Culture

Such a Princess

I hesitate to mention this, but I know way too much about Sofia the First.

You see, we have a two-year-old boy, and while we limit his TV time, he still catches the occasional Doc McStuffins or Jake and the Neverland Pirates. And Sofia is on right after Jake, so we’ve caught bits and pieces of the show (just enough to drive me mildly insane).

Now, it turns out that Sofia is going to be the launching pad for Disney’s first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor, who is inspired by “diverse Latin cultures and folklore,” according to the good people at Disney. She will receive her own TV show next year.

elena

Of course, the issue of diversity is a touchy one in Hollywood. Just ask Sean Penn about Hispanic representation in the film world… well, on second thought, don’t ask him anything.

In any case, Elena’s arrival shows that Hollywood is sensitive to its reputation as indifferent to ethnic minorities, and that the entertainment industry is trying to improve the representation of Hispanics in pop culture.

But everybody’s a critic. And those critics are saying it’s too little, too late.

First, there is the issue that Elena is going to originate as a sidekick, and worse, there are no plans for her to have her own movie, despite the fact that many Disney princesses of various ethnicities and races have received their own feature films. Hey, Mulan got a pair of movies over a decade ago, and Asians are even less represented in film than Hispanics. So, yeah — what gives?

The second irritation is that Elena’s exact nationality is being kept vague. By not being specific about her homeland, critics argue, Disney is failing to explore the diversity within Hispanic culture, and instead using one brown-eyed princess as an interchangeable stand-in for all Latinas.

This is where I can be of assistance. I can tell you that saying Elena is from Cuba or Bolivia or Puerto Rico would be more bizarre than anything. That’s because the setting for Sofia is a magical dreamland where unicorns run wild, and little kids take classes on how to cast spells, and cutesy-pie dragons burst into song for no reason. Yeah, it’s that annoying.

But while most of the characters speak in a whiny faux British accent, it’s not specifically European. It’s otherworldly. So if this princess from, say, Mexico, just shows up, the effect will be a little jarring.

I told you I knew too much about this damn show.

Regardless, Elena is a step in the right direction. And even if I hated the idea of a Latina princess, it wouldn’t matter, because I’m going to see her, one way or another.

Yes, at this point, I’m just looking forward to the day when my son is finally old enough for Phineas and Ferb.


It’s About Branding

There I was, ready to enjoy some enchiladas suizas and a generous helping of tequila, when I saw them.

But first, let me be clear about the Mexican restaurant in which I was dining. Years ago, I saw Brad Pitt in the place. He wasn’t around on this night, so I don’t want to implicate him. The point is that this is a popular LA site that teeters on the edge of authenticity (good food in a simple setting) and hipster irony (the kid of place where Brad Pitt walks in to show off his bona fides).

So I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see a large table of yuppies (tangent: do yuppies still exist?) hooting and hollering nearby. It was a birthday party apparently, and they had their own wait staff.

Now, the waiters and waitresses for our area were dressed casually, in jeans and polo shirts. The wait staff for the private party, however, was dressed, well, more colorfully.

The waitresses had frilly dresses and Carmen Miranda-style headpieces, and the waiters were decked out in campesino attire, complete with huge sombreros.

Sombrero-mexicain-adulte_4

 

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Nice Try

So for two years in a row, the top individual prize in the entertainment pantheon — the Oscar for best director — has gone to a Latino.

birdman

That’s great. And Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu took time in his speech to give a shout out to immigrants, which was classy.

But of course, much of González Iñárritu’s triumph was overshadowed by a truly tone-deaf chiste from that master of humor, Sean Penn (as an aside, is there any artist who is more respected but less liked than this guy?).

Now, González Iñárritu has pointed out that Penn’s comment was an inside joke between friends. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, then, and say that Penn isn’t a straight-up racist.

But perhaps inside jokes aren’t a very good idea when millions of people across the planet are watching. And maybe tossing racial jabs isn’t very bright when you’re representing an organization that is hypersensitive about its horrible record on diversity.

All Penn’s joke did was make every white liberal in the audience uncomfortable, confirm the bias that many ethnic minorities believe lurks within the system, and “underscore the problem the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has been trying desperately to disprove.” Namely, that the Academy has a racial issue.

The stunning lack of diversity in the entertainment industry is a well-known facet of American culture, and I’ve written about it more than once.

And it is not, as many right-wingers seem to think, just blacks and Latinos clamoring for jobs they haven’t earned. It’s about equal access and opportunity. One could argue this is all that any fight over civil rights is, at its core.

But when it comes to the entertainment industry, specifically, it is about something more. As González Iñárritu has proved, different perspectives lead to new ideas and new stories. It is essential for any art form that, to remain relevant, it continue to grow.

And to be blunt, there are only so many more movies that we can take about an upper-class white family gathering together for a funeral/wedding, or a white guy’s attempt to bond with his elderly and uncommunicative dad, or the adventures of white prep-school kids coming of age.

We want something else.

 


The Even Greater Outdoors

Few demographics are more environmentally conscious than Latinos. I mean, we are more likely to lead green lifestyles, buy green products and support efforts to fight climate change. And on a personal note, let me remind you that I was once a Boy Scout, and I can still start a fire without using matches… probably.

Anyway, the point is that we really love nature. So maybe it’s not a big surprise that Latinos are also taking the lead in creating new national landmarks and preserving natural spaces.

When President Obama declared part of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California to be a national monument, it was with the hearty support of Latinos. Polls showed that almost 90% of local Hispanics supported the San Gabriel Mountains designation. You can’t get 90% of Hispanics to agree that salsa is better than ketchup. But when it comes to nature, we’re overwhelming in our agreement.

Cook_Lake_Bridger_Wilderness

Yes, there are even organizations like Latinos Outdoors, Green Latinos, and HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors), and they have worked for the protection of areas like the San Gabriel Mountains and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico.

So why do Hispanics show all the love for mountains and streams and lakes and trees and such? Well, one theory is that our legendary focus on family drives our desire to maintain the environment for future generations. Another is that because we tend to be recent immigrants, or the offspring of recent immigrants, we have more of a connection to the pristine environs of Latin America.

That certainly makes sense. But I also think it’s because we’re less likely to be right-wing industrial polluters who only care about the bottom line and think climate change is a left-wing conspiracy.

But maybe that’s just me.

 


Name of the Game

I have a traditionally Hispanic first name. Of course, it’s also traditionally European, which has its cultural advantages. Yes, having a Latino first name can be an impediment, and if you don’t believe me, just ask this guy.

It wasn’t that long ago when Latino parents would name their children John and Mary rather than Jose and Maria. It was an attempt to fit in with mainstream America.

But as we know, contemporary Hispanic parents are less likely to be cowed, and they frequently insist on calling their kids Juan and Maribel and so on. The twist, however, is that white parents are now increasingly choosing traditionally Latino names for their children.

I bet you didn’t see that one coming.

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A survey by a baby-naming website found that many white parents are eschewing Dylan in favor of Diego, and skipping Madison for Esmeralda.

The reasons for the decision vary. Some white parents believe that if their children have Latino names, they will better fit in with their future Hispanic buddies and their multicultural peers. This is strange logic, as a Latino is unlikely to say, “I’m only friends with Ramon Anderson because of his first name.” But it’s a harmless enough reason, I guess.

Yet other white parents simply like the sound of Latino names. Well, that’s a matter of personal taste, of course. When it came time for my wife and I to name our son, I have to admit that very few Latino male names made the first cut, based purely on aesthetics. We ultimately went with something Hebrew that we both loved.

The final reason that white parents give for naming their kids Guillermo instead of William is that most hoary and bizarre of myths: That Latinos receive unspecified “benefits,” and they want their kids to be perceived as Hispanic.

If the cold, hard facts of how difficult Latinos have it in this country aren’t enough to destroy the idea that Hispanics get all the good scholarships and great jobs — stealing them from better-qualified white people, no less — than I don’t know what to tell you. This idea is a pernicious lie that makes white people who have been stiffed by the system feel better about themselves and their rich overlords. And apparently, it is strong enough to persuade some people to deny their cultural heritage, which is just sad.

But let’s say that the mere presence of Latino name is enough to get your kid into an Ivy League school today (which it isn’t). Doesn’t it seem obvious that twenty years from now, when universities are swamped with Hispanics both real and fake, putting the name Esteban on the application isn’t going to matter at all?

Damn, maybe those parents should have went with their first choice (Mason and/or Liam).

 


Kind of Like a Doogie Howser Episode

The state of Latino health is grim — grim, grim, grim. We have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, you name it.

Hispanics are also doing pretty sucky when it comes to education and employment. If only there was a way to combine all these issues…

Well, a California job-training program is trying to peg multiple issues with just one stone. Medical Pathways trains high schoolers in the Latino community for health care occupations. The goal is to provide real-world experience to disadvantaged kids while improving the overall health of the community.

The program guides students — primarily Hispanic — through four years of medically focused science classes, such as anatomy and physiology. The students run community health fairs, where visitors — again, primarily Hispanic — get information about different health issues and receive free services, such as getting weighed or having their blood pressure taken.

blood-pressure-340x289
Many students put in enough hours for a medical assistant certificate, which gives them a head-start on snagging better-paying health care jobs. Other students are inspired to become doctors or nurses.

No, it’s not an ideal solution. But it’s certainly creative and effective. And that’s a start.

 


Pissed off All the Time

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Still, it’s always a good idea to reflect, and to pinpoint areas for personal growth and good stuff like that. So in 2015, I will try to be more patient and less quick to anger.

Of course, we Latinos are known for our fiery tempers. We’re also known for being excellent lovers, great artists, and unemployed… well, some stereotypes are more positive than others.

The point is that I know my temper is not the best. But it apparently pales in comparison to some of my fellow Latinos. And that is part of a larger problem.
You see, ethnic minorities in general are often portrayed as overly emotional and aggressive. Just look at the stereotype of the angry black woman.

Now, if we are angrier, it may be because we have more to be hostile about. Just look at the economic data, or the quality-of-life statistics, or, I don’t know, the trend of us getting shot more often.

But there’s something more going on here, besides justified anger. It is in the best interest of the establishment to portray minorities as angry, unreasonable, and illogical. After all, it is a lot easier to dismiss someone’s grievances if that person is always flying into rages over every little thing, or if she/he perceives every minor slight as a major injustice.

anger green

And being dismissive is a most effective tactic. Think of how many issues have been erased with the offhand remark that it was all just so much misplaced fury and political correctness.

By the way, I’ve written before, nothing has been PC since the 1990s, and this lazy rebuttal no longer means anything. I mean, some people believe that being against torture is PC — and how crazy is that?

But I digress. The point is that whenever Latinos, or any minority, complain about an injustice or societal problem, there will be plenty of people who offer a smirk and the calm, apparently reasonable explanation that we are just being angry because we’re, you know, prone to volatility and irrational behavior.
Earlier this year, when President Obama declined to address immigration reform before the midterms, we heard how many Latinos were in an eye-popping rage. It was an easy concept to Google.

Or to present a less politically charged issue, consider the case of Banditos, a San Francisco restaurant. When Hispanic leaders pointed out — calmly and respectfully no less — that the name was a negative stereotype, the owners agreed and changed the name.

But message boards decried the apparent appeasement to angry Latinos, and many people vowed never to eat there unless it changed its name back. The irony, of course, is that the angriest, most threatening people in the whole situation were the ones screaming that Latinos are unreasonable and demanding. But the label will not stick to them like it does to us.

So what can we do to avoid appearing perpetually hostile?

Well, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be so annoyed nonstop.


Slaves

I’ve lived in Los Angeles, on and off, for about ten years now. I love it here, and I believe it’s one of the greatest cities in the world.

la moon

 

But like any metro, it has its problems. Many of those can be summed up in the work “traffic,” but of course there are deeper issues as well.

The always-insightful Chris Rock recently addressed one of those problems when he wrote the following:

“There’s a slave state in LA. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in LA that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

I can vouch for the fact that multitudes of Hispanics (not just Mexicans) are constantly serving white people in LA. This issue crisscrosses some of our favorite topics — race, ethnicity, class, wage disparity, egalitarianism, free will, and so on — and it will not be resolved anytime soon.

But while Rock’s slave quote got a lot of attention, I thought his more salient point was the following:

“You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? There’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot.”

Yes, it’s not just that Latinos are a perpetual underclass in LA (and indeed, in much of America). It is that even the best and brightest do not have the same resources and access that most white people — even the no-talents and the mediocre — take for granted.

In essence, it’s tough to stop being a slave. But as history has shown us, not only can it be done, but it will be accomplished, eventually.

 


All Issues Mailed Flat

When I was a kid, I had a tower (and I mean that literally) of my favorite comic books. They leaned against the wall and were braced on either side by sturdy objects — milk crates or chairs or something like that. I seem to recall that the tower reached the ceiling, but I’m sure that’s not possible. It was most likely a few feet high and just seemed imposing to a six-year-old.

In any case, the tower is long gone, but I still have a few of those prized comics, issues of the X-Men and Conan the Barbarian and House of Secrets and the like. Like a lot of Gen Xers, I used comic books as a gateway drug to novels.

But even back in the day, when my love for comic books could not be quantified, I noticed something. It’s the same thing that Javier Hernandez, creator of the El Muerto comic book, noticed.

Hernandez says, “There is one thing I didn’t see in those books. I didn’t see me in there. I didn’t see us, Latinos.”

Nope, there were very few Hispanic characters or stories presented. However, a new generation of writers is looking to Latino culture for inspiration. It’s a full-fledged trend, illustrated by the fact that the Latino Comics Expo was held recently to spotlight Hispanic creators like Hernandez. His creation is a Hispanic hero based on a combination of Aztec mythology and Mexican folklore. I mean, how cool is that?

el muerto

Now, as we all know, comic books often feature thematic elements that appeal to teenagers and/or geeky middle-aged men. These include stories of heroes like the Jonah Hex and Spider-Man, who were outsiders to mainstream culture. It’s not much a stretch to say that Latinos have long appreciated the theme of being a misunderstood minority.

And now that metaphorical subtext is a little more concrete. Comic books from Hispanic authors range from traditional superhero formats to experimental stories to reality-based tales, such as the life of a Latino punk fan growing up in California.

Personally, I’m waiting for a Hispanic version of Wolverine. Now that would be something.


Flags of Our Fathers and Mothers

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ethnic authenticity and the struggle for self-identity in a post-multicultural world.

Actually, that not’s true. In reality, I’m more apt to be thinking about taking my car in for a tune-up, or the odds of the Packers winning their division, or what Kate Winslet is doing right now (probably something sexy).

But when stray thoughts about ethnic authenticity and… well, the rest of it, actually do enter my mind, I think about a recent news story that caught my eye.

Here in California, we had a brouhaha, an imbroglio if you will, when a woman posted a video of herself berating people for flying a Mexican flag in their front yard. The woman, who was running for political office, ultimately lost her day job when the video went viral.

The family with the Mexican flag explained that they were simply expressing ethnic pride and meant no disrespect to America.

amer flag

There are several things going on here. First is the fact that a jingoistic bigot thought she would impress people by posting a video of herself being a bully, and maybe win the xenophobic vote in the process. It’s a sign of progress that this backfired horribly.

Second, the incident shows that for many Latinos, maintaining ties to one’s homeland is crucial to the concept of self-identity. And this drive for ethnic authenticity can span generations.

You see, Hispanics aren’t cowering under the boot of assimilation, like they did so often in the past. Back in the day, Latinos hid evidence of their roots, or they outright disowned their ethnicity, or they did anything they could to try to bluff people into thinking they were descended from the swarthier pilgrims on the Mayflower.

But contemporary Latinos are less likely to be ashamed of who they are, and displays of ethnicity are assumed — correctly — to be a right that can’t be subjugated.

Basically, if some nut comes onto your private property and starts lecturing you on how to be a real American, you are well within your rights to tell them to fuck off.

Now that this is settled, let me get back to those thoughts of Kate Winslet…

 


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