Rich and varied 'Hispanic heritage' not easy to define
by Steven Winn
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
It's been nearly five months since the May 1 Day Without Immigrants rallies filled cities around the country with a mighty chorus of pleas for coherent government action on immigration. Now, as Congress prepares to adjourn for the midterm election campaigns, our bumbling leaders are hopelessly flummoxed on the issue. As the Senate mulls a House-passed bill mandating a 700-mile Mexican border fence that Kafka or Calvino might have dreamed up in one of their absurdist fictions, partisan divisions have all but doomed any meaningful legislation in the foreseeable future.
How fitting that this latest national stalemate should come in the heart of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15. In ways that transcend the question of what to do about the country's estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants (about 78 percent of whom come from Mexico and Latin America, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report), U.S. culture gives off a jarring dissonance on Latino themes. In a country of 299 million with 43 million of them Latinos, a richly diverse population segment that exerts a rapidly expanding impact and influence, the tendency to think in reductive and monolithic terms remains pronounced.
Part of the problem comes from perceptions fostered in the press. A recent Harper's Index noted that 1 in 100 articles in last year's major U.S. news weeklies dealt with a Latino or Latinos. Two out of every 3 of those stories were about immigration.
Meanwhile, as if in some alternative parallel universe, we live in a country so profoundly and intimately shaped by Latino life at so many levels that we don't fully or consciously register it happening. And that's not just in border states such as California and Texas, where the influences are hard to miss. From children's TV (where the bilingual "Dora the Explorer" and "Go, Diego, Go!" are major fixtures in the preschool mind-set) to grocery stores in Michigan (where black beans have replaced white beans as that state's most popular legume, according to Hector Tobar's "Translation Nation") to movie theaters, concert halls and city halls, changes are at once substantive, subtle and fundamental.
A generation ago, it would have been far more noteworthy than it is now to have a Latino U.S. Attorney General (Alberto Gonzalez) or a mayor of Los Angeles (Antonio Villaraigosa) in office. Similarly, the flap over Arnold Schwarzenegger's remark about "hot" California Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (she's of Puerto Rican descent) would have echoed louder and longer than it has. The real chumps here weren't the governor or Garcia, who cheerfully labeled herself "hot-blooded," but rather the inept dirty tricksters in the Phil Angelides campaign who got caught scrounging around in Schwarzenegger computers for hot goods. Playing this kind of low-rent ethnic politics, in a state with a huge and increasingly sophisticated Latino electorate, is a fool's game in 2006. It's a different, more textured and demanding world.
That's just as true in the arts as in society at large. Latino musicians, writers, filmmakers, visual artists and choreographers have built an indisputable record of achievement and influence. From Carlos Santana to Christina Aguilera to Los Lonely Boys, Latin music has strengthened its hold as a major force, certified by its own awards ceremonies. The seventh annual Latin Grammy Awards show will be broadcast Nov. 2 from New York. A well-documented boom in Latino literature, famously fueled by "One Hundred Years of Solitude" author Gabriel Garcia Márquez's 1982 Nobel Prize, has helped bring mainstream attention to scores of writers, from Oscar Hijuelos to Guillermo Gómez-Peña to Isabel Allende, over the past quarter century. Fat new anthologies and encyclopedias devoted to new Latino writing and writers appear all the time. Some of the most vivid independent films of the past five years -- "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mamá También," "Maria Full of Grace," "Quinceañera" -- have opened moviegoers' eyes to a range of Latino visions.
At the same time, and perhaps inevitably, the attention has created its own kind of distortions and blurring of effects. Even as Latino artists and art figure more prominently in the nation's cultural life, questions about intentions, audience, aesthetics and sensibility raise new challenges. To what degree does one Latino artist intrinsically share turf with another? Are there certain attributes or qualities that might be ascribed to a Latino sensibility? How do those values change from first- to second- or third-generation residents? Does it make sense, in a cultural patchwork that includes artists of Mexican, Peruvian, Salvadoran, Cuban and multiple other heritages, to assume or try to stake out an aesthetic common ground? Even the terminology -- "Latino," "Hispanic," "Chicano" -- provokes internal controversy and debate.
In his 2004 book, "Latino and Latina Writers," editor Alan West-Duran identified one through line -- "a willingness to explore and explicitly examine cross-cultural encounters." Call it border-think, an awareness of the geographical and metaphorical barriers of language and culture.
But no sooner does some thesis gain currency than the danger of it hardening into confining stereotype or proscriptive dogma lurks. Eduardo Machado, the Cuban American playwright and artistic director of New York's Intar theater company, put it this way in an interview with the New York Times: "When they did 'Raisin in the Sun' decades ago, it was considered a black play, but now it's just an American play." That, said Machado, was his aspiration for Latino playwrights: "To be part of this culture without being in the corner."
One of the things that makes "Quinceañera" such a winning film is its easy, unforced mingling of the culturally specific and the universal. A story about a Mexican American teenager's unplanned and somewhat magical-realist pregnancy slowly blooms from domestic drama to a meditation on the meaning of family, as the heroine (Emily Rios) knits new ties with an emotionally imploded gay cousin (Jesse Garcia) and their seraphic great-great uncle (Chalo González). The dialogue, details, pacing and performances feel so faithful to the integrity and subtle dislocations of Mexican American life in Los Angeles that "Quinceañera" both roots the viewer in that world and finds an authentic reverberation. The film is so true to its corner, in Machado's phrase, that the corner fills the room.
The wildly ambitious "Chicano" show at the de Young Museum (through Oct. 22), by contrast, aims to take the room, the house and the city by storm. There's something both wonderful and wearying about this three-part extravaganza, which supplements intensely colorful paintings from the collection of Cheech Marin with an exhibition of political posters and prints as well as a sprawling multimedia display of everything from food and photo albums to music, low riders and TV sitcom star George Lopez. This "Chicano Now: American Expressions" portion of the show may offer a certain broad-canvas appeal to a wide audience. But I wish the show's organizers (and corporate sponsor Target) had let the art speak for itself and not feel it had to be contextualized by this walk-through diorama of Latino life. As even a casual stroll through the show's painting galleries quickly proves, the invention, bristling energy, savagery, comic brio and sheer whirling drive of these "Chicano Visions" will resist any sweeping categorical perspective.
Painting after painting makes you look and look again without instructing you what to think or how to feel about it. Carlos Almaraz turns car crashes into gaudily combustive bursts of color. David Botello backs the posed figures in "Wedding Photos -- Hollenbeck Park" with a stretch of elevated freeway. Frank Romero sets a ghoulish make-out scene in the backseat of a comically foreshortened Dodge.
You could read these and other paintings in the show, I suppose, as some kind of key to the Latino automobile culture. Or you could go along for the ride and not try to plot out the route or destination in advance. By 2040, the statisticians say, half the population of California will be Latino. The view, between now and then, is sure to hold our attention.
E-mail Steven Winn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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