Recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – trying desperately, yet involuntarily to retain his title as “Asshole of the Year” – defended his previous criticisms of 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado. The Venezuelan-born Machado apparently had gained too much weight at the height of her reign for Trump’s taste and subsequently referred to her as “Miss Piggy.” He later also dubbed her “Miss Housekeeping,” an obvious reference to her ethnic heritage. While millions of women across the U.S. (and I’m quite certain, across the globe) resent the “Miss Piggy” sleight, I focused on the “Miss Housekeeping” comment and thought, ‘Here we go again with the racial crap.’ Once more, Hispanic women are being dropped into the narrow categories of maid, housekeeper, etc. by (imagine this!) an old White male.
Trump has made racism and misogyny hallmarks of his campaign. But this latest verbal assault against Machado struck me personally and harder than his previous idiotic statements. As the son of a German-Mexican mother, I’ve heard more than a few stories of bigotry about the American workplace. But, as someone who labored in the corporate world for more than a quarter century, I know that Hispanic women fit into more than the standard housekeeper / maid job role. Regardless of race or ethnicity, women overall comprise roughly 57% of the American workforce; both full-time and part-time. It’s the first time in U.S. labor history that more women than men are working. Such a figure would have been incomprehensible a generation ago.
Not long after I was born in 1963, my father demanded that my mother stay home and raise me; thus becoming a traditional mother and housewife. He was invoking the machismo persona of the average American male. Few women worked after having a child in those days – or at least that’s what the general philosophy held. In reality a number of women entered the workforce after having children, long before it became socially acceptable. Many had no real choice. My mother may have had a choice, but she refused to bow to pre-defined roles. She had already gone against tradition by telling a Catholic priest shortly before my parents married that she didn’t plan to have a child every year, as the Holy Roman Empire dictated. It upset the priest so badly that he told her maternal grandmother, a woman who had raised her and her three siblings after their mother died in 1940. The grandmother, in turn, expressed her frustration to my mother who stood her ground. Unless the Church was willing to finance her progeny, my mother absolutely would not have a child every time my father got an erection. It’s a good thing. My mother had enough trouble with me. She had lost two pregnancies before I was born and another afterwards. Considering some of the financial troubles my parents experienced later, it’s a good thing my mother returned to work in 1965, when I was 18 months old. She retired in 2003 at age 70.
In reviewing contemporary TV shows, I believe there are about as many Hispanic characters now as there were fifty years ago; meaning they could probably all be counted on one hand. Among the most popular today is “Modern Family,” featuring Colombian-born former model Sofia Vergara. (Apparently there weren’t enough Hispanic actresses in Hollywood needing an acting job, so the show’s casting director yanked this nitwit from the gutter of foreign refuse to fill an otherwise blatantly stereotypical role.)
In 2003, NBC presented “Kingpin,” a series about (surprise!) a Mexican drug cartel family caught between the brutal worlds of narcotics trafficking and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. I guess these conflicts were supposed to induce some sort of dramatic intoxication in the viewer. Entertainment insiders noted the show presented a number of Hispanic performers; folks who normally wouldn’t find much long-term work in Hollywood apart from character clichés. Those of us outside of that insulated fantasy factory – that is, those of us with a firm grip on reality – saw it for what it was: yet more Hispanics in formulaic characters. The cacophony of anger was loud enough for NBC to cancel the series after just six episodes. They claimed it was actually due to poor ratings. As far as I can tell, industry outlets such as “Entertainment Tonight” didn’t spend much time highlighting the glaring racism in the series. But I’m certain if a similar show about Blacks or Jews had come out, protests would be louder than the sound of Donald Trump dropping another wife. Hell, when “Seinfeld” went off the air in 1998, it made national news!
This past June the USA Network premiered a show titled “Queen of the South.” Such a name might make viewers assume it focuses on the antics of a cynically witty granddame-type in Georgia or South Carolina; an old gal who sips mint julips, dons “Gone with the Wind” regalia every December 20 and longs for the old days Negroes had to sit at the back of the bus. That, of course, would be more than enough to get a show bounced of the air. But “Queen of the South” revolves around a woman named Teresa who grew up poor and loveless in a Mexican slum and falls in love with (wait for it) a Mexican drug cartel leader. When he’s killed, she flees to South Texas and becomes involved with someone from her past in an attempt to avenge her boyfriend’s murder. That’s bad enough. Yet it gets worse, as Teresa realizes the narcotics lifestyle is just too good to pass up and subsequently becomes a drug czarina in her own right. It’s a quirky spin on the life and murderous legacy of Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. “The Cocaine Godmother.” In fact, Blanco’s story is currently metamorphosing into a Hollywood biopic starring Jennifer Lopez who – like the late Michael Jackson – is gradually turning Whiter as she gets older.
Once again, though, Hispanics and illegal drugs are linked. Actually Hispanics are still paired up with almost anything illegal: gang members, prostitutes, immigrants sneaking across the border and the like. If going from maids and groundskeepers to drug cartel leaders is supposed to be an improvement, I’ll stick with the maid / groundskeeper type. It’s sort of like this year’s elections: one has to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Looking through production credits for some of these shows, I’ve noticed none had Spanish surnames. It’s obvious, then, from the initial concept down to the actual filming of the program, people of Northern European extraction are in control. A good number of them are Jewish. Therefore, I dare any of them to produce a television show displaying Jews (or any-Hispanic) as crooks. Let’s see if it even gets past its debut episode.
I’m pleased to see plenty of Blacks and Asians (many of them women) in non-traditional roles; business professionals and law enforcement characters who actually speak perfect English. The same doesn’t hold true for Hispanics, or Native Americans for that matter. We’re still the drug dealers, maids, groundskeepers and / or illiterate wetbacks who comprise the much-despised “Other” group of degenerates; people who are too lazy or stupid to get a decent education and find a legitimate career. People Donald Trump wants to wall off and deport.
I don’t want to be around drug dealers or prostitutes either. But that’s simply because I don’t belong to either of those groups. Nor does anyone in my family and nor do most Hispanics.
We’re educated and career-driven. We’re concerned about national security and the economy – just like any other citizen of this country. Race and ethnicity are wedge issues that some people love to exploit. We’re fully aware of the myriad stereotypes that plague us as a group; whether it’s on television or in political discourse. We’re fully aware that Donald Trump is appealing to the traditional Republican base: older White men who watch in dismay as the world they thought only they would inherit slowly slips into the chaos of what the U.S. Constitution promised – freedom and equality for all.
Hispanic and other non-White women (or “women of color” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) are double minorities in this society because of two factors: their gender and their ethnicity. Non-White women with college degrees, for example, often earn as much (or as little) as a White male with only a high school diploma.
Having grown up with a working mother – and seeing other Hispanic women struggling both to get educated and to maintain their jobs – I understand that the American entertainment machine and people like Donald Trump just can’t (or won’t) accept the truth. Old prejudicial concepts are tough to eradicate. But reality is reality. And the reality I know is that beauty queens and housemaids aren’t the only roles where Hispanic women are allowed to exist.
Top image “Sonhos do carnaval” (Carnival dreams, 1955), courtesy Emiliano di Cavalcanti.