Tag Archives: Latinos

Spickland

“And why is it that when you’re dining here today to honor me as Hispanic Officer of the Year, I look around the room full of ranking officers, and the only other Hispanics I see are waiters and busboys?  As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your awards.” – René Enriquez, as Lte. Ray Calletano, “Hill Street Blues”, 1983

 

“A part of me wants to kick their ass.  A part of me feels sorry for their stupid ignorant selves.  But if you’ve never been farther south than Nuevo Laredo, how the hell would you know what Mexicans are supposed to look like?

There are green-eyed Mexicans.  The rich blond Mexicans.  The Mexicans with faces of Arab sheiks.  The Jewish Mexicans.  The big-footed-as-a-German Mexicans.  The leftover French-Mexicans.  The chaparrito compact Mexicans.  The Tarahumara tall-as-a-desert-saguaro Mexicans.  The Mediterranean Mexicans.  The Mexicans with Tunisian eyebrows.  The negrito Mexicans of the double coasts.  The Chinese Mexicans.  The curly-haired, freckle-faced, red-headed Mexicans.  The Lebanese Mexicans.  Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say I don’t look Mexican.  I am Mexican.  Even though I was born on the U.S. side of the border.” – Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo, Chapter 72. Copyright 2003, Vintage Books.

 

Recently FX Networks announced the premier of “Mayans MC,” a spinoff of their highly popular, award-winning “Sons of Anarchy.”  Airing from 2008 to 2014, “Sons of Anarchy” followed the lives of an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California.  Exploring government corruption, personal loyalty, racism, redemption and the vigilante spirit, it’s sort of what you’d get if the Hells Angels produced a show for the Hallmark Channel.  “Mayans MC” essentially continues the storyline, but with a Latino cultural flair.  While the real Mayans charted the night skies, these “Mayans” are drug runners who immediately encounter another gang, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones).  They might as well have called it ‘Mean Ass Mexicans on Motorcycles.’  I guess not much has changed since 1983.

It’s slightly reminiscent of “Kingpin,” a severely short-lived series that dealt with “the machinations of an ambitious Mexican family . . . displayed in graphic detail as the family faces challenges from both the United States Drug Enforcement Agency and from the dangerous underworld in which they work.”  The show was the brainchild of the late David Mills, a “light-skinned black man whose racial identity was not always evident to those around him” and who “wrote white characters and black characters with equal zeal.”  Okay, great.  He may have placed Black and White folks on equal levels, but he kept Hispanics on the criminal platform.  There are more colors in the rainbow of equality than black and white.

The start of 2005 saw the debut of “Jonny Zero,” a Fox series about an ex-con named Jonny Calvo, played by the underwhelming Frankie G. (Gonzales), who returns to his old neighborhood to begin life anew.  He naturally finds it tough to stay on the right side of the law because his former employer seeks his tough-guy services to engage in new criminal activity, while the FBI wants him to snitch on that same former employer.  Decisions!  Decisions!  Aside from taking place in that most Latino of all American metropolises, New York City, “Jonny Zero” was also filmed there.  I presume that was meant to lend it a sense of gritty urban realism.  Fortunately, like “Kingpin”, “Jonny Zero” lasted all of a nano-second in TV land.

Even now, in this allegedly post-civil rights era America, Hispanics are still portrayed on television as gang bangers, maids and illegal immigrants.

In 2011, Demián Bichir received praise and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in “A Better Life”, the story of a Mexican immigrant father who chooses to remain in the U.S. and work as a gardener in Los Angeles.  His goal is simple: do for his kids what the movie’s title says to do.  It’s supposed to be melodramatic and sweet and, perhaps, make the case for a more sentimental view of illegal immigration.

In an interview last year, actor Benito Martinez lamented, “I had all these images of elegance and range and style, so when I, naively, was trying to build my career, those were my examples,” the soft-spoken Martinez says. “But what I was getting in the ‘80s as a young Latino actor was, ‘You’re going to be a gang member and you’re going to go in and rob the bank.’  I had to then learn about pigeonholing.  I had to learn the power of no.”

Martinez’s latest role?  A migrant laborer on a tomato farm on ABC’s “American Crime”.  The “power of no” often runs hard up against the need to pay bills and beef up a resume.  The show was cancelled last year.

Another ABC program, “Modern Family,” has been heralded as a depiction of America’s ethnic diversity.  But the main female character – portrayed by the immensely untalented Sofia Vergara – is yet another Hispanic trope: the sexpot.

Twenty years ago critics wondered aloud why the highly popular show “Friends” didn’t feature any Black characters, given that it took place in New York City.  Well, it didn’t have any Asian or Hispanic characters either.

Again, not much seems to have changed for Latinos in popular culture since 1983.  The late Lupe Ontiveros once calculated that she’d portrayed maids and housekeepers some 200 times in her 30+ years as a professional actress.  Yes, I’ve seen plenty of Hispanic housekeepers – have even known a few.  But most of the Hispanics I’ve seen and known throughout my life – even those outside my own family – have been well-educated, well-spoken, gainfully-employed, law-abiding, military-serving U.S. citizens.  These are MY people – not the illiterate wetbacks scurrying across the border at midnight or hyper-violent drug cartel leaders.  I’m not familiar with those latter groups.  I can’t identify with them.  Neither can most other Hispanic-Americans.

So why don’t we see more of us on television or in the movies?  I suppose my life as a 50-something freelance technical writer taking care of his elderly mother is too bland for the American entertainment – an industry still dominated by mostly White (usually Jewish) men.  And I won’t start a life of crime just to get attention and maybe a reality TV show!  Hell, that would cut into my writing time!

The ordinariness of the average Hispanic-American is perhaps why I had such a hard time getting my debut novel published.  Traditional publishing houses couldn’t see the reality in a book with Hispanic characters who are well-educated and speak perfect English.  Yes, one publisher actually told me that a little more than a decade ago!  That’s why I’ve resorted to self-publishing, which I’ll get to in a different essay.

The only way I see things changing for the general American perception of Hispanics – aside from letting the ‘Old Guard’ die off – is for Latinos to get angry.  Yes, just flat out pissed off and demand more AND better from the entertainment industry.  To some extent, that’s already happened with the cancellation of shows like “Kingpin” and “Jonny Zero”.  But we have to point out – forcefully – to TV and film producers that they don’t have a true understanding of who we all are.  Who we really are.  Stereotypes are pathetically old school and don’t have a place in 21st century societies.

Years ago some White people at my father’s workplace told him he wasn’t like “other Mexicans”; that he was “different.”  He honestly didn’t know what to make of it, but I did when he mentioned that to my mother and me at dinner one evening.  “They’re stereotyping you, Dad,” I told him.

 

Image: Erik De La Cruz, Latina Lista

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Our People

In the spring of 1983, while I was a first-year student at a community college in suburban Dallas, I took a historical geology course as a science requisite.  About midway through the semester, the instructor brought in a guest speaker; a man who described himself as a “water rights activist.”  It was a term I’d never heard before; in fact, no one else in the class I knew had heard of it.  Water rights, of course, are part of the overall environmental movement, and people are giving it much more scrutiny now as climate change becomes critical.  The man (I can’t recall his name) explained how large populations in any given location can stress out the area’s natural resources.  And, water is the most basic of all natural resources.  But, amidst his light-hearted dialogue, he suddenly mentioned illegal Mexican immigrants.  He was concerned that more people taking up residence in Texas and the rest of the southwestern U.S. were unnecessarily straining the region’s valuable resources – mainly water.  It was – and still is – a compelling argument.   And, I would have agreed with him, if he hadn’t blatantly classified all Hispanics under one group: illegal immigrants, Mexicans, “Chicanos.”

“Or, whatever those people call themselves,” he said, inciting a few chuckles from the crowd.

‘Those people?’ I repeated to myself.  He might as well have stared at the handful of Hispanics in the room and said ‘you people.’  I’ve had that thrown at me a few times.

During his speech, he pointed to a large map of the state of Texas he’d brought with him; one that displayed population centers in comparison to water resources.  “Now imagine this minus a few Chicanos,” he said, before proceeding to explain further what it was all about.

I forgot what he said because I’d lost interest in him.  He was no longer jovial and quaint; he was arrogant and bigoted.  Every fact he uttered after he presented his map was lost.  I had grown angry.  I already knew by then that my father’s paternal ancestors had been in Texas since the 1580’s.  My father’s later genealogical research proved just how much influence our family had on Texas some 200 years before it joined the United States.  But, in 1983, I was a rather naïve 19-year-old who was just becoming aware of his surroundings.  I’d already faced some prejudice in high school.  But, here I was in college; higher academia; in a science class.  And, a 50-something Anglo man essentially referred to me as a “Chicano” and an “illegal immigrant.”

He then did something totally bizarre; he extracted a guitar and belted out a homemade tune about some long-standing Texas politician.  Again, I forgot the name because I was too annoyed with the “water rights activist” by now.  When he finished squawking, the classroom erupted into delighted applause.  I remained mute, my hands on my lap.

After the next class, I approached the instructor and asked if she could make time for a meeting in her office.  I wanted to talk to her about that guest speaker.  I wanted to be a diplomatic.  She said yes, and I met her later in the day.  I explained how offended I was by his verbiage, adding that me and most other Hispanics were born and raised in the U.S.  She was surprised by my reaction.  She literally had no idea and fumbled an apology.

That was in 1983, and now, nearly two decades later, with the clown show known as the 2012 presidential campaign season in full swing, I’m almost contemptuous of politicians’ attempts to placate the Hispanic vote.  Moreover, I’m still annoyed to find that the issue of immigration – specifically illegal immigration – seems to be the only concern of the Hispanic American community.  I know many Hispanics give that impression with their own focus on immigration.  But, like most people in the U.S., my biggest grievance is the economy, along with unemployment.

Hispanics have a longer history in this country than any other ethnic group, save Indigenous Americans, with whom we share a common heritage.  Spaniards established the first permanent European colony in what is now North America.  But, in modern times, we still had to work hard to attain our fair share of the American dream, combating blatant racism and the old guard status quo that dictated where we could live and work.  Now, we’re mixed up in this awful immigration fight with no easy solutions; a fiasco that has people on all sides paranoid and angry.

I don’t support illegal immigration – from Latin America or anywhere in the world.  The laws are very clear: you cannot enter the United States without proper documentation.  Hispanics have fought long and hard for equal rights in employment, housing, education and all other aspects of American life.  Sneaking across the border under the cover of darkness is not one of them.  It never was and it never will be.  That viewpoint has made me a traitor in the eyes of many other Hispanics; both American-born and immigrant.  But, I structure my opinions around other people’s sentiments.  I consider myself an American first; a proud mix of Spanish, Mexican Indian and German extraction.  Some of my own ancestors fought for Texas against Mexico – including one with my exact name!  The much-heralded Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, along with most of the others, were outsiders; that is, non-Texans.

Many Americans are upset with the mass influx of illegal immigrants who have disregarded our laws.  If only the latter group would show some respect for our country and emigrate legally, there wouldn’t be much of a problem.  But, their actions have generated an unprecedented level of fear among some folks – especially the narrow-minded – and allowed all Latinos to be branded with the unsavory title of “illegal alien.”

While my paternal ancestry in Texas extends back to the late 16th century, I am also the son of an immigrant.  My mother was born just outside México City.  But, she was already a U.S. citizen at birth, since her father was born in Michigan.  After my maternal grandmother died in 1940, my grandfather moved his four kids to Dallas where he’d found a job in the midst of World War II.  His mother-in-law, who already spoke fluent English, came with them.  My grandfather got his children social security numbers immediately and insisted that they speak only English in that household.  Some Hispanics laugh at me when I tell them my mother was born in México.  They get even uglier when I tell them my grandfather was German-American.  You don’t make friends with people by mocking their families.  It’s ironic though; in high school, it was the Anglo and Irish kids who hurled racist statements at me.  Now, it’s other Hispanics.

Several years ago, during the Independence Day weekend, a friend and I went nightclubbing.  We started at a Tejano bar just north of downtown Dallas.  I donned my American flag vest; something I usually wear during the Memorial and Independence Day periods.  But, on that one night, my friend suggested I remove it before we enter that Tejano bar; noting that, if anything, I should be wearing a Mexican flag vest, lest I offend the crowd.

“Excuse me?!” I replied.  “This is the United States; not México!  If someone doesn’t like that I’m wearing this American flag vest, they’re more than welcome to tell it to my face – in Spanish or English.  And then, stand back and watch while I rip their head off and dump shit down their throat.”

He didn’t pursue the matter, and I didn’t remove the vest.  No one complained about it – at least not to me.

Some people accuse me of being confused or conflicted.  I’m neither.  One girl dubbed me a “coconut” – brown on the outside and white on the inside.  “Well,” I told her, “I am White – White as in Spaniard and German.”  It seemed I had to remind her – as I do many people – that Spaniards are “White,” too; as in European, as in Caucasian.  Read my essay, “Name Calling,” and you’ll get a sense how ridiculous that racial stuff can get.

The U.S. is at a crossroads; an uncomfortable fork of its own making.  Some large companies and farms began employing illegal immigrants – mostly Mexicans – so they could avoid paying decent wages and health care costs and skirt OSHA safety laws.  As many states and individual cities target illegal immigrants, some of those farms and meat-packing plants find themselves idle; there’s no one to do that kind of work.  That kind of work is hard and dirty.  The often-spoiled American middle and upper classes can’t imagine themselves in such positions.  If it doesn’t involve Microsoft and a laptop, it seems they want nothing to do with it.  When former Mexican president Vicente Fox stated several years ago that Mexican immigrants do the work in the U.S. that our nation’s Black population won’t, he got branded a racist and a bigot by the usual voices on the far left: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc.  But, I can relay from first-hand experience that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, large numbers of Hispanic immigrants poured into New Orleans to help clean up and rebuild the city.  While the mostly Black population was airlifted to other cities where they took up residence in hotels and sports stadiums, Mexicans, Guatemalans and the like were making their way into the decimated “Crescent City” to make it habitable again.  I don’t believe the far left complained about that part of the racial divide.

President Obama and his supporters can laud the “Dream Act” all they want.  But, it’s not my issue.  Even though I’ve been unemployed for some time, I’m not likely to run to the nearest chicken slaughter house or peach orchard to look for work.  Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how he and his trophy wife can appeal to Hispanic voters without offending the Republican base that has come to loathe Latinos.  Immigration isn’t a Hispanic issue; it’s an American issue.  I want political operatives to stop placing Latinos beneath that single umbrella – immigrants, illegal immigrants, Chicanos.  ‘You people.’  Our people.  We’re American people.  We don’t all look alike and we certainly don’t all think alike.

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