Beyond an Awards Ceremony
It is hard to argue that the Latinx people and culture are being erased after the 90th Academy Awards celebrated Latinxes with the awards for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Animated Film, Best Song, Best Score, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Animated Film. Nonetheless, I do feel that there is a record that needs to be highlighted, despite recent accomplishments, so that folks understand that the work isn’t over. We haven’t fixed everything because of one awards ceremony. In fact, at the same awards ceremony, we were reminded of one of the original, indelible moments of buffoonery and brown face that took place.
Rita Moreno, a beloved pioneer in the Latinx community, presented an award wearing the same dress she wore when she won the first Academy Award ever given to a Latina actor, in 1961, fifty-seven years ago (I am specifically speaking of Latinas based in the U.S., not Latin American actors, based in other countries). Lupita Nyong’o is considered the second Latina to win an Oscar in a supporting role. Anthony Quinn and Benicio del Toro have both won awards in a supporting role; the only Latinx actor to ever win in a leading role is Jose Ferrer, who won in 1950, a whopping sixty-eight years ago. But back to Rita in her dress from earlier days. First of all, damn that viejita still has it! No one can compare to her special kind of pizzazz. But more importantly, the clip they showed to highlight her award-winning performance, while it might have been musically fun, only stood to remind us Latinxes why we have a love-hate relationship with “West Side Story.” They chose the clip where she is singing about Puerto Rico being miserable because of its hurricanes and overpopulation. Cringe. Ultimately, Moreno’s talent transcends that shuck and jive, but I can’t watch it without having a complex back and forth in my mind. That song, where Puerto Ricans claim to love all that is American (read: U.S. culture) is bad enough, but there is also brown face in the film (and in the play version) because back then they couldn’t have a Latina kissing the white male lead. Natalie Wood was darkened up and given a two-cent accent to play the lead role of Maria. Furthermore, it reminds us that this same, incomplete, written-by-people-who-are-not-Latinx story is going to be heaped upon us again, by Stephen Spielberg. Oh, that reboot has already gotten a dose of the Social Media Chancleta, with actors in the industry questioning its intentions while at the same time knowing they are going to have to audition for it.
Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” came under fire when it was reported that none of the crew are Latinx. However, that is not the only issue I have with this adaptation. Every Latinx I know fell in love with Rita Moreno’s version of Anita (even those of us who love Chita Rivera’s version on Broadway), but every Latinx I know also has a problem with how Latinxes are portrayed in the film. It was written by a non-Latinx, it is stereotypical, and it portrays Anita as someone who hates Puerto Rico. Sorry, but there are no Puerto Ricans who hate Puerto Rico. Yet, even that isn’t the issue I have with it. The issue I have is WHY are we remaking a story that has absolutely nothing to do with Puerto Ricans today? The first thing I said when I was told about the remake is, “What West Side? That West Side doesn’t exist anymore.” There are so many other stories, written by actual Latinxes, that could be told and need to be told. But, why bother when there is a white male who wants to remake an old story that isn’t relevant to our time at all? In the end, Latinxes will be happy that at least three of the cast members are slated to be Latinx; at least Catherine Zeta-Jones won’t be playing Anita, right? Here is the ONLY way you can make a reboot of this film relevant and/or possibly not offensive: 1) Hire good Latinx writers to adapt it; 2) Make Maria Afro-Latina, or make Tony an African American. If those changes are made, then we can have a relevant conversation about colorism within the Latinx community.
I shall continue with the buffoonery, for now. Some of these will be quite brief.
There isn’t anyone I know who doesn’t hate the idea/image of Speedy Gonzalez and, even worse, his cousin Slow Poke Rodriguez, two cartoons in regular rotation when Warner Brothers comics were on television. However, very few people I know are aware of Speedy’s original image. He was “cleaned up” in later days, made to be quite cute with fresh clothes, a large sombrero, perfect smile. Originally, however, his look was a little more gangsta, with a gold tooth and a crazy haircut. I don’t think the image was changed because offended Latinx people called in; I suspect the image was changed in order to keep the racism without the sleaze factor that is implied with the original image so that the racism was more palatable for the Looney Tunes family audience. These images were gathered from the Looney Tunes Wiki page.
You may think that kind of buffoonery doesn’t exist today, right? Oh, Speedy hasn’t been used anywhere for YEARS, right? Well, maybe, but I see versions of this everywhere and one somewhat recent version of it was particularly painful for me because it comes from a comedian who, normally, I think presents pretty complex ideas about what Latinidad is. Fred Armisen lives to mock ridiculous ways in which people present themselves, as seen in Portlandia. There is often harsh mockery that comes from a subversive frame of mind, influenced by his punk background, but within that mockery, there is also an obsession with and love of over-the-top performance of identity. It really works when he is mocking self-important artists or activists, but he when he attempts this form of humor with marginalized Latinx groups, it comes off as a lack of understanding at best and, at worst, racism and self-loathing. Note the echo of Speedy’s gold tooth in the character Armisen created for Saturday Night Live below:
In his most recent comedy special, Stand Up for Drummers, he presents a version of Tito Puente that uses similar movements as seen in that character, who he calls Fericito. An accomplished percussionist, he uses his skills to poke fun at the iconic musician who is synonymous with Latin Jazz. It works a little better in that context, whereas in the Saturday Night Live context, one feels the weight of what Dave Chappelle described when he realized folks were laughing at him, instead of with him. I don’t think audiences understood that Armisen might have been trying to show how silly this image is, that Latinx people don’t fit into it; instead, I believe this character just allowed people to laugh at Latinx people for being so stupid, which we are not. To drive another nail into the coffin of our dead collective Latinx dignity, Armisen decided to cash in on this kind of humor, which was clearly accepted in the SNL context (I wonder if he thought, “Well, if they are stupid enough to enjoy it and it gets me power, fine with me….), and create another Latinx personality whose only job was to have everyone on his talk show dance like an idiot. The Manuel Ortiz Show didn’t have any other purpose than to have everyone on it join in a horrible dance that is nothing like what Latinx people actually do on the dance floor. This was blatant buffoonery and many people on the Ortiz show were not Latinx, so it often featured bad brown face. I have an example below; I don’t know if anyone can get through the whole thing. It’s not just buffoonery; it’s bad humor and boring.
Brown face is a regular occurrence on Saturday Night Live because they rarely hire Latinx comedians, and when they do, they rarely have them actually portray Latinx characters. I’ve seen white people portray Latinx characters way more often on SNL than any Latinxes ever did. Currently, Melissa Villasenor is the only Latinx on the show, and she is rarely given any lines at all. Furthermore, despite her presence, when a Latinx character is portrayed on the show, Cecily Strong is usually the actor who brown faces her buffoonery way through the performance. You can see Strong and Jay Pharoah portray Latinx voters here, on the NBC website. That was before Villasenor was on the program, but you get the point. Non-Latinx actors regularly mock Latinx people on the show, focusing on “funny” accents, lack of education, hyper-sexualization, and even violent attitudes. Also on the NBC site, you can find this portrayal of Zoraida, a character created by Ellen Cleghorne. It is these kinds of consistent portrayals of Latinx people that allow folks who have absolutely no contact with us, beyond the light of their TV screens or phones or laptops, to imagine us as crude criminals and ignorant citizens who have nothing to offer this land which we have lived on since before the U.S. was created. But it doesn’t only make middle America see us in this derogatory way; it also chips away at the bonds we’ve forged in urban centers with other people of color because when a group of people is portrayed as stupid over and over, even our friends start to believe it.
Images like ones I’ve described above give permission to the general population to see Latinx people as less than human. We are seen as base behavior, crass creatures, inhuman. This, in turn, allows even our leadership to see us as animals. Our current President has read a poem, called “The Snake,” for several years at rallies on his campaign trail before he lost the popular vote and most recently he read it for his Conservative Political Action Conference speech in February 2018. He always reads the poem in the context of discussions on immigration, border control, and visa access. Here is one of the times he read it:
You can also access Vox’s take on his reading of this poem here. I see this as an erasure of Latinx existence in the Americas because the implication that he suggests is that white people “took in” the Latinx people, when it is the Latinx people who took in the white settlers who came from places outside of Spain. Earlier, the indigenous people of the Americas took in the Spanish. If we read accounts of the early settlers, it is quite clear that they were starving and needed help from my indigenous ancestors in order to survive. Cabeza de Vaca clearly wrote about the many mistakes that the Spanish made upon settling in the Americas, and how the indigenous people literally saved their lives. The work of Dr. Jose Rabasa (and many other scholars; he’s just one) further explains how the colonizers were beholden to the indigenous people to learn about proper shelter, crops that could be grown, etc. Therefore, it is silly to think that the Latinx people, who are the progeny of the Spanish, the indigenous, and the African slaves, were ever “taken in” by the people who came centuries later, as we were already moving around the Americas and surviving well before they were.
Nonetheless, the damage has been done. When you create a system that dehumanizes people via base imagery and portrayals, when our highest leaders echo that dehumanization, that will translate into policy that does not consider our humanity. On February 27, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that people with immigrant status, even with permanent legal status in the United States, can be detained indefinitely without bail. This was decided even though our Constitution states that no one on our land will have that treatment. It is literally an illegal decision and the dissent states as much. You can read the full decision here. Note that the case is about a Latinx person with immigrant status.
I consider this censure of Latinx rights. I consider it an erasure of the Latinx population because when you erase a person’s rights, you erase that person, you create situations that can result in broken families, neglected children, and even death. So, even though we have a brief moment of Latin American representation in Hollywood, that is not enough when we are leaving Latinx people to rot in jail without bail, all because they are considered immigrants on land that their ancestors have been a part of for centuries.
Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta is an associate professor in the English Department of Bronx Community College—City University of New York, where she teaches Latinx literature and creative writing.