Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino Identity in Americaby Ed Morales
Chicano. Cubano. Pachuco. Nuyorican. Puerto Rican. Boricua. Quisqueya. Tejano.
To be Latino in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has meant to fierce identification with roots, with forbears, with the language, art and food your people came here with. America is a patchwork of Hispanic sensibilities-from Puerto Rican/p>/b>
Chicano. Cubano. Pachuco. Nuyorican. Puerto Rican. Boricua. Quisqueya. Tejano.
To be Latino in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has meant to fierce identification with roots, with forbears, with the language, art and food your people came here with. America is a patchwork of Hispanic sensibilities-from Puerto Rican nationalists in New York to more newly arrived Mexicans in the Rio Grande valley-that has so far resisted homogenization while managing to absorb much of the mainstream culture.
Living in Spanglish delves deep into the individual's response to Latino stereotypes and suggests that their ability to hold on to their heritage, while at the same time working to create a culture that is entirely new, is a key component of America's future.
In this book, Morales pins down a hugely diverse community-of Dominicans, Mexicans, Colombians, Cubans, Salvadorans and Puerto Ricans--that he insists has more common interests to bring it together than traditions to divide it. He calls this sensibility Spanglish, one that is inherently multicultural, and proposes that Spanglish "describes a feeling, an attitude that is quintessentially American. It is a culture with one foot in the medieval and the other in the next century."
In Living in Spanglish , Ed Morales paints a portrait of America as it is now, both embracing and unsure how to face an onslaught of Latino influence. His book is the story of groups of Hispanic immigrants struggling to move beyond identity politics into a postmodern melting pot.
“Spanglish is not only a lexicon but a state of mind that knows no boundaries, a kind of Yiddish rephrased by Cesar Chavez, with echoes deep into the past and ramifications everywhere in our centerless future.” Ilan Stavans, author of The Hispanic Condition and On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language
“Living in Spanglish freeze-frames the wave of Hispanic cultures, giving is its origins, its lines and curves, its diverse components, and finally, its course. And Morales does all this while riding within the belly of the wave itself.” Benicio del Toro, actor
“In Living in Spanglish, cultural engagement teams with progressive political savvy to make for some vibrant and thoughtful bilingual takes on the Latino implosion busily reshaping la cultura americana in our times.” Juan Flores, author of From Bomba to Hip-Hip: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity
“Living in Spanglish neatly captures dialectics of the contemporary Latino experience in ways that blend the eclectic with broad historical sweep. Its interplay of the marginal with the mainstream is a unique and useful approach that makes its narrative accessible to those not entirely familiar with things Latino, yet challenging to those who think they are.” Angelo Falcon, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund
“Impassioned . . . Poet and journalist Morales explores the difficulty of finding a definition for Latinos in the US.” Kirkus Reviews
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Living in Spanglish
THE ROOTS OF SPANGLISH
The Pachuco does not wish to return to his Mexican origin, nor it would seem does he wish to blend into North American life.
OCTAVIO PAZ, The Labyrinth of Solitude
Puerto Rico, 1974 This is not the place where I was born.
Greater East Los Angeles, February 20, 6:30 P.M. Home away from home away from home.
To be Spanglish is to live in multisubjectivity; that is, in a space where race is indeterminate, and where class is slipperier than ever. As an integral part of their history, Latin Americans engaged in a mass experiment in racial miscegenation. Social class was partially determined by relative skin tone, although family standing, the ability to trace lineage to Spain, and, of course, accumulated wealth were important factors. But the economic instability of Latin America made social class lines fluctuate wildly, and it didn'ttake much for a family's standing to slip rapidly over a brief period of time. When Latinos came to North America, some were able to transfer their class standing into American categories. But the majority of us came into the lower portions of the labor pool, bringing with us a fluid sense of race and class, and we began to immediately create a new multisubjective sense of ourselves, which could be thought of as Spanglish.
Who are the Spanglish people and when did they appear? Legends of the conquest of Mexico point to La Malinche, a woman from the Maya nation that extended from Yucatan to Guatemala, who journeyed with the conquering Cortés into the heart of the Aztec empire as his translator. La Malinche, a.k.a. Doña Marina, served as an interface between Europe and the Americans, and has taken on all manner of criticism for "selling out" her own people and aiding the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, the seat of Aztec power. She was said to have borne a child to Cortés, the first mestizo child of the Americas. Malinche's betrayal was real, yet inevitable. Her actions don't constitute an utter betrayal of Mexico's indigenous people, since there were several tribes to the south and east of Tenochtitlan that joined Cortés's army merely because of rivalry with Moctezuma's clique. But La Malinche set off a chain reaction of race-mixing that gave birth to the encroaching Spanglish reality of the twenty-first century, and it is most fitting that she accomplished this at the intersection of two languages, two cultures. In order to survive, she took on both, became both. That capacity, in a nutshell, is what Spanglish is all about.
To become Spanglish is to fuse the North American with the Latin American in a way that approaches the former with a healthy skepticism and takes care not to obliterate the essence of the latter. It is a sometimes violent, sometimes delicate rethreading of two parallel story lines, of long-separated siblings and hated enemies. Becoming Spanglish is inextricably linked with history and issues of race and class, and there are two tendencies that I consider central to understanding the process.
First, the great majority of migrants and immigrants from LatinAmerica to North America came from the lower classes, and tended to be of darker skin tone than the elites of their origin countries. Second, their class standing tended to be fixed in Latin America and seemed to have more potential to change in North America, while their racial oppression, which was more subliminal in Latin America, became overt in the U.S. The process of becoming Spanglish was fairly painful at first, like growing a thick callus to protect against the hostile dominant North American world. The first stage of this process was in many ways a desperate struggle that involved an increasing alienation from the homeland coexisting with a strong desire to return.
But the North Americanization process had its advantages for the darker Latin Americans: They were able to open their eyes to the subtle ways in which they were treated as second-class citizens in their homeland, and began to understand how to use North American laws to protect themselves. They became Americanized to the extent that they were leaving the semifeudal, postcolonial ways of their home countries at home. But just as Spanglish folks might have made a transition to a more conventional American identity, they pulled back and consolidated their position. They found a third option, the Spanglish way.
The way we conceive of Spanglish, the language, today is primarily from the point of view of the Spanish language, absorbing English words, giving it something of a modernity and some of English's inherent flexibility. But the emergence of Spanglish in the U.S. had its origins in the reverse process, that is, English absorbing Spanish. It began with the period of the Mexican War, which was resolved by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That treaty formalized the U.S.'s acquisition of Texas, California, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the sense that this moment did not involve immigration, I consider it a prehistorical Spanglish phase in which North and Latin America's boundaries were still being drawn. The people of the Southwest have variously identified withMexico, Spain, and the U.S., and engaged in a proto-Spanglish project that is closely related to today's phenomenon.
What could have been a historical footnote in the treaty process turned out to be crucial to the future of Spanglish. Because of the fertility of the land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers, the originally proposed southern boundary of the U.S. as a result of its victory in the war, the U.S. negotiators insisted on its inclusion in its new territory. The acquisition of what became known as the Nueces Strip incorporated into the U.S. an area that was majority Mexican. By eating up this territory, America had irreversibly changed its internal makeup, and its culture.
According to historian Carey McWilliams, the meat of the revered cowboy culture of the Old West was copied from the Mexican vaquero style. Words like bronco, buckaroo, burro, mesa, canyon, rodeo, corral, and lariat, all steeped in heavy symbolism, were imported from Mexico. This means every John Wayne movie you've ever seen is in Spanglish. Like John Wayne himself, who married a Latina, many strategic land alliances between incoming Scots, Irish, and Germans, and local Mexican landowners were accomplished by intermarriage, creating one of the more miscegenated societies within the U.S. border. The roots of the Chicano movement are all in the Southwest, from the rebel persona of the pachuco, to the first lands rights activists of the '60s. The extremely important symbolic figure, the pop star Selena, had as her axis of power all the towns between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. The Nueces Strip was an important incubator of Spanglish in North America, but its remoteness from the rest of the country diminished its overall effect, and its Hollywoodization tends to obscure Mexican contributions, "assimilating" it into Anglo America.
Spanglish reality's formal beginnings can also be traced to the end of another war. In 1898, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the U.S. following its defeat in the Spanish American War. Under the guise of keeping European interlopers at bay, the U.S. finished off the Manifest Destiny project by seizingthe last remaining part of Latin America still owned by Spain at the turn of the last century.
An intellectual debate raging in Latin America about what the "other" America's role would be in the modern world at this time is an important root of Spanglish. Writers like the Cuban independence activist Jose Marti and the Uruguayan essayist Jose Enrique Rodó came up with some lyrical, if fairly inadequate, romantic notions about the differences between North and Latin America. Martí argued against racial categorization because he saw it as an attempt to diminish and obliterate the importance of indigenous and African peoplethe "natural" people were the soul of "our America." Rodó wrote a famous essay called "Ariel" in which he uses the characters of Ariel and Caliban from Shakespeare's Tempest as an allegory for North-Latin American relations. Caliban, which was originally read as Shakespeare's representation of the untrainable mulatto of the colonies, was used by Rodó to personify the U.S.'s crude, unthinking materialism, as exemplified by its rapid industrialization.
In the '20s, José Vasconcelos, a Mexican writer of Italian-Spanish parentage, came into the fray with his essay "La raza cósmica." He proposed the idea that Latin America's mixed-race population constituted a "cosmic race" that would lead humanity in a new direction by focusing instead on purely aesthetic concerns. Vasconcelos's ideas have been dismissed as a loopy overreaction to positivism. They have also been criticized because they favor the European component of the race-mixing. But despite the fact that he was European-identified, Vasconcelos had an archetypal Spanglish experience. As an adolescent, he and his family moved to a border region in northern Mexico and young Jose attended an English-language prep school in Eagle Pass, Texas. His revulsion for northerners was a major influence in his motivation to declare mestizos as the savior of civilization.
But Vasconcelos's, vision, though flawed, had a utopian excitement to it that feels like an antidote to North America's self-fulfillingprophesy of one-dimensional man. His idea, borrowed from many writers of his time, that humanity would eventually transcend physical labor, seems to be borne out by our increasingly technological world. And, as my increasing involvement with Spanglish culture tells me, the mixed-race future does seem to be coinciding with a humanity devoted more and more to self-development, yet mired in a North American culture wasteland severely in need of a shot of pure aestheticism. It is a culture happy to see itself endlessly reflected in the funhouse hall of mirrors in the last sequences of Orson Welles's The Lady From Shanghai, content to become virtual, soulless echoes of itself. Who will define the aesthetics of the high-tech future? What cultural force will break the postmodernist chain of repetition that makes the Police's "Every Breath You Take" the soundtrack for gangsta eulogy?
The end of the Ariel versus Caliban debate coincided with the failure of the Caribbean independence movement, interrupted by the last war of the U.S.'s Manifest Destiny period. It was a period when the first waves of Latino immigration came to the U.S., much of it spurred by refugees from the Marti movement. It was a period before the massive migration of Latin Americans to the mainland U.S. became strongly evident, before we were making a significant impact on communities and civil society. Although many of these immigrants came merely to better their financial situation, many were part of the fallout from the failed independence efforts. The Americas were slowly beginning to approach each other. They needed to get an idea of what each other was about. It was a period in (which, at least on a symbolic level, America, through its nascent popular culture, began to become aware of "Latin-ness."
"Yes, Mexico must be thoroughly chastised! ... Let our arms now be carried with a spirit which shall teach the world that, while we are not forward for a quarrel, America knows how to crush, as well as how to expand!"
WALT WHITMAN, WRITING IN THE Brooklyn Eagle DURING THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR
One early part-Latino immigrant played a major, if largely unrecognized, role in inserting the Ariel-Caliban debate into Modernist North American discourse. In Lisa Sánchez González's book, Boricua Literature, she contrasts the contributions of Arturo Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican migrant to the United States, and William Carlos Williams, whose mother was born in Puerto Rico and whose father was an Englishman raised in the Dominican Republic, a fluent Spanish speaker. Despite a clear Caribbean heritage, both men had their Spanglish characters elided by North American historical narrative: Williams became the link between Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, and Schomburg a forerunner of African-American nationalism. (Adding to their invisibility was their lack of "Hispanic" surnames.)
Schomburg was important for embarking on a Pan-Africanist project similar to that of Marcus Garvey's, envisioning his Spanglishness as that of a black man set free from Latin American colonialism. But whereas Schomburg and his proto Harlem Renaissance stature tends to be lumped in with the discourse of the African-American "other," Williams engaged in the mainstream American debate, "passing" for an Anglo-American. As Sánchez González observes, Williams wrote "in a panegyric tone that clearly inscribes the authenticity of mestizo consciousness as the American consciousness" in his collection of essays, The American Grain. The bilingual doctor/poet from Paterson, New Jersey, inspired by Rodó's essay wrote in Ariel's voice, critiquing America's Caliban-esque tendency.
"The basic incapacity to touch, tenderly, the Other, is for Williams the definitive tragic flaw of Anglo-American cultural history," writes Sánchez González. "The juxtaposition of the United States' unparalleled power as a nation and its poverty of aesthetic-ethical (read sensual) grace is also an obvious thematic legacy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass." Like Rodó and Vasconcelos, Williams contrasts the Roman Catholic "compassion" of the French and Spanish conquest with the genocidal furor of the Protestant colonization of North America.
And, like his Latin American predecessors, Williams ignores the African presence in his idea of "mestizo" consciousness in favor of the indigenous, creating a kind of new twist on Whitman's metaphor for the earth as woman. Whereas North Americans unapologetically raped the New World, the key to American happiness is the ability to seduce her. just as Schomburg predicted the feelings of liberation an American city like New York gave black Latin Americans, Williams prefigured the flawed claim to absence of racism thatfor many light-skinned Latin Americans, as well as Williams's beatnik heirswould render their arguments inadequate.
FROM THE RIO GRANDE TO HOLLYWOOD
I am not an American But I understands English. I learned it with my brother Forwards and backward And any American I make trcmble at my feet
"JOAQUÍN MURIETA," anonymous, CALIFORNIA MEXICAN "CORRIDO" (F01.KLORIC BALLAD) C. 1850
In 2001, independent filmmaker Jim Mendiola made a short film called Come and Take It Day, which re-tells the story of the famous Robin Hood-style bandit Gregorio Cortez. Ironically, one of the contemporary characters in the film who lionizes Cortez finds that he is a distant relative of the Mexican American who turned the bandito in to the Texas Rangersambiguity and sometimes betrayal of the mother culture is one of the sticky problems of being Spanglish.
The role of social banditry in the early "Americanized" Southwest was an important seedling for Spanglish culture. Men like Cortez, who killed a lawman in the early 1900s, and Joaquin Murieta, a Californio (a Mexican living in California when it was takenover by the United States), were lionized by the corridos, or popular songs of the time. Since Mexican Americans were denied the right to acquire property and maintain political control over their destinies, banditry could be considered a legitimate form of social protest, and at once a symbol of the spirit of an oppressed people.
Paranoia about the presence of Mexicans in the Southwest produced their demonization in late nineteenth-century dime Western novels, which became the basis for the appearance of the "greaser" in silent films from the period 1900 to 1918. The originator of this genre was The Birth of a Nation director D. W. Griffith, whose Greaser's Gauntlet starred Tom Mix and "Bronco Billy" Anderson. In later years, Hollywood's crudity became more sophisticated, constructing the ideal type of the Latin lover. Pioneered by an Italian, Rudolph Valentino, the Latin lover came to symbolize the dark force of sexuality in the years immediately following Freud. The Latin lover is parallel to a vampire myth like Bram Stoker's Dracula, a count from an Eastern European country that was still struggling to find an identity "between" the Ottoman Empire and the Christian West, steeped in heavy sexual symbolism. That Dracula is so frightening yet seductive is a very Spanglish quality.
Valentino was a forerunner to the era of Ramon Novarro and Dolores Del Rio, two Mexican actors who successfully made the transition between the silent and talkie film era. Novarro, who played the spy in love with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, clearly became identified with being Latin and sexual; Del Rio became the all-purpose exotic "face," the evocation of forbidden fruit. Her romance with Orson Welles in the '40s was a small Hollywood scandal, and she became a partial victim of the reprisals by the Hearst Company against Welles for Citizen Kane. Welles followed up on his Spanglish fascination with Del Rio by culminating his career with the bizarre Touch of Evil (1958), which starred Charlton Heston with a heavy tan, playing a Mexican in love with Janet Leigh (Hitchcock muse of Psycho). Touch of Evil is like a Diane Arbus photograph of a border town, presciently anticipating theimportance of "border" in Spanglish culture, while at the same time acting as a vertigo-inducing antidote to West Side Story.
But by far the most important Spanglish story out of Tinseltown in this early stage is about Carmen Miranda, a woman who was born in Portugal and grew up in Brazil. Brazil's relationship to North America tightly parallels that of the rest of Latin America, but because it was settled by Portugal rather than Spain, it is somehow separate. Since Portugal's colonization process was so similar to Spain's, and it shared Catholicism, an Iberian history, and the languages are so close, it feels right to include Brazilian experiences in the Spanglish orbit, although their story is the subject of another book entirely. Carmen Miranda is significant here because she was recruited by Broadway producer Lee Shubert while on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, and she was subsequently chosen by Hollywood to represent all of Latin America. As part of the Good Neighbor Policy, which began in the '30s (designed by the government to promote relations with Latin America to dissuade them from falling victim to German propaganda), Miranda was propped up as one of the biggest movie stars of her timeshe was the highest-paid woman in Hollywood at one point. She was given roles fronting large-scale Busby Berkeley musicals, modeling the famous absurd headpieces bursting with tropical fruit, a signifier of opulence during a time of war rationing.
The material she performed about Latin culture was a simulation of real Latin culture, a stitched-together patchwork of samba, mambo, and son montuno (the Afro-Cuban song form that is most widely known as "Latin" or "tropical" music. It is a remarkable fusion of complex African rhythms, Spanish folk melodies, and European waltz.), which actually made more of a reference to Spanish-speaking Latin America than Brazil. Miranda ultimately became a victim of the Hollywood star-making machinerywhen the '50s came, elaborate musicals were going out of style, and Hollywood's fascination with Latins was also easing. But probably the worst moment for Miranda came when, at the peak of her career,she returned to Brazil and was rejected by her hometown Rio de Janeiro audience. In response to this, she wrote a song called "Dis-seram Que Voltei Americanisada" (They Say I Came Back Americanized), which she performed with varying responses. Miranda never got over this rejection and returned to Hollywood, one of the first large-scale victims of a classic Spanglish syndrome: Too foreign for America, too American for the folks at home. It is the prevailing trope for Spanglish, and it is a problem that we are only now beginning to understand how to solve.
THE FLOW TO THE NORTH
Spanglish dreams come directly from immigrant realities. The prevalent view of Latino immigrants is shaped by relatively recent phenomenathe gardeners of Southern California and the fruit and vegetable markets of Manhattan. But the movement of Latinos to the north goes much farther back. Early in the twentieth century, as the New York immigrant experience becomes legend for swarms of Europeans, there are simultaneous accounts by people like Bernardo Vega, who wrote a memoir about his life as a Puerto Rican in his teens and twenties. Vega's milieu was the lifestyles created by the tobacco workers, who established small communities in various areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn. His perspectivethat of a committed socialist recounting the political history of Latinos in New Yorkallows us to see Gotham as a refuge for activists in the struggle against Spanish colonization. First there were those who were loyal to the Bolivarian dream of a united Latin America, fleeing to New York to regroup. Then, at the turn of the century, Vega recalls the shellshocked Puerto Rican intelligentsia hanging out in New York, depressed about the reality that they hoped would fade away: The Americans were really going to hold on to Puerto Rico, and Jose Martí's dream of free Caribbean nations would be dashed. Both the Puerto Rican and Cuban flags were designed in New York by pro-independence exiles. Even though Cuba was officially independent,it was already being carved up and bought out by U.S. investors, and there was little autonomous control of the economy or the foreign policy of that country.
In fact, Cuba had been in the process of exporting its labor and culture to the U.S., in particular places like Ybor City, Florida, a New Orleans-like area of Tampa, and the island of Key West, to set up cigar factories. Even more fascinating is the degree to which the island itself was becoming Americanized, not just with the penetration of land speculators but with things like baseball and consumer goods. As is well chronicled in Louis A. Pérez Jr.'s On Becoming Cuban, islanders were hot to buy Ford automobiles, soft drinks, and appliances, fueled by advertising that was designed to appeal to a middle-class tropical denizen. Cubans were busily constructing a parallel America and, by extension, immersed in the American zeitgeist even though their language and culture was something very different.
Bernardo Vega's world was filled with labor organizing, and ties to Samuel Gompers, who visited Puerto Rico and helped establish labor rights in the island. It was a world where Arturo Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican, was a major spokesman in the way Paul Robeson would become. Schomburg, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, went through periods when he identified more with African Americans and more with Puerto Ricans, but in the end he was said to have embraced both, changing his name from Arthur to Arturo. It was also a world where Rafael Hernández, also black, one of Puerto Rico's greatest songwriters, wrote "Lamento Borincano," the unofficial anthem of the island. The song was first recorded on vinyl in a New York studio. Black Cubans were coming north to play baseball in the Negro Leagues. In fact, some Negro League teams called themselves "Cubans" to deflect racist attention when they traveled to certain cities.
But folks like Bernardo Vega were just making their way through a foreign terrain, experiencing prejudice when they tried to live in better neighborhoods, trying to find a sense of home in SephardicJewish restaurants in Harlem, because they served food that was the closest to the Spanish-style diet they were used to. Vega was a pioneer, representing a significant Latino presence in New York earlier than most people conceive of. Ruth Glasser's My Music Is My Flag documents a thriving community of Puerto Rican and other recent Latin immigrants in New York in the '20s and '30s. The hybridizing experiments of these musicians, and the crowds that came to dance, is a classic early form of Spanglish. "Just like black Harlem dances," says John Storm Roberts in his book Latin Jazz, "Puerto Rican dances featured a wide variety of music, Latin and Anglo. While Anglo rumba dancers wanted exoticism ... younger barrio residents wanted something hip, which meant swing."
As Rodolfo Acuna documents in Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, Mexican Americans began to move from rural areas to the cities in massive numbers in the 1920s; Los Angeles and San Antonio were primary destinations. While Anglos feared that their increasing numbers would herald an attempt to repatriate the areas Mexico lost in their war with the U.S., Mexicans were merely trying to survive in a harsh economic environment. In the '20s, as returning to Mexico became a distant dream for immigrants, organizations like Los Hijos de America were formed to protect Mexican-American interests. These organizations were strongest in the San Antonio area. But the most important development for Mexican-American immigration occurred in the '20s, when Los Angeles surpassed San Antonio as the capital of Mexican America. This power shift would affect the evolution of the Chicano movement in the '60s.
In Southern California and Texas, however, Mexican American migrant labor was creating such a significant presence in cities from Santa Barbara to Corpus Christi that the Southwest began to develop a kind of two-tier experience, where language and sometimes class differences had the effect of creating slight separations between established Mexican families and more recent immigrants.
In Tuscon, Arizona, Lalo Guerrero, a singer who specialized in parodying American hits to reflect Mexican-American concerns,began his career as "The Father of Chicano Music." Guerrero, who was one of the first to write and record bilingual music, documented the rise of Spanglish from the pachuco to the Chicano, and also managed to write a song, "Cancion Mexicana," that was recorded by one of Mexico's most popular singers, Lucha Reyes, and became an unofficial national anthem.
The early Spanglish people were having mixed results fitting into the polarized society of America in its postwar years. It was an atmosphere where the European ethnic melting pot ruled New York, and those who didn't conform to that model could raise suspicions. But Spanglish culture, in some ways incubated by the Good Neighbor Policy, was feeling its way into the mainstream. It was flaunting itself in the Palladium on Fifty-second Street on the West Side of Manhattan, vamping in the style of the Cuban immigrants in Oscar Hijuelos's novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and finally exploding negatively onto the American scene in the Broadway hit West Side Story. The new culture emerged in a splash of bad publicity, a reflection of the racism that would greet its arrival.
In Texas, the stagecoach travel from the northern Mexican city of Monterrey brought the influence of German immigrants, the accordion, and a fusion of polka and ranchera (Mexican traditional) music. The pachuco, the penultimate Spanglish figure of resistance for Mexican Americans, is born in South El Paso, a border town with a much more fertile hybridization rate than its more famous cousin, Tijuana. On the West Coast, after a steady stream of agricultural worker migration at the turn of the century from Mexico into several cities in southern California, Spanglish was born in the flames of the zoot suit riots of the '40s. Mexicans who lived in Los Angeles dressed in outlandish costumes as if to mock their status of invisibility in a town some of their ancestors once settled. Their manifestation as "different" during a time of national conformitywartime tends to reinforce xenophobiawas intolerable. The zoot suit, a flashy outfit originally worn by African Americans in Harlem, was extremelyimportant in establishing a Mexican American identity in Southern California. The clothes were looser, and the capability of the body to stretch in them and perform intricate dance moves made them popular. By adopting the zoot suit, Mexican Americans were staking their own claim to blacknessthey were asserting a "most oppressed" status. Conversely, Los Angeles-area Asians and blacks wearing zoot suits were also harassed by the police because they were mistaken for Mexicans.
The problem for the zoot-suiters is that Los Angeles was home at the time to swarms of sailors on their way to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. With the anti-Japanese internment process already in full swing, this Mexican affrontery was beyond the pale. The riots followed what was known as the Sleepy Lagoon incident, in which the death of a young Mexican American prompted a string of sensationalized newspaper accounts that branded the entire group as lawless savages. Inspired by the iconic figure of Cantinflas, a masterful Mexican comedian who parodied the vanity and arrogance of the upper class, East L.A. teens reinvented themselves as pachucos, immortalized in Luis Valdez's 1978 play Zoot Suit.
A native of Mexico City, Cantinflas became a major international movie star, earning the praise of his contemporaries in Hollywood. But though he was such a staple in the early '60s that even my parents, Puerto Ricans living in New York, were well versed in his material and brought me to his movies as a small child, Cantinflas's significance to Spanglish culture may have more to do with his methodology. As one of Mexico's leading intellectuals, Carlos Mon-siváis, writes, "He makes visible the outcast's vocation for the absurdin part disdain and annoyance for a logic that condemns and rejects him ... To a lack of resources, Cantinflas opposes a happy combination of verbal incoherence and bodily coherence." In other words, Cantinflas became the hero for the outcast Mexican American, "verbally incoherent" because of the use of Spanglish, and bodily coherentstrong, smooth, confident, wearing those baggy zoot suits. Cantinflas was the prototype for the pachuco. His embodiment of the class struggle within Mexico, when importednorth, becomes symbolic of the struggle between Chicanos and the disdainful Anglo majority.
Many pachucos tattooed their left hand between their thumb and forefinger, a practice that still survives in Mexican prison gangs. They spoke chuco, a mixture of Spanish, English, archaic Spanish, and border slang: The original pachucos are said to have originated in the border region of El Paso, Texas, in the '30s, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where one of Cantinflas's comedic predecessors, Tin Tan, performed.
What makes Valdez's work definitive is his use of El Pachuco, a wraithlike, Greek chorus of a character, as the voice of el nahual, which is a Mexican indigenous spirit-form that represents "the other self." Like Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of inner dialogism, the duality that springs from el nahual allows the play's protagonist, Henry Reyna, to figure out how he's going to become a Spanglish American. It's the same principle that Valdez applies to Ritchie Valens in the film version of his life, La Bamba.
At the end of the play, the pachuco is literally stripped bare, recalling the practice of the rioting mob of sailors and civilians who invaded Chicano neighborhoods. That the symbolism of the zoot suit was so outrageous as to provoke a response like stripping is a tribute to its signifying power, and a reference to Spanglish, hybrid culture. If blacks were tarred and feathered, or had white paint splashed on them, pachucos had to be stripped of a look they had constructed, a fashion that was grafted onto their skin. The subtext of mixed race took on a literal meaning when the California Committee on Un-American Activities declared that Carey McWilliams, a journalist and lawyer who helped defend the Sleepy Lagoon defendants, had "Communist leanings" because he opposed segregation and favored miscegenation.
Havana in the '40s and '50s was one of the centers of a peripheral American culture, with its decadent club scene, prostitution, andsome of the best music recorded in this century. But something was simultaneously happening in New York involving two Cuban musicians who were beginning to influence the entire sphere of popular music in America. Chano Pozo, a flamboyant conga player who enjoyed prowling the Spanish Harlem nightlife, and Mario Bauzá, a more reserved, cerebral trumpeter-arranger, began teaching Dizzy Gillespie the intricacies of Cuban music. Cuban music itself was a fascinating process whereby elements of eighteenth-century French waltzes were introduced to Havana by free blacks who were able to join musical bands in Cuba because, as Alejo Carpentier writes in La música en Cuba, there weren't enough competent European musicians. The superior fluidity and interchange of culture between blacks and Europeans in Cuba enabled them to adapt a musical style from another European culture (albeit a Romance-language one) and gracefully graft on the essential African drum elements. By the mid-nineteenth century, Cubans had created a "rock and roll" that wasn't the fine line between sex and violence, one that had superior harmonic and rhythmic integrity.
The innovations Bauza and Gillespie made revolutionized the traditional rhythm patterns of American jazz, influenced the playing of the bass that laid the groundwork for funk and rock and roll, and perhaps even was the direct inspiration for that most inventive and idiosyncratic of African-American musics, bebop. Even though bebop became known as one of the quintessential expressions of African-American art in the '50s and '60s, it was also a hidden expression of Spanglish culture in the way it represented a moment when Afro-Cuban rhythm altered conventional jazz wisdom. It was a liberation from the march, the essential form of American popular music from John Philip Souza onward, a movement into a mystic way of being. The word itself, bebop, is a fusion of two words signifying existence and movement, emanating from an inner self-doubt, that combines African rhythms fused with European expressionism. Bebop is identity arrived at through utterance, melody conceived through rhythm.
Bebop has often been considered an outsider music, an anti-assimilationist music, a survival instinct of African-American urban culture, but it was informed by, and probably infused with, a shot of Afro-Latin culture. It was a parallel double consciousness with a doublespeak that went along with it, both drawn from the inevitability of the drum. In Yoruban culture, drumming was essential to art, spirituality, and community. Melody emerged from percussive tones, syllabic utterances that had the quality of language. Bebop emerged from the struggle to resolve African-American identity in an Anglo-American context, using a musical language parallel to Spanish.
El puente de Brooklyn ha de tocar tierra Brooklyn-Queens-Express-Way
When U.S. Latino writers began to write in Spanglish, they were merely reflecting the language the people were speaking; they were keeping the oral tradition in their literature intact. But they probably had no idea they were giving voice to a revolutionary utterance, a living metaphor of the future. There were rumblings from Puerto Rican poets in New York who were starting to slip the cold, industrial language of El Norte into their texts, like the above-cited Álvarez-Valle, and Clemente Soto Velez. But their thoughts had been formed on the island, and their discourse was a migrant (immigrant would be used here but for the Jones Act) one. The most important early literary manifestation of Spanglish is the work of Piri Thomas in Down These Mean Streets, because he was a New Yorkera kid from East Harlem who was trying to figure out what it meant that his blood came from Puerto Rico. The mixing of languages that occurs in Spanglish is a metaphor for the mixture of race; it allows for races to have different voices in the same language, eliminating the need to structure language, or thinking in terms of a racial category.
The encounter with the north is a metaphor for the exchange between races, as well as the clash between town and country. Down These Mean Streets anticipates a central aspect of Spanglish culture, a struggle to define its racial identity, ending in ambivalence. Thomas had the daunting task of trying to devise a notion of himself as a black Puerto Rican. His free use of Spanglish in the book, dropping Spanish words without translation in the midst of "black" English sentences was revolutionary. In one chapter, "If You Ain't Got Heart, You Ain't Got Nada," he tries to define the street code of heart that eventually finds its way to the center of another hybrid idiom, hiphop. In "Brothers Under the Skin," he wrestles with whether he can actually be Puerto Rican and black at the same time.
Spanglish identity from the beginning could be read as an attempt to find a free space outside the North American blackwhite racial dichotomy. The idea of race in North America contrasts greatly with Latin America in its absolutist tendency. The one-drop rule of American racial identity, in which blackness is immediately ascribed to anyone with any amount at all of African blood, conflicted with the nuanced race identity of Latin America. In Latin America, several drops of African blood do not disqualify you from the privileges of "whiteness." While there is always a premium for the authenticity of fair skin, blackness is only conferred to individuals who exhibit relatively undiluted African physical traits.
The confusion wrought by changed racial categories upon immigration to the U.S. is a central theme of Spanglish culture. Racism in Latin America is somewhat mitigated in that most countries make attempts to venerate or honor indigenous culture, and actually incorporate African culture into national musical traditions. When a Latino comes north, unless he is in the minority of fair-skinned immigrants, he has to choose whether to "enhance" his ability to appear white or identify as nonwhite, which immediately relegates him to a lower societal status. Given this choice, many Latinos, using fair skin and Catholicism as a bridge, try to assimilate.But many Latinos, particularly of Caribbean descent, go with their souls. It becomes impossible to betray the legacy of tropical swing, the inevitability of negritude.
Ay, ay, ay, that my black race escapes And with the white one runs to become dark To become the one of the future Brotherhood of America!
JULIA DE BURGOS, Roses in the Mirror
Spanglish culture springs from a reaction to racism: in the case of the Caribbean Latino, like Puerto Ricans or Dominicans, there is a refusal to let go of an African identity; in the case of the Mexican or Central American, there is a profound anchoring to the roots of the indigenous soul. It is an attempt to allow for multiple identification with the cultures of multiple races. In the Caribbean case, the negritude movement of the mid-'30s, most often associated with Martinique's Aimee Cesaire, had a strong influence. The Puerto Rican poet Luis Pales Matos, whose work is undergoing a small renaissance since his 1998 centennial, is emblematic of the roots of Spanglish culture. Although his attempts to capture the African essence of Puerto Rican culture were at times awkward and steeped in what some might call racist humor, Pales Matos's work represented a direct attempt to incorporate Africanist discourse in the island's largely colonial narrative. It was an above-board acknowledgment of the essential part that African culture plays in the identity of the jíbaro, the archetypal Puerto Rican peasant farmer. Still, the "above" part is key to some Puerto Rican critics, who feel Pales Matos's work is condescending and trivializing of African-ness.
Ironically, in many island paradigms, the jíbaro (in Cuba, the guajiro) is often thought of as the light-skinned country farmer who lives in a kind of mestizo purgatorial vision of the yeoman Spanishpeasant. He is opposed to the coastal, urban seaport culture that is dominated by African-based music and religion. But as the result of migration to urban centers in the twentieth century the jíbaro romanticizes the coastal blacks; his songs yearn for sexual union with the mulata, and he may be descended just as easily from an escaped slave who managed to move into the high country as he was from a Galician or Corsican yokel.
On his days off, Cesar did a lot of the footwork, going from club to club on Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Avenues, and to the Bronx and Brooklyn and uptown, Harlem. He was always trying to set up auditions with jaded, tan-suited Puerto Rican gangsters who owned half of the mambo singers in New York ... . It would help a lot that he was a white Cuban bolero singer like Desi Arnaz, what they called in those days a Latin-lover type, dark-haired and dark-featured, his skin being what was then called "swarthy." Swarthy to Americans, but light-skinned when compared to many of his friends.
Oscar HIJUELOS, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Perhaps the clearest evidence of the emergence of Spanglish culture as reflected through the mass media was a television show named I Love Lucy, The show made direct use of literal hybridity, that is a marriage between north and south, which produced a Spanglish narrative as spoken by its two central participants. Desi Arnaz met Lucille Ball in the first place because of the popularity of Latin music, which was in one of its peak periods of appreciation in the late '40s.
What was extremely significant about I Love Lucy was that it helped define the American family in the '50s despite having an extremely unorthodox (i.e., racially mixed family) at its core. The reason it worked so smoothly (leaving aside the considerable talentsand innovations of Arnaz as a producer) is the function the show had in the context of American society at the time. The fact that Arnaz was a "foreigner" who had successfully engaged in a respectable American marriage to Lucille Ball was only the subtext of the show. The dominant idea behind I Love Lucy was to reestablish the woman as inferior, laughable, frail, and dependent on a dominant male. The country was still emerging from a postwar situation in which women, having been used heavily in the work force with their husbands away in World War II, needed to be put back in their place. What better way to reestablish the ideal patriarchal American family than to employ a macho man from Latin America to at once belittle her and put her on a pedestal. This was a theme that ran through the American situation comedy in shows like The Honeymooners, The Burns and Allen Show, and others.
The absorption of imported macho attitudes in the '50s was also demonstrated by Ernest Hemingway and John Wayne, both of whom had Latina spouses and had a kind of reverent view of Latin culture because it allowed them to assert themselves without compunction. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, essayist Joan Didion tells the story of the Brat Pack who enjoyed themselves so enormously in Mexico City and Havana because they were allowed to be as outrageous as they wanted to be. In Guys and Dolls, a venerated Broadway work, the perfect paradigm of macho dating is played out in Havana.
But the mid-century Cuban manifestation of Spanglish culture is strongly influenced by a vastly different set of circumstances from the Puerto Rican and Mexican varieties. The Cuban context was dominated by the strong involvement of that island's elite in adopting an American lifestyle since the early part of the century. The relatively extensive development of Cuba in the late nineteenth centuryit had a railroad network and telegraph machines before Spain did while it was still a colony of Spainstrongly influenced Cubans to look toward the U.S. as part of their cultural liberation from the mother country. The yearning for independence grewsimultaneously with an almost erotic desire for union with America, an idea that is elaborated on with great elan by Gustavo Perez-Firmat in Life on the Hyphen.
Pérez-Firmat's take on I Love Lucy focuses on Desi Arnaz as the subject (an empowering position, flipping around the role of the other) and Lucy as the object of desire. Pérez-Firmat argues that the show's interpretation was focused on trying to reassert the primacy of the American TV viewer as the true lover of Lucy, and therefore the owner of her sexual power. Since history seems to support this notion, relegating Arnaz to, at best, a transparent surrogate for American sexuality, and at worst, a buffoon, "beard" husband for the purpose of a crude vaudeville skit, it would seem that this particular Cuban attempt at Spanglish was ineffective. Arnaz's legacy is one of the man who fails to receive credit for many of the directorial ideas that made the show a success, whose careful stance of not asserting himself as a dignified subject relegates him to sideman status. And while there are stories about the couple's marriage that point to Arnaz's infidelity as the cause of its disintegration, there is little speculation about his adulterousness having to do with his insecurity about the public's accepting him as Ball's true love.
As the '50s era of social conservatism began to give way to the exigencies of the '60s, on the West Coast there was a strong cultural movement of Mexican Americans who began to understand that they were too brown to be American and too Anglo to be Mexican. During the Zoot Suit riots of the World War II years, they began to find an identity that was born out of the tough streets of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, one that forged mystical ideas of their indigenous origins and the bitter realities of any American immigrant on the bottom rung of society. Luís Valdez, who was a radical organizer for the United Farm Workers Union, began to write plays in the '60s that explained the origins of the Chicano branch ofSpanglish. Instead of becoming a translator of his culture, rendering it intelligible to Anglo culture, he chose to become a translator of his culture to his own people.
Luís Valdez addressed the Sleepy Lagoon case in 1942 as a landmark case, like the Scottsboro Boys in the '30s, in which minority kids were put up en masse for a criminal trial. For Valdez, the two cases were similar because they disregarded the individual identity of the accused and put them on trial as stereotypes. Zoot Suit was Valdez's attempt to dramatize this in a way that would be palatable to a paying public, by making it a musical. The zoot suit itself was an outgrowth of the swing and big-band music of the era. Duke Ellington's "Perdido," a work based on his flirtation with Latin-based rhythms, is the play's opening number, but despite its Spanglish nature, it is primarily a prototypical piece of big band jazz. "This was the first generation that embraced all aspects of the culturethe music, the dance styles, the slang, they were bilingual," Valdez said.
The sudden manifestation of pachuco consciousness, and the starkly unapologetic repression in reaction to it, is at the root of the Chicano movement that would prevail in the '60s. The Chicano was less a stranger in a strange land, as Caribbean immigrants were in New York, but an outcast in his own land. The entire milieu of the Southwest has the extremely strong genetic and cultural feel of "home" for Mexican Americans, but the last 160 years of U.S. history has made it into a hostile territory for them. If Cubans were the closest to Anglo-American culture, Mexicans are the closest to "real" American culture, the culture of the Native American. Their Spanglish was not the rapid-fire semi-Yiddish spewing of New York Latinos but the words that fit the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley and the Camino Real. Most of all, the pachuco represents the mestizo, the mixed Spanish-indigenous Mexican too "European" (or "American") to be Aztec, Toltec, and so forth, and too indigenousto be "European" or "American." The pachuco is not only a symbol of mixed race, but also of a certain class sensibility. The pachuco can never be one of the ruling, light-skinned elite of Mexico, nor the white working-class citizen of the U.S. Two of the important contributions to Spanglish culture were made by Mexican Americans in the '50s: the novel Pocho, by Jose Antonio Villareal, and the music of original rocker Ritchie Valens.
They had a burning contempt for people of a different ancestry, whom they called Americans, and a marked hauteur toward Mexico and toward their parents for their old-country ways ... The result was that they attempted to segregate themselves from both their cultures, and became a truly lost race. In their frantic desire to become different, they adopted a new mode of dress, a new manner, and even a new language. They used a polyglot speech of English and Spanish syllables, words, and sounds.
JOSÉ ANTONIO VILLAREAL, Pocho
Pocho's subject matter is very much the same as the rest of Spanglish literature, treating themes such as the modernization of culture, the industrialization of the working class, and the disintegration of the patriarchal family (and its attendant feminist critique). Most importantly, it establishes the in-between ground of Mexican American, and by extension, Spanglish culture. Pocho's great accomplishment was to locate the estrangement of Mexican Americans from the mother country in a contradictory site of progress (in the sense of participating in the modernized, industrial society) with guilt and self-negation. There is always a classic moment in the life of every Spanglish person, when one realizes that by adapting or assimilating to the dominant culture, there is a feeling of satisfaction and a profound inability to return to where one came from. The word "pocho," which means faded or pale in coloring, suggests the nausea of transmigration, the onset of vertigofrom being pulled back and forth across the border by a desire to embrace a dynamic North Americanism while retaining the deep spiritual sentimentality of the South.
A similar experience is felt by Ritchie Valens, who is trying to emerge as a lower-middle-class rock musician, like many of his fellow Americans, while trying to retain the sensibility of Mexican American culture. Like many Spanglish cultural figures, he experienced assimilation first, simply trying to "fit in" to the Southern California lifestyle by speaking English and forming a rock band. (Abraham Quintanilla, Selena's father and the mastermind of her career, made his children sing in Spanish and play traditional norteño [northern Mexican] music because his attempt to play rock was rejected by intolerant Texans.) But, as shown by Luis Valdez in his remarkable movie La Bamba, Valens had a roots experience that influenced him to return to his Mexican identity. The highly dramatic sequence in the film shows Valens awakening as he hears the traditional version of "La Bamba" being played in a Tijuana cantina, then experiences a vision of his future through a curandero, or shaman seer. The assimilation/return to the roots experience is replicated in many Spanglish arts careers, including that of salsa musician Willie Colón, salsa singer Marc Anthony, and writers Abraham Rodriguez and Junot Diaz.
As if on cue, with the more frequent appearance of Puerto Rican images in the national discourse, a trend began in the media that involved a preponderance of negative manifestations. The film Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, while criticized by conservatives like Clare Boothe Lucewho successfully boycotted the Venice Film Festival until it agreed to remove the filmhad a mixed message in its portrayal of youth rebellion. Although Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow were drawn as subversive antiheroes, the small part of "Morales" (ironically, the same name as a character that became a hero of the Broadway play A Chorus Line) is a weak, stuttering role that has the effect of infantilizing Puerto Ricans,(and by extension Latinos) as inept followers. As the '50s continued, films like Cry Tough (with John Saxon as a Puerto Rican hood) and The Young Savages reinforced the idea of Puerto Ricans as illiterate, oversexed, knife-wielding thugs.
Then came West Side Story. The film, disguised as fair treatment of an under-acknowledged group in society, became the hallmark for Puerto Rican stereotypes, the measuring stick by which much future discourse on Puerto Ricans would be based. My parents refused me permission to see it out of disdain, and the New York City public school system banned it for fear of reviving ethnic rivalries. In fact, each time it was shown on national television, the following day the playgrounds were abuzz with challenges between Sharks and Jets.
The Puerto Ricans were depicted in typical fashion as hotheaded and largely unintelligible, except for the occasional grunt from their leader, and the alternately high-pitched (Carmen) and passive (Maria) women. At best, the movie/play championed tolerance for intermarriage, but the underlying message was that Puerto Rican culture was dangerously exotic and needed to be reined in, and perhaps was not suited for intermarriage. In some ways, the movie may have had a subliminal effect on Latinos (and by extension other "ethnic" Americans) to indulge in the romantic fantasy of intermarriage as a way of assimilating. But it also seemed to predict the stubborn refusal of Puerto Ricans to do this on a large scale.
My generation and successive ones have suffered under the "I Like to Live in America" diminution of our experience. West Side Story made only passing references to the fact that Puerto Rican emigration to the U.S. is profoundly ambivalent and painful, and there was no attempt to characterize the life that was left behind except for references to the tropical climate. Being reduced to a cartoonish spectacle of dancing figures with childlike voices straining to speak English was deeply embarrassing. The casting of Natalie Wood as Maria was a strong hint at the narrative that would come into play in my own assimilative experience: The "goodPuerto Rican" syndrome. Although we are supposed to suspend our awareness that Natalie Wood is not, in fact, Puerto Rican, or any stripe of Latino, her virginal passivity and lack of ethnic charge is a kind of hot-button eroticism for Euro-ethnic Tony. Tony would never have been attracted to Rita Moreno's Carmen, an obvious "other," which is reinforced by the fact that Moreno is the only real Puerto Rican in the cast. By presenting Maria as the "good Puerto Rican" who has a possibility of assimilating into America, West Side Story's liberal perspective can then condemn bigotry by the Jet mob who cannot accept the liaison. The message: Urban Ethnic America must turn its back on bigotry and learn to tolerate "good Puerto Ricans" like Maria. Carmen and those who insist on retaining their ethnic character will die off eventually.
But how to read "I Like to Live in America"? There are two meanings, which of course apply to all American immigrants, but have a particular twist for Latinos, Puerto Ricans, and ultimately Spanglish people. First, it is true that we like to live here; there's an adaptation survival mechanism at work in this proposition, but there is also increased access to consumer goods and a slight rise in wages. On the other hand, we miss our homeland, so there is a bittersweet aspect to it, just like the Italian or Irish immigrants who might miss their respective countrysides, cuisines, or dancehalls. But we not only like to live in America, we like to live in it, meaning the Spanglish we, the we that is still part of our homeland and is now transferred herethe accent, the dancing, the food, even now, the casitas. Even now, casitas, small wooden houses that are replicas of island homes, are dotting the urban landscape of New York City.
The "I Like to Live in America" chant is a statement about a people that refuses to assimilate and who also happen to be grooving on their surroundings. They are escaping the colonial attitude of Latin America a little bit, and are slowly falling in love with the unsentimental streets filled with intrigue, romance, and the power of being onstage in those streets. But a glaring, gaping hole in West Side Story undermines its entire message of assimilation. Therewere no black characterizations in the movie. The assimilation drama of Puerto Ricans is not just tied to whether they can accept whitenessthey must also reject blackness as part of the bargain.
THE WHITE NEGRO AS A PSEUDO-SPANGLISH PERSONA
So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.
NORMAN MAILER, "THE WHITE NEGRO"
Ever since I first read On the Road and its passages luxuriating on the exotic Mexicans that Kerouac wrote about, I felt the link between the hipster ethos and Spanglish reality. While Norman Mailer made his awkward theories on hipsters and the "other" explicit in the famous 1953 essay, "The White Negro," there has always been a Spanglish subtext to the entire history of postwar bohemia. Mailer correctly locates the African-American consciousness in an "in-between" site parallel to that of Latinos. But by proposing the crude grafting of whiteness onto the hyper-sensual, rather gross desecration of the "Negro," Mailer makes probably his most grotesque attempt to explain American culture through sexual metaphors. In some ways it is a simple restating of the blackface and minstrelsy that is at the root of vaudeville and, by extension, American popular entertainment. In fact, like most self-serving bohemian tracts of the period, Mailer's is merely updating a phenomenon long existent in American culture, trying to lay claim to it as if it were a new development. By positing a bohemia born of the social collision between alienated, nihilistic bohemians (whom he at times openly describes as psychopaths) and noble savage street blacks, Mailer ignores the fact that despite its pervasive racial segregation, America has always been a mixed-race society in denial.
"The White Negro" is obviously a poor attempt at Spanglish dynamicsin Spanglish culture, the White Negro occurs in an infinitely more fluid, organic fashion. The White Negro was an absurdconstruction based on an underlying racism, which was more of an attempt to kidnap black culture for American whites still struggling with the transition from nineteenth-century Victorianism, trying to account for the vitality of the early twentieth-century European immigration. While manifestations of this idea outside of Mailer's puerile constructions have yielded positive advances in literature and music, the "Negro-ness" at the root of his idea disappears and becomes folded into a whitened idea of American culture. Far from perfect in its distillation of mixed-race culture and art, the Spanglish milieu allows for the veneration of African- or indigenous-origin influences, and a more seamless fusion of personalities and attitudes. The Afro-Cuban jazz of Mario Bauzá and Chano Pozo, masterful fusions of European traditions with African rhythmic structures, were opportunities for American jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to expand their craft without losing any of their identity or prominence.
Elvis Presley was a "white Negro"; the Beat poets spoke a kind of Spanglish in their transmutation of black prison dialect to their high/low world of Columbia University and hobo hitchhiking, MoMA and heroin addiction. It seems fitting that William Carlos Williams, whose somewhat noble yet inadequate attempt to reinterpret Whitman, wrote the introduction to Paterson, New Jersey, native Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," the seminal Beat poet text. The entire culture of rock and roll, the juvenile delinquent, and finally the hipness of the '60s counterculture was a crude form of Spanglish. There were numerous intersections between the bohemia spawned by variations on the White Negro and the emerging Spanglish culture: Oscar "Zeta" Acosta's intimate involvement with Hunter Thompson, producing gonzo journalism; the prominence of Carlos Santana and the part-Spanish Jerry Garcia in the San Francisco rock scene; the rapprochement between William Burroughs and Miguels Piñero and Algarín of the Nuyorican Poets Café movement. But North America's racial divide prevented the cultural intercourse from bearing fruit: Whiteness eventually swallowedrock music whole, and African Americans strove harder to develop dialects and slangs that would become passé almost instantly, to ensure that the ghetto would always control its use. White Negro was doomed to failure, and in some ways destined to succeed, from the start.
Historian Winston James has written: "[Spain's] imperial nonchalance provided a level of de facto autonomy for the inhabitants [of the Caribbean islands] that they otherwise would not have enjoyed ... there occurred a level interaction between the [free] black and white population that was prolonged and unparalleled in the New World."
I am a human being Of multiracial and multinational Ancestry The loveliness to come Embrace my song, lose yourself In my tropical jungle
In Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico, Hispañola, and Cuba, a different kind of interaction between "white" Spaniards, mixed-race islanders, and Afro-Latinos allowed for an entirely different dynamic in the formation of miscegenated cultures. The Afro-Caribbean culture began to make itself felt in '50s New York, and West Side Story became one of the first mainstream works to try to represent it. West Side Story was a fantastic spectacle of the sudden manifestation of Spanglish culture, but it, like The Tempest's Ariel-Caliban paradigm, was based on a work of Shakespeare. Perhaps more importantly for our postmodern Spanglish culture was how it was represented in the tabloid-media apparatus. Right around the time of the premiere of West Side Story, a true-life drama was unfolding around a mixed-up teenage kid who became known simply as "The Capeman."
In 1998, Paul Simon found it worthy to dramatize the story of Salvador Agron, a quintessentially Spanglish juvenile delinquent, in a musical called The Capeman. The play suffered from narrative dysfunction and lack of dramatic tension; if you weren't already familiar with the story, you could have sat through the play and wondered what exactly was taking place. But these problems don't exist because the play was a gratuitous glorification of a mindless Nuyorican street thug. The Capeman was problematic because it attempted to take on as its subject matter an extremely complex young man who was in many ways deeply involved with the changes that took place in postwar America.
There were objections from both the families of the victims of Agron's misguided violence, as well as apprehension from New York's Latino community, fearful of more stereotypes. But Agron's story, like that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, is one of redemption, one provided by an inventory of the self and the understanding of identity and historical forces, rather than a moral lesson from the church. This radical idea, combined with the relative ineptness of Simon's production team, is what doomed the play to failure on a Broadway tamed by the atmosphere created by neoconservative mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
The true story of "The Capeman," or Salvador Agron, the "bad Puerto Rican," is not simply the story of a mentally ill, chronically violent serial killer or cult leader. Born in Puerto Rico in 1947, Sal Agron was in many ways the quintessential baby boomer, whose life in prison allowed him to extensively educate himself in the feverish Marxism-Leninism of the post-Vietnam era '70s. He quoted everything from The Communist Manifesto to Hegel's The Phenomenology of Mind in his writings, and became a poster boy for many obscure radical groups like the Socialist Workers' Party. One International Worker's World newspaper that appeared in the mid-'70s trumpeted "Salvador Agron has been in prison for 16 years ... and Richard Nixon is still free!"
Agron was part of the big wave of Puerto Ricans who emigrated to New York in the '50s. He was a child who spoke very littleEnglishstill, he was a product of his era. Although he suffered through a miserable childhood, including a stint in a sadistic orphanage, he quickly became a New Yorker. During his adolescence, Hollywood was busy generating a series of movies about juvenile delinquents, many of which starred Agron's idol, Sal Mineo, as a tortured Hispanic gang member. (Chicano comedian Cheech Marin has argued that many of the styles and attitudes of the motley crew of Rebel Without a Cause were inspired by Mexican-American delinquents in Southern California.) Agron came to know and inhabit the styles and codes of New York's streets, which held the seeds of an emerging culture of resistance that would later manifest itself during the civil rights era, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and Afrocentric hiphop culture of the '70s. While he is often described in reports sympathetic to him as "illiterate," he once wrotein a socialist newspaper while in prisonthat he was trained by the streets to engage in "the Dozens," a game of competitive wordsmanship that is seen by many as one of the roots of rap music.
Agron grew up fully a part of the postwar explosion of media images, bilingual coding, rock and roll, and disenchantment with government and authority that everyone from the Beats to Carlos Santana did. With a little luck, if he had only wounded someone on that fateful night, or managed to avoid the confrontation altogether, he might have become Freddy Prinze or Geraldo Rivera. But Sal represented the poorest strata of the Puerto Rican experience, coming from a culture that had almost no material wealth, but an enormous store of mythic and spiritual beliefs, albeit entwined with a backward rural Christianity.
Desperately trying to free himself from a childhood of oppression and ignorance, Sal envisioned himself as a powerful, mythic figure that combined spiritualism and the Hollywood bad boy. Because of his involvement with the Capeman murders, Agron became one of the first tabloid media villains, a predecessor of Son of Sam, Ivan Boesky, or Patty Hearst. His crime occurred while West Side Story was on Broadway, already sensationalizing teenage gangs and interethnic tensions in New York. But what mostaccounts of this era leave out is the hostile environment that migrating Puerto Ricans found in the city. Salvador Agron, considered by many to have given his people a bad name, was trying to function in a society that had already given him a bad name.
The details surrounding the night of the murders are fuzzy and often further obscured by the hysteria surrounding Agron. He had been chummy with Luis Hernandez, who became known as the Umbrella Man, with whom he formed a gang that was not into serious violence, but pursued the inevitable fisticuffs with other groups the way any New York peer group organized around turf would. The context for these gangs is well documented in several books, notably Emmet Grogan's Ringolevio. Throughout the postwar years, various ethnic groups had been engaged in turf battles that merely reflected the perils of growing up lower class in the center of the industrial machine, New York. The mid to late '50s were a time when many Puerto Ricans were threatened by Irish and Italian gangseveryone from my own father to journalist/ author Juan Gonzalez (as he describes in Harvest of Empire) has his story about fending off violent attacks, especially from Italian gangs in El Barrio.
The murders occurred on a hot summer night; Salvador and Luis showed up at May Matthews Playground on West Forty-fifth Streetthere are many alleged reasons. Some say it was a drug deal gone bad, others say it resulted from a cry for help about an impending gang collision. Two white teenagers were stabbed to death and Sal and Luis were captured several days later and paraded before photographers. Sal delivered his famous sound bite, "I don't care if I burn. My mother can watch me."
The startlingly eerie thing about watching Agron's appearance on the local news on the Kinescope tapes from so many years ago was the look on his face, which seemed to indicate that he understood he was being turned into a media image at a time when the concept was in its infancy. Sal was engaging in a very postmodern practice, seizing the spectacle of urban criminality to make a kindof narcissistic political statement, something very much like the "performance art" of the late Tupac Shakur.
The smile is not the smile of a psychotic criminal, but it is the reflected smile of a drunken public ... they saw their social apathy, their very own souls and ignorance and they screamed in horror.
SALVADOR AGRON, PRISON WRITINGS
Salvador Agron was a kind of wannabe radical revolutionary figure in the mold of the Black Panthers and Young Lords, and his prison-culture socialization gave him a lot in common with the gansta rappers of the '80s and '90s. His involvement with left-wing politics while in prison, where he was supported prototypically by radical lawyer William Kunstler, made him into a kind of minor celebrity among New York leftists. The continued attempts to have his parole expedited anticipated what happened in the early '80s when Norman Mailer successfully got prison author Jack Abbott released, only to have him horribly murder an East Village restaurant waiter.
Agron was finally released in the late '70s, partially as the result of efforts by the cultish New Alliance Party, but was never able to adjust to living outside prison. He was a pioneer of the Nuyorican experience, which combined the shock of transition from peaceful but poor tropical island to the hard streets of the world's most renowned metropolis. He was aware of his standing within the street culture that produced the language of prison and resistance. He also educated himself with texts that elevated him to an almost upper-middle-class world of leftism. To an outraged public, his "Watch me burn" statement was an act of extreme barbarity, but it was probably a bizarre attempt to reconcile his island naivete with the onus of being the trash tabloid media star of the moment. In the Kinescope images, Agron is fighting back at the gaze of the mainstream media, which kept him invisible, only to shine its glaringlights on him at the moment of his almost inevitable criminalization.
When I visited Agron's surviving relatives in the North Bronx, they were a typical Spanglish family. They were schoolteachers, auto insurance salespeople, students. They were dark skinned, light skinned, and olive skinned; they were religious and they liked salsa music and rock music. His sister, Aurea, was a striking survivor who was very much an average American, except she believed in magic. Amid the stacks of papers and files and mementos she kept in an office reserved for her brother, she told me, her eyes tearing, that Agron had spoken to her from the dead and approved her trust in Paul Simon. The espiritista belief in communication with the dead had survived the horrible orphanage they had grown up in, the one that may have turned him into a murderer, and was still keeping them together in the Bronx, as the millennium drew to a close.
The late '50s was a crucial moment for Spanglish culture. The first large wave of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York were in the processes of class differentiation, choosing, when able, modes of assimilation usually along racial lines. Lighter-skinned, better-educated Puerto Ricans were beginning to establish themselves in areas bordering Italian neighborhoods, while darker Puerto Ricans were on the verge of a long-lasting cultural alliance with African Americans, largely through the bugaloo/Latin soul fad in music. White ethnics are heavily participating in the mambo shows at Midtown spots like the Palladium. I Love Lucy was still wildly popular. Movies like West Side Story, although condescending and oversimplifying, as well as distorting through plot and bad casting, were almost embraced as acknowledgment of the presence of Latinos in the U.S. Even Fred Astaire had to dance the way we do. Puerto Ricans began making alliances with both African-American and mainstream figures, indirectly influencing developments on both sides of the racial divide.
In Southern California, Chicanos were helping to popularize rock and roll by providing a mass audience for the music. Music acts like those of Ritchie Valens and Cannibal and the Headhunters helped to aid the transition between r&b and doo-wop music and the surf music of the '60s. But with the exception of a single shining moment from Tijuana native Santana, the nature of rock culture would ultimately diminish their contributions. Cesar Chavez would strongly influence the '60s milieu of organized protest, and a writer named Oscar "Zeta" Acosta would be at the root of what would become known as gonzo journalism.
Something was about to happen in America that would change everything. The "advances" Latinos made in the American consciousness would be exposed as the products of a false integration. African Americans would challenge the status quo of America's popular culture and effective social segregation. The arms-length "acceptance" of Latinos would be exposed, and the triumph of the baby boomers would create an era of social change that would coincidentally obscure the civil rights movement and establish a new kind of white cultural hegemony. And with that white hegemony, the whole perception of racial conflict would become a rigidly black versus white question, with little room for other factors.
We could no longer gather on an El Barrio rooftop, dance to Rafael Hernandez's "Preciosa," and celebrate being able to see the stars, as Puerto Rican writer José Luis González did in his crucial short story, "The Night We Became People Again."
It is the moment that Spanglish culture, which felt as if it were about to take its rightful place on the main stage of "American" cultures, was forced underground.
Copyright © 2002 by Ed Morales. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Meet the Author
Ed Morales is a Village Voice staff reporter who has contributed to numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Miami Herald, San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Time and The Nation. He is also a poet whose work has appeared in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café and a fiction writer included in Iguana Dreams and Boricuas.
Ed Morales is a Village Voice staff reporter who has contributed to numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Miami Herald, San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Time and The Nation. He is also a poet whose work has appeared in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café and a fiction writer included in Iguana Dreams and Boricuas.
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As a fellow writer of books on ethnicity, I became curious of other viewpoints. Since Latinos/Hispanics are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population, I felt a responsibility to examine some of the issues in the Latino community. I found many similarities between the Black and Latino communities when it comes to stereotypes and Race. 1. What do we call ourselves? 2. Stereotypical treatment in Hollywood. 3. Light skin vs. dark skin (Sammy Sosa) I just wish the book wasn't so long. I guess those who are interested in obscure history will love those parts. Thanks for opening my eyes to many things Ed Morales!!
This book definatly made me think a little harder about what it is like to be spanglish in america. I recommend this book for those that wish to learn a little more about there history and there contribution to this country.
This book is very true,it talks about the way Latinos use 'Spanglish' in everyday life. Even I have used Spanglish when I talk in spanish,I think every Latino has used 'Spanglish' at least once in their lives. Even some people who only speak spanish have used 'spanglish'. I truly think that Mr. Morales has outdone himself. 'Living in Spanglish' is truly a GREAT book.