Friday, July 24, 2009

Gidget, the Yo Quiero Taco Bell Chihuahua died of a stroke today!

Gidget, the Yo Quiero Taco Bell Chihuahua died of a stroke today, but the “hallucination of the Mexican”, as my number one carnal Bill Nericcio calls it in Tex{t}-Mex, is very alive and kicking.

Spin a radio dial, flick on a t.v. remote, pony-up for a summer blockbuster, scope a billboard, chomp a (Mc)Chipotle burrito, anywhere in the US and more than likely you'll either hear, see, taste, and/or smell Brownness. With 35 million plus potential Latino consumers out there (that's the official census), this pre-packaging of all that is Brown in America isn't all that surprising.
Now this massive Browning process doesn't spring from corporate p.c. benevolence. Let's not kid ourselves. We know how capitalism works. With dollar profiteering as the bottom line, Browning to diversify and complicate ethnic and racial yesteryear's cardboard cut-outs doesn't make first place on CEO agendas.

It's usually the opposite--even in today's day and age. So we're blitzed with a "Run for the Border" ad campaign and a Spanglish accented Chihuahua barking up a ¡Yo Quiero Taco Bell!

On network t.v., we're served up healthy helpings of hot and bothered Latinas whose only agency plays out in the bedroom and in getting that open credit at Saks. I think here of Tejana actress Eva Longoria transplanting her soap-star melodramatic skills onto her gold-digging, sexed-up character, Gabrielle Solis, in Desperate Housewives.

Careful to temper such hypersexualized figurations, in recent episodes producers have reverted back to the Brown-Mammy type, casting her pre-pubescent daughter with the rotund Madison De La Garza. There's also the dominatrix (very vanilla) styled Sofia Reyes (Salma Hayek) in Ugly Betty.

And when Latinas appear with more on their minds than Prada and bubble baths, they're asexual and more than ready to serve: the beautiful and smart America Ferrara made into wide-eyed for the American Pie, frumpy ("ugly") Betty Suarez.

The guys, as we all know, aren't given much more play on their leash. Latinos are either psychotic (and usually psychotic and queer together), perennially turned on, underhanded, harmful, and deceitful, and/or buffoonish. On the network (and now syndicated), for instance, in The 70s Show, we have Miami-born Colombian/Venezuelan, Wilmer Valderama, cast not as a Latino (as if there weren't any in the mid-West in the '70s), but as "Fez" the generic Brown (Persian?) foreign exchange student. As second-fiddle to the clean cut, chisel featured white guys (including the character played by ex-model Ashton Kutcher), he gets the giggles with his malapropistic bumbles.
And, you might recall NBC's flash-in-the-pan Kingpin where Latinos are either shooting each other, doing and/or pushing drugs, or feeding human appendages to pet tigers. What were the producers thinking when they had Jacob Vargas (Michoacan, Mexican) play the role of Ernesto--a wildly irrational and glaringly crass, gold-medallion and cowboy-hat wearing, whip-carrying, man-child who lives lavishly in a Liberace-styled garish mansion; his hot tempered flashes and violent acts (he feeds a DEA's body parts to his pet tiger, for instance) are seemingly calmed only by the paternal embrace of the clean-cut (and Caucasian featured), Ivy League educated Miguel Cadena (played by Colombian/Puerto Rican Yancey Arias); unlike Ernesto's crass kingpin ways, Miguel uses more "respectable", corporate savvy means to infiltrate new drug markets. (Notably, to garner maximum profits, NBC-owned Telemundo dubbed the series into Spanish.)

Before I continue, let me step down off my academic high horse a minute. I watch these shows--some more than others. For all its clichés and stereotypes, a show like Kingpin or Desperate Housewives satisfies, to a certain extent, my craving for fiction. And I laugh, too--at some more than others. And, while I'm not going to forgive by cleverly reading between the lines, a character like Longoria's Solis actually has a certain refreshing clarity about the economics of sex: she's not at all romantically deluded about what the coupling sex-for-money contract means in the marriage institution. When (ugly) Betty wears that poncho to the Christmas party, the t.v. mise-en-scene clearly asks us to read this with a good deal of irony. And, while I don't laugh or even find interesting The '70s Show, there's some prime-time like "The George Lopez Show" that can be pretty funny; his Latino-directed stand-ups are, of course, even more fun. I don't know any Chicanos who don't laugh with Cartoon Network's Minoriteam and the creating of the character Richard Escartin, a.k.a El Jefe (Mexican mixed with 1/8th Viking) who wears a ten-gallon cowboy hat/sombrero and uses the deadly super-weapon, the Leafblower 3000 to battle villains.
But I haven't finished, yet, with being up on that high horse. I mentioned network t.v., but of course, the Silver Screen also cranks out Latino cut-outs. It has Eva Longoria, increasingly omnipresent, playing a nagging, upwardly mobile Chicana, Sylvia, in David Ayer's Harsh Times. She wants her hubby, Mike Alonzo (played by Freddy Rodriguez), to grow up and get a job, instead of hanging out with reprobate, Jim Luther Davis (played by Christian Bale).

In the grand tradition of the Silver Screen, the film invests the Anglo character with psychological complexity and charisma and gives the Mexican/Chicano guy a need-to-be-guided sidekick sensibility; the Chicana, Sylvia, is given throw-away lines like "grow-up" and positioned as homosocial threat. Here, too, Ayer pulls out of that old bag of tricks, a romanticizing of Mexico and its women (Jim's love-interest enchants him with folkloric riddles) as innocent, untouched, and dreamily utopic. Hollywood, even in this day and age, still goes for the Brown-face--if it'll insure better box office returns.
In Jared Hess's Nacho Libre, Jack Black plays the Mexican priest by day luchador ("Nacho") by night; Browned up and spilling his lines in a truncated Spanglish, certainly brought in dollars: its opening weekend tallied 30-plus million bucks.
Around the same time, but in a much more metaphysically serious vein, Darrin Aronofsky's The Fountain hit the big screens. Here, we have yet another unreeling of Anglo fantasy make-believe: modern-day oncologist, Tommy (Hugh Jackman) morphs into X-Box super-humanly fit Spanish conquistador, Tomas Creo, who is attacked by a marauding, tattooed to the nines, dagger wielding Mayan high priest.
Not one to short change the details, Aronofsky spent part of his thirty-plus million dollar budget to capture that authentic Mayan feel by transporting Mayan peoples to Montreal as extras on the set. The film's end tells all: Tommy/Tomas reaches some sort of Nirvanic bliss, Yoga lotus positioned in his New Age styled biospheric spacecraft, he's enveloped in a blinding white light.

Don't ask.

Of course, nothing comes close to Mel Gibson's condescending, sophomoric, and racist Apocalypto--a film that, among other things, overtly celebrates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, collapses about a century and a half of Mayan history into a day in the life of (Jaguar Paw), and, depicts Mayan society as (human) hemoglobin lusty, and not as the sophisticated agricultural (traces of their incredible and extensive irrigation systems can be seen from satellites) society.

And, if you thought it was just the whites churning out the primitivist schlock, think again. In Babel Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu reveals an unabashed Anglophilia: the white middle class American characters (played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are bathed in a radiant luminescence--halo-like, at one point--and the Brown characters (Mexican and Moroccan) a flattened light at best.

Think of the lighting in the sequence when John Smith (Pitt) carries his wounded wife (Blanchett) from village hut to Red Cross helicopter (that la pieta comes to mind isn't incidental, Gonzalez Iñárritu had the crew take this shot 30-plus times) in contrast with the majority of shadowed and flat lighting that follows the Mexican nanny/maid, Amelia (he requested that actress Adriana Barraza put on 30 pounds to look more the part) whose irrational "incompetence" leads to the near death of the golden niños in a US/Mexico arid no-man's land.

I was asked in a recent radio-show interview (MARFA if there were any Latino superheroes in films today. With the exception of Bryan Cox’s adaptation of Javier Hernandez’s comic book, El Muerto with Valderama playing the Latino superhero, I had to answer with a definitive, NO.

While Latino comic book authors are tearing it up with their resplendent array of Latino characters (superhero or otherwise), we are still haunted by a rather slim portfolio of iconographic imagery in the cultural mainstream: the nagged-to-the-bone, ESL stuttering Ricky Ricardo's (Mike Alonzo), lascivious, comical arriba-arriba Speedy's (Jack Black in Frito-Bandito Brown face), blood thirsty savage, irrational man-child (Ernesto), the hypersexualized dark and dangerous (Soderbergh's casting of Benjamin Bratt as cartel kingpin, Juan Obregon, in Traffic), and the effeminate and/or psychopathic queer (the assassin, Francisco Flores, in Traffic); media conglomerates still get a lot of play out of those age-old stereotypes of Latinas as either child-bearing hipped virgins (America Ferrara as Betty Suarez), money-grubbing whores (Eva Longoria as Gabrielle Solis), or too-well fed mammy-types (De La Garza and Barraza as Amelia).


  1. Todays media is one of the major acting influences providing roles for young people to relate to. The lack of diversified Latino steriotypes available within our culture today only add to the distortions that limits the possibilities within society for the next generation of Latino youth. Steriotypes always exist and our part of how we identify things we are not familiar with but in a society where youth are being educated by mass media it is our responsibilty to create a broader spectrum of identities for young people to relate to. Now more than ever it is important to honor all cultures in a way that represent all of the different indentities. We need to allow young people to see that they have some kind of representation and place in society not funnel them into a box that will ultimately be labeled Pandora.

  2. Finally a book that opens up a portal to the complex world of humanities and the implications that lie within. Comic books are something most of can relate to and it comes as a welcome surprise that this medium is being used in an interesting way to see some of the broader implications that exist in the psychological subtext. Comic books truly represent the thoughts and feeling within a society that are often hidden or excluded from more mainstream media, at last someone has taken a good look at what we are actually made of while at the same making academia accessible and interesting to "the rest of us". Fantastic job! I highly recommend this read to academics and comic book enthusiasts alike! ---Rowan, B (Paris, France)

  3. dude! nice work--lucid, evocative, passionate! 21st century down and brown! coolio....

    hey, i may have a radio show pilot soon with pacifica--want to be interviewed for a segment? 'brown'ivory tower


  4. Hey Frederick, thank you for that up-to-date history of Latina/o stereotypes on TV and film. I was particularly glad to read your critique of Babel (all I had heard was praise for that darn movie); I was so disturbed by the film I had to turn it off (but, then again, I'm hyper-sensitive.) By the way, did anyone see Eva Mendez's character in The Women? Textbook stereotype: she's vampy, bitchy, greedy, and ghettoish (I gather it's OK to make up words in this blog). She's played up against the moralist, upper-class whiteness of Meg Ryan, and of course is punished for her transgressions at the end of the movie (which, even without the racism, was an awful re-make of a terrible 1939 film.) Given this history of representational violence, it's no wonder that Republicans could not accept Sonia Sotomayor's concept of the Wise Latina! A sexy Latina, yes, a motherly Latina, sure, a Latina maid, absolutely, but a wise Latina weighing in on Supreme Court cases? Never in a million years!
    Fredrick, I'm really enjoying Your Brain on Latino Comics. Anyhow, loved the discussion on the ways in which comic books converge images and text (and your reference to artists/writers and viewers/readers rather than distinguishing between artists, writers, readers and viewers.) I was trying to make a similar argument about graffiti in my book, but it didn't quite come out as refined and thoughtful as your discussion. Anyhow, I'm still reading through the section on the brain's cognitive responses to Latino comics, and can't wait to get to the interviews!

  5. Qué piensas de _Weeds_? I cringed through the first and second season, between the savvy/wisecracking maid "Lupita" and the sexed-up drug lord Guillermo, but the fact that they kept making fun of Nancy for not knowing Spanish made me hang in there. Now, with the whole tunnel-to-Tijuana plot and Nancy deciding to cast her lot with Esteban Reyes, we're in telenovela land for reals--and an argument could be made that some important conversion is happening here. Or is it not ironic and merely stereotypical?