ethnics.

During the Jim Crow era, in the most segregated counties in south Texas, a Mexican diplomat could be served in a whites-only restaurant where (usually darker-skinned) Mexican Americans could not. Such an exception, mind you, would not constitute the breaking of any barriers; it could do little to improve the standing of the lower-class immigrants and U.S.-born Mexican Americans who continued to be excluded. Sometimes, in order to justify the occasional inclusion of the upper-class Mexicans, Anglo racists would generously re-categorize them as Spaniards, i.e. Europeans, which is to say, white folks.


A variation of this phenomenon can be seen in Hollywood’s most recent discovery of the so-called Latino market. But on the silver screen, who benefited disproportionately? Was it up-and-coming native-born Latino Americans? No, it was mostly Spanish actors, such as Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, and Mexican actress Salma Hayek. My favorite ethnic casting moment was in James L. Brooke’s “Spanglish,” in which the light-skinned Paz Vega, from Sevilla, Spain, played the role of a Mexican nanny.

Are there exceptions? Sure. Jennifer Lopez and L.A.'s own Eva Mendes come to mind. But the point is that diversity on the marquee does not necessarily translate into connecting with American Latinos at large or tapping into the talent among them.

In other words, in general, nobody should confuse importing foreign talent with engaging, integrating and uplifting the Latinos who are already here.

Not that Dudamel doesn’t have possibilities. He may fit in seamlessly among the elite, but he came from low income surroundings in the Venezuelan provinces, the product of El Sistema, a national music training program that puts an instrument into the hands of every child who wants one. Dudamel speaks passionately about the need for such broad-based music education. In that spirit, the Los Angeles Philharmonic already has beefed up its educational efforts and launched a Young Musicians Initiative designed to “create a network of community-based youth orchestras in underserved areas of L.A. County.”

The philharmonic leadership knows that it -- as with all major local cultural institutions -- must engage more Latinos if it is to survive in the future. The initiative is as much about building audiences as it is about producing musicians, and the big public push behind such an ambitious, long-term program is long overdue. Which brings us back to the issue of historical negligence.

Will the elites’ latest, brightest foreign hire undo a tradition of local cultural neglect? Dudamel’s star quality and his own proclivities could go a long way in that direction. But he would be the exception that proves the rule. Other institutions seeking to connect with an ever more diverse and ever more Latino city can’t rely on finding their own perfect Dudamel. So if they want to diversify their staffs and their audiences, they should start looking in their own backyards.