Archive for July, 2008

Attack of the Giant Bobble-Headed Mexican

My friend Nichole has again captured haunting imagery that depicts… well… something about how Hispanic culture continues to thrive in America.

This gargantuan fellow was spotted outside a Mexican restaurant in a mall. He was busy promoting the “Corona lifestyle” – which sociologists have theorized is identical to the “Budweiser lifestyle,” but with little slices of lemon thrown in.

The restaurant promised “authentic Mexican food.” I have to agree that there is no better way to promote one’s authenticity than by dragging out a huge dead-eyed mariachi with a symbolically tiny trumpet, strapping him into a walker that implies he can shuffle around the mall at will, and placing him in front of the establishment to surprise, delight, and/or terrify first-time customers.

Actually, that all sounds more like the Dos Equis lifestyle.

In any case, I encourage you to bring any other oddball pictures or images that say something about Latino life to my attention. It doesn’t matter if they’re offensive, deluded, self-righteous, insane, creepy, or bizarre. I just want to hear about them. So comment on this post, or send images to with the heading “Fanatic image.”

Otherwise, I will depend upon Nichole to come though with more shots. She obviously has an eye for such things.

We're Number Juan

Even here in America, much has been made of the fact that Muhammad ranks second only to Jack as the most popular name for British newborn boys. According to many commentators on both sides of the Atlantic, Muslim immigrants are taking over England and will soon replace the Union Jack with a crescent symbol.

The U.S. version of this paranoid fantasy is that two of our largest states, California and Texas, have a high percentage of infants with Hispanic first names. The thinking is that these states are becoming excessively Latinoized – meaning that Hispanics are (say it with me…) taking over the place.

What do the actual numbers say about this apparent cultural sea change? Well, in California, the most recent stats (for 2007) show that among the top ten names for newborn boys, three are definitely Hispanic in origin. These are Angel (number three), Jose (number nine), and Diego (number ten).

Texas also has three Latino names cracking the top ten, including the number-one name (Jose). The other popular monikers are Angel (number five) and Juan (number nine).

In any case, none of these Hispanic names ranks in the top twenty for the United States as a whole, indicating that California and Texas are indeed a bit loaded with babies saddled with vowel-heavy first names.

“Ah-ha!” says the jingoist. “I told you these states were being overrun!”

Let’s assume that the data backs up this contention. We’ll even go farther and say that California and Texas will eventually be so loaded with Hispanics that mariachi bands spontaneously flower on every street corner.

The question then becomes… so what?

Some will say that the fear of Hispanics becoming a majority is an understandable reaction to illegal immigration. The problem with this argument is that if little Jose is born in California, he is a U.S. citizen. One presumes he will grow up to be a proud American. That is, unless one assumes a proud American cannot also be a Latino (now there’s an interesting topic for discussion…). These newborns are Americans – not illegals, even if their parents are – so that issue becomes irrelevant.

Is it because as California and Texas become more Hispanic, the residents will clamor to become part of Mexico or independent countries? I have already pointed out the reasons this is just not going to happen, so this far-fetched scenario can be dismissed at once.

So this isn’t concern about the influx of immigrants straining our social services, which is at least a debatable point, or anger that San Diego will become the capital of North Mexico.

Rather, this is the sweaty-palmed, lip-biting, eyebrow-furrowed fear of many whites that they may not be dominant cultural force anymore. And you know what? That may be true within just a few decades.

If that bothers people, they may need to examine why it’s so hair-raising. I’d be interested in hearing a rational reason.

Ultimately, we may need to reconsider exactly what an “American name” is. Most of our traditional names are originally Jewish. Apparently, biblical names are acceptable American monikers. So Jews can rest easy. They can be counted as real Americans. I’ll look forward to the day when Hispanics get the same luxury.

Loving the Latino Voter

This was supposed to be it.

This was going to be the presidential election in which Latinos said, “See ya” (or if you prefer, “Vaya con Dios”) to the Democratic Party and ran into the warm embrace of the Republicans. And then everybody would dance to meringue while discussing the role of limited government. How happy they would all be together.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. The latest Gallup poll (for June) shows that Barack Obama has more than a two-to-one advantage over John McCain among Hispanic voters. Obama’s popularity cuts across gender, age, region, education level, and every other way a pollster can slice and dice a demographic into its subatomic parts.

The results are so disturbing for conservatives that many of them are too depressed to plaster “English only” signs on their property.

Republicans seem shocked that Latinos, after being demonized for the economic woes afflicting the country, aren’t clamoring to turn their respective states red. So conservatives have put aside their blueprints for that wall along the Mexican border long enough to ask, “Hey Hispanics, why don’t you love us?”

It’s a fair question. After all, we heard how President Bush won about forty percent of the Hispanic vote in the last election. And we also heard how the Republican platform appeals to all those hyper-religious, family-obsessed Latinos. Finally, we discovered that Obama was so despised among Hispanics that, on Election Day, they would bash him in like a piñata at a ten-year-old’s birthday party… ok, that’s an overused metaphor, but the point is that Latinos, according to most storylines, are supposed to have big issues with the guy.

In truth, Hispanics have far less of a problem with Obama than white female Baby Boomers do. And the Democratic platform of emphasizing education and health-care reform resonates more than do Republican affirmations that their party really, really likes God.

There is also the tiny matter that many Latinos – not just naturalized citizens but born-and-bred, flat-accented Midwestern types – resent the stench of racial superiority that much of conservatism gives off.

Bear in mind that I’m not saying Republicans are racist. I’m saying it’s a perception issue that they would be wise to address. You would think that an organization that can successfully market an unnecessary war could fix their image problems.

And by the way, having Alberto Gonzalez as the most prominent Latino in their party doesn’t exactly help.

Of course, trying to pinpoint the exact reasons why a huge segment of the population votes a certain way is doomed to failure. This is especially true of the fabled Hispanic swing voter, who can be anybody from a conservative Cuban immigrant to a liberal second-generation El Salvadoran to a moderate Chicano to a left-handed naturalized Bolivian native with a thing for horticulture (I’m sure he’s out there). There is more cultural variety among Hispanics than there is among most demographics, which in truth, are arbitrary and convenient constructs anyway.

But if we must look at Hispanics as a whole, it’s clear that they remain solidly Democratic. And short of Obama setting the Puerto Rican flag on fire during a rally, that’s not changing this year.

The Greatest Actress of All Time

I was nine, maybe ten years old. Our class fieldtrip was to see some play downtown.

The performance was, in retrospect, a heavy-handed piece about the importance of respecting your elders. The plot centered on a teenage Latina who has to adjust to her grandmother coming to live with them. The grandmother was very old-world, and spoke only Spanish. This led to numerous scenes of the grandmother struggling to communicate, which often ended with the girl storming off the stage in frustration.

The play was aimed, perhaps even conceived, for the audience that watched it: first-generation Hispanic children who had forgotten their Spanish and squirmed when their relatives spoke English in thick, embarrassing accents.

We watched as the grandmother and the teenager slowly bonded, and we laughed at their trip to the zoo, and we cried (well, I didn’t, but the girls in my class did) when the grandmother inevitably suffered an offstage fatal heart attack. The play ended with the teenage girl giving the eulogy for her beloved, Spanish-speaking abuela.

At the curtain call, the performers received the polite applause of children who knew they had seen something entertaining, but remained mystified over why they saw it or what it had meant. Regardless, the minor characters got a steady clapping, the parental figures garnered a bit more enthusiasm, and the teenage girl got a hoot or two of approval.

And then the grandmother stepped out for a bow.

The result was immediate. It was thunderous. It was bedlam.

The applause erupted so that everything that came before seemed like a whispered sigh at midnight. The decibel level ratcheted up to sheer din levels. Shouts and shrieks of approval washed over the stage. Many children leapt to their feet, although no adults had asked them to do so. Indeed, the teachers looked around, stunned, as their bratty charges slapped their hands together and whistled and stood on their chairs, aiming their affection at the grandmother.

I was unfamiliar with the concept of a standing ovation, and most likely so were the other kids. Neither had we been instructed to clap harder for the lead actress or informed what constituted a stellar performance or told to cheer. In fact, even we seemed shocked at our level of appreciation for the old woman.

It was like Charlie Chaplin at the Oscars.

For her part, the grandmother was amazed. She stepped back in surprise, looking more embarrassed than touched or flattered. She nodded quickly and tried to leave the stage, but the teenage girl grabbed her hand. The grandmother held hands with the other actors and took a bow, then she rushed off the stage as our applause continued, unabated.

To this day, I have no idea what provoked our outpouring. Maybe she reminded us of our own grandmothers. But more likely, she was the kind, wise, exuberant abuela we all wanted but didn’t have.

Most of our grandmothers were cranky old women who were bitter about leaving their homelands. They complained about the cold weather and immoral American culture and the lack of good flour tortillas available in el norte. They dragged us to church and threatened us with eternal damnation if we didn’t pray to Jesus every day, and they bellowed that their grandsons were perezoso brutos and their granddaughters dressed like whores.

But here was this friendly, patient grandmother who put up with a teenager’s outbursts. She passed along cultural traditions without ramming them down our throats, and she didn’t complain when we played new wave (it was circa 1980, after all) at top volume. I mean, how cool was she?

I don’t know the name of the actress who played the grandmother. She was old decades ago, so the odds are pretty good that she is no longer with us. But I’d like to think that when she looked back at her acting career or hobby or however she viewed performing, she remembered an auditorium full of children, all cheering her on.

A Quick Clarification… Modification… Whatever

First off, let me thank Latino Evolution for the comment on my post “I Should Have Went Samurai…”

Second, as I may have mentioned – here on this blog, all over cyberspace, and in the street to passing strangers – the Fanatic is now on the Huffington Post.

Because I want to get my writing in order (ie, what ran on the site, what ran on Huffington, what can run on both of them, etc), I will be cutting back, very slightly, on new posts while I try to get everything in sync. This means that I’ll probably update this site twice a week instead of the three-plus posts I have been sending out. Otherwise, there are no major upheavals on the horizon.

I know this will provoke crying, wailing, and a great gnashing of teeth with those who demand thrice weekly posts. But despite your anguished pleas and vows that you can’t go on, I have hope that you will persevere.

Thanks again for all your support.

Welcome to NYC

After graduating college, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and I moved to New York City, where we lived on my cousin’s floor in a small apartment in Queens. It was very struggling Gen Xer, and glamourous or exciting only if you’ve never done it.

We stayed on that floor for three months, until we landed jobs and saved up enough money for a miniscule studio hovel in Manhattan. But for those dozen or so weeks that we lived in Queens, my wife had an experience unique to her life: She was the minority.

The situation put her liberal philosophy to the test. Would she be down with brown? Or would she reflexively clutch her purse whenever a Latino teenage boy walked by? Bear in mind that she grew up on a farm, where the nearest town was a rural enclave of eight hundred white Midwesterners. Now she was living in a city of eight million (that’s a population increase of 100,000% for you mathematicians out there), which was full of freaks and weirdos representing every race, creed, and whacked-out belief system in America.

I’m pleased to say that she came though the experience even more compassionate and understanding than she was before, and that was a high standard to begin with.

For the first time in her life, she knew what it was like to walk down the street and encounter nobody who looks like you. She mingled with people who spoke different languages, and she had to think about how others perceived her. These are perceptions that ethnic minorities have every day in America, but which are alien to most white people.

Perhaps everyone should have this experience at some time in his or her life. It certainly couldn’t hurt to understand where others are coming from, especially as this country gets more diverse (like it or not). It may even cut down on the tendency of some members of the majority to swagger about, and to refrain from wielding their strength in numbers like a cultural hammer or divine right.

To be fair, however, my wife’s sink-or-swim dunking into multiculturalism was not completely smooth. She never did understand why all the Latina women between the ages of fourteen and fifty-nine had to wear skin-tight pants that defined the concept of camel-toe.

Actually, I don’t understand it either. Maybe it’s a Queens thing.

I Should Have Went Samurai on Them, or at Least Ninja

In a previous post, I wrote about how I have often been mistaken for Asian, specifically Japanese. This doesn’t offend me (why would it?), but it has been the root of some odd, even repulsive interactions with strangers.

For example, the sole time I have ever been to a country club (it was for a work function), an elderly man tapped me on the shoulder. He personified old white privilege, and he positively beamed as he said, “You know, young man, the club is now accepting more Asians.”

I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he expected – probably enthusiasm, gratitude, or at least a request for an application. But all I could offer him was a curt “I’m very happy for them,” which provoked the old man to scowl and walk away.

But that country-club gentleman, despite his obliviousness and condescension, was at least not openly hostile. The same could not be said of the previous time that my Hispanic nature was mistaken for Asian subterfuge.

I was an undergrad, walking down the street in my uber-liberal college town one night. Approaching me were three or four highly inebriated frat boys, baseball caps backwards and Greek-letter sweatshirts prominently displayed. They exchanged exuberant, random high-fives and called each other “Fag!” in an affectionate, yet unmistakably homophobic way that called into question if at least one of them was secretly gay (but I’ll refrain from further analysis).

I had seen guys like them before, and I always wondered how they wound up at a lefty campus where hippies were still a cultural force and the term “PC” was not an insult. But here they were, and I was about to pass them on the street.

I walked by, and one of the frat boys (it was impossible to distinguish among them) whipped his head around and shouted, “Go back to Japan!”

It took me a second to realize that he was talking to me. They kept hooting and hollering down the street while I thought, “Japan? I’ve never been to Japan.”

Then I realized that I had been officially slurred. I looked back at the frat boys, but they were down the block and looking for a woman to grope or a black guy to punch or a homeless person to set on fire or something, and so they were long gone. I decided against pursuing them to clear up their confusion, and I walked on, wondering if I should be pissed off or not.

I came to the conclusion, and for this you may call me old-fashioned, that if you racially slur someone, you should at least get his or her ethnicity correct.

It’s only common courtesy.

Cousin #1

In an earlier post, I introduced my cousins. I plan to profile each one of them on this blog, not only to give you a fuller picture of Hispanic Americans (beyond my neurotic persona), but also to verify to myself that the cousins are indeed reading my posts like they claim they are.

I will profile them in birth order, and for that reason and to preserve their anonymity, I’ll just refer to them by number. Cousin #1 is the second oldest, after me, and therefore is the first up.

In brief, she is the most popular introvert the world has ever known. Cousin #1 seems to be friends with everyone in our hometown, despite the fact that she would rather chew glass than call attention to herself. How then does she build this social circle?

For starters, she has an absurd amount of faith in the concept of humanity. She makes jaded vatos, stressed single moms, and nonplussed grocery clerks feel like they are the most fascinating people to cross her path in eons. This interest cannot be faked, and indeed, it isn’t.

She came to visit me once when I was living in LA. She took a Greyhound bus in, which anyone can tell you is routinely filled with the most deranged, shrill, deluded, and unstable individuals from the lower forty-eight states who can scrape together enough cash to attempt a new start in Southern California. I told her it wasn’t a good idea to take the bus, but she insisted. When I picked her up in downtown LA (itself a hotbed of shady individuals and wild-eyed schemers) Cousin #1 hopped off the bus with a broad smile, hugged one of her fellow passengers goodbye, and told me that she had “met many friends” on the journey. I thought she was insane for even talking to the assortment of thugs, drunks, and crazies who had hitched a ride with her.

Cousin #1 plays violin, and is by far the most musically talented member of our family. In fact, as a teenager, she performed a concert with our hometown’s symphony orchestra after being identified as one of the city’s promising young musicians. In her adolescence, she could be found intently practicing Mozart, although she was just as likely to be blaring KMFDM and Ministry from her bedroom.

Cousin #1 was a social worker for years, and she often went door-to-door in poor neighborhoods, checking in on recent immigrants and third-generation welfare moms to see if their children’s basic needs were being met. She put people in touch with the right agencies or translated documents or just listened to them whisper about how America was a much harsher place than they had been led to believe. In one especially tough neighborhood, she was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight.

She doesn’t eat in Spanish restaurants because of the conquistadors’ cruelty to the El Salvador natives. And it takes little prompting for her to show off the huge Mayan warrior eagle tattooed across her shoulders. It is an inky proclamation of Latina identity and pride that forces those who see the tattoo to consider it a living entity rather than a mere design.

Because of her chronic compassion, the harshest insult she hurls is “boo-gee,” which she applies to items that strike her as inane in their bourgeois popularity. She is often caught between her fierce desire to solve all the world’s problems at once and her drive to accommodate others.

Cousin #1 is, in many ways then, your typical Hispanic, violin-playing, tattooed social worker who effortlessly makes people happy.

The All-American Independence Day

In the park where we gathered each July 4 when I was a kid, my family was just one the groups who turned the area into a smaller, less-bloody reenactment of one of America’s numerous land rushes. Each clan’s blanket on the bumps and dips of the main lawn signified sovereignty, at least for the day. Grills were stoked and coolers were stocked, while people lounged in the sun and blared radios that were tuned to salsa or Sousa or “Casey Kasem’s Top Forty.”

Virtually everyone in the park was an immigrant or first-generation progeny – thousands of people in one place at one time to laud an adopted country. It was as if some immense Latino family reunion were taking place, cordoned off from the rest of the state. The newest arrivals celebrated America’s founding with the zealous belief that each subsequent generation could never appreciate the nation’s charms as much as they did.

Scores of teenagers huddled in packs organized by gender, scouting for patrols of the opposite sex. The adults were less mobile, and they laughed and ate and yelled, “Ai ya ya” after gulping what they promised would be their final Tecates of the afternoon.

Old men sat in lawn chairs between fluttering American flags and smaller, but still majestic, banners of Mexico or Puerto Rico. The men spoke about the United States with such fervor that it was as if they could account for all of the country’s previous 200+ birthdays.

Until dusk, kids ran around the park, gathering together at random to see things explode into bright shards. The powerful firecrackers we lit would horrify modern parents, but these were the days when infants bounced around in station wagons without car seats and teens went for afternoon-long bike rides (sans helmets) and children played king of the hill on mounds of rusty, jagged-edged trash in the local junkyard. By contemporary standards, it’s amazing that anyone came out of this era alive.

When the fireworks started, hundreds of children scrambled for their families’ blankets. The initial salvo was always a surprise, which was inexplicable in that it was the most eagerly anticipated sight of the weekend.

The fireworks popped off one at a time, with up to a minute between each burst. An explosion in one of a dozen different styles lit up the evening, and a second or two would pass before the boom thundered upon us.

One year, we brought our new cousins – all young children who had come from El Salvador – to see the fireworks. They either watched in stunned disbelief or cringed in outright terror. As we discovered later, putting on a pyrotechnics show for children who had escaped war and witnessed horrific firefights was not the sharpest move. It was, to be blunt, a fuck-up. We had to coax one of my cousins out from under a blanket. But by the second year, with their Americanization in full force, they cheered every supersonic outburst of color in the sky.

The finale was majestic, and as the final rumbling echo rained over us, flames in the shape of an American flag erupted over the water, and the audience cheered its birth.

The crowd stretched to its feet like a great cat awakening. The adults scooped up their blankets and coolers and backpacks. The colossal American flag smoldered in the pond, and the last cloud of smoke faded into the night.

And a Feliz Party to You Too

The following is an unaltered photo taken by my friend Nichole. We were, as is often the case with us, out drinking. This banner was hung near the bar area.


The words it so prominently displays, “Happy Fiesta,” literally mean “Happy Party.”

You’re no doubt familiar with this phrase. Many times, I’ve walked into a celebration and been greeted with the shout “Happy party! Happy party!” And then everybody hugs.

Actually, it sounds like something that drunken foreign businessmen yell at their American counterparts during visits to strip clubs.

As I looked at the banner, I wondered why someone in a position of authority at the bar would say, “Let’s have a Spanish word or two printed in bright, block letters a foot high and strung over the bar. And I won’t even bother to check if the phrasing makes sense.” I further wonder if the printer who created this banner said, “What the hell?” as he fulfilled this Spanish equivalent of “All your base are belong to us.”

By the way, there was no Latino theme to the bar (and we’re well past Cinco de Mayo). In addition, drinkers were handed fake Hawaiian leis, further adding to the incongruity. So I have no idea why the bar’s management thought this would enhance the atmosphere.

To be clear, I wasn’t offended by the banner, just perplexed. After all, we’re not talking about creating signs in an obscure African language or translating from Middle Ages Gaelic.

This is basic Spanish, which as been stated (more than once) to be taking over the country. You would think that if Latinos are indeed running roughshod over the land, the first item on our agenda would be forcing rudimentary Spanish on the populace.

But I do thank the bar’s owners for providing my friend Nichole and me with an existential quandary as we downed our beers. We asked each other if one can have an unhappy fiesta, and if so, what that would look like. Alas, we didn’t drink enough to come up with a definitive answer.


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