�muy Pop!: Conversations on Latino Popular Culture

�muy Pop!: Conversations on Latino Popular Culture

by Frederick Luis Aldama, Ilan Stavans

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Although investigations of Hispanic popular culture were approached for decades as part of folklore studies, in recent years scholarly explorations—of lucha libre, telenovelas, comic strips, comedy, baseball, the novela rosa and the detective novel, sci-fi, even advertising—have multiplied. What has been lacking is an overarching canvas that offers context for these studies, focusing on the crucial, framing questions: What is Hispanic pop culture? How does it change over time and from region to region? What is the relationship between highbrow and popular culture in the Hispanic world? Does it make sense to approach the whole Hispanic world as homogenized when understanding Hispanic popular culture? What are the differences between nations, classes, ethnic groups, religious communities, and so on? And what distinguishes Hispanic popular culture in the United States?

In ¡Muy Pop!,Ilan Stavans and Frederick Luis Aldama carry on a sustained, free-flowing, book-length conversation about these questions and more, concentrating on a wide range of pop manifestations and analyzing them at length. In addition to making Hispanic popular culture visible to the first-time reader, ¡Muy Pop!sheds new light on the making and consuming of Hispanic pop culture for academics, specialists, and mainstream critics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472035519
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 11/30/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Latino & Latin American Studies Space for Enrichment and Research at Ohio State University.

Read an Excerpt

¡Muy Pop!

Conversations on Latino Popular Culture

By Ilan Stavans, Frederick L. Aldama

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11893-9


On Hero-worship

FREDERICK LUIS ALDAMA: An appropriate place to start this first conversation might be on the nature of hero-worshiping in Latino culture. You've written eloquently, and influentially, on Mario Moreno, the arch-famous comedian known as Cantinflas. I know he is one of your idols.

ILAN STAVANS: Are an idol and a hero the same thing? Well, an idol, in ancient times, represented a deity, whereas a hero was a person of distinguished courage. Strictly speaking, Cantinflas is neither one nor the other. Still, he is unquestionably my idol as well as my hero.

FA: One of your books is titled after an essay you composed on him and originally published in the journal Transition (1995). The centennial of Cantinflas's birth took place in August 2011.

IS: All Hispanic comedians are Cantinflas's children, just as all Spanish-language writers are Cervantes's heirs. His anarchic humor presents a picture of the peladito, the urban, unemployed, downtrodden street-wise who is capable of surviving in spite of the harsh circumstances he encounters. Cantinflas refuses to work. His rebellion is against the rapid industrialization Mexico is undergoing. Too much is going on in his eyes. He doesn't have the training to be employed in a factory job. At best, he can shine shoes on a street corner, maybe sell tacos. He refuses to fit into any social canon, especially when it comes to fashion. (Is he the first to wear his pants down?) But what I am most at awe about is his language: his syntax is a mess. That, indeed, is his sharpest weapon in his anarchic war against the system. There is a terrific scene at the end of the movie Allí está el detalle (1940) where Cantinflas is on trial for having stolen someone's wallet. He refuses to have a lawyer represent him. As he defends himself, his syntax begins to confuse everyone in the court. That confusion is his redemption: he is set free after the judge himself can't put a standard sentence together.

FA: Is he a people's hero? I mean, do people see his actions as models?

IS: I do not think anyone wants to be like Cantinflas. However, everyone laughs with him. And therein lies his revolutionary dimension: in the face of adversity, even apocalypse, he makes the audience laugh. Nothing more Mexican than that: if you can't beat them, laugh at them. Jokes are one of Mexico's most effective weapons to battle adversity. It is often said that after an earthquake or a hurricane, jokes arrive way before the police makes an appearance.

FA: Cantinflas is well liked throughout the Spanish-speaking world. This speaks to his universality.

IS: Humor, as you know, is difficult — impossible? — to translate. Try adapting a joke from one language to another; you'll kill it on the spot. The fact that Cantinflas's movies are enjoyed in Santiago, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, and Madrid does speak to his universality. He is not Charlie Chaplin (who, by the way, made his career in silent films) because you do need knowledge of the Spanish language to appreciate him. So Cantinflas's appeal is limited to the Hispanic world, where it is deep and transformative.

FA: I wonder if this stripping down that happens in the translation process doesn't tell us something about the distinction between a culturally located humor and a universal capacity for laughter. Cantinflas films rest heavily on bringing together the incongruous beliefs specific to Latinos of the Americas. An audience outside Mexico, for instance, might not pick up on the incongruities of folk belief because they are not familiar with the common doxa of the locale. Yet, folks the world over share similar responses to incongruous movements, and the misreading of minds to comic effect is a worldwide phenomenon. Is the way we worship Cantinflas a symptom of how Latinos approach the hero? Is there a type of hero-worship that is unique to us?

IS: In his lectures On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History(1841), Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle discussed heroes from the perspective of masculinity. A hero for him is a great soul, free, outward, and courageous, capable of understanding the meaning of things. In Victorian times, Carlyle believed hero-worship was a transcendent endeavor, a way to simultaneously envy and celebrate greatness, to dream of being a valiant man by applauding those who represent that quality. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist, proposed a similar model in Representative Men(1850). The Hispanic world, needless to say, is dramatically different. Not only now but in the past as well. Our model of the hero, resulting from a the clash between East and West and between North and South, has changed over time. At the outset of modernity, it was connected to the various Indian rebellions against the European colonists. Perhaps the Argentine Gaucho modeled in José Hernández's El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) should be used as an example. And prior to it, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo (1845), since Hernández wrote his poem in response to Sarmiento's denigration of the Gaucho. What I mean is that our heroes are outlaws, foragidos.

FA: What do we cherish in them?

IS: Their rebellious spirit. Octavio Paz once suggested, in Alternating Current(1967), three categories of rebellion: the revoltoso (the mutineer), the rebelde (the rebel), and the revolucionario (the revolutionary). These instances display a degree of nuance: the first is a supporter of anarchy, eager and ready to subvert authority at all cost. The second is an individualized antagonist. And the third works with others and has an ideological plan. We embrace the second and third as admiring options, but even the first one offers an attractive option. That these models are mostly — almost exclusively — masculine says much about our cult of machismo.

FA: I want to talk more about machismo. But first I want to continue with heroes that are also comedians. You have written about Mexican comedian Germán Valdéz in his famous role as Tin Tan.

IS: Ah, yes: another hero of mine. Tin Tan is a Chicano Cantinflas. Or maybe Cantinflas is a Mexican Tin Tan. I love the way Tin Tan pokes fun at the immigration issue, how his humor is bi-national, Mexican and American. Someday I would like to produce a book-long essay (full of pictures) on him. In 2005, he became the subject of a documentary called Ni muy muy, ni tan tan: Simplemente Tin Tan, which in Mexican Spanish is a game of words that roughly translates as "neither this nor that."

FA: My crystal ball says: you will and soon. In a conversation with historian Iván Jaksic, called What Is 'la hispanidad'? (2011), you talk about Tin Tan ridiculing The Beatles.

IS: In a great scene, he changes the lyrics of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" into sheer, crystalline Spanglish. In my view, Tin Tan is the real thing when it comes to Spanglish. I am currently writing a history of the Spanish language. Both Cantinflas and Tin Tan play a role in it.

FA: What do Cantinflas and Tin Tan have in common?

IS: They are revoltosos. Their ideological base is anarchic. That is, they don't offer a particular plan to counteract the ills of society. Instead, they simply criticize those ills. Their criticism is offered by means of humor. Through laughter, they poke fun at the clash between the haves and have-nots, between gringos and Mexicans, between knowledge and ignorance. I would go even further: in apocalyptic times, they use comedy as a panacea. Their magnetism is found in the freedom they invoke. Almost nothing is sacred for them. Well, that isn't true. Neither of them targets religion, specifically the Catholic Church. Still, they are admiringly brave.

FA: Might we also consider the way they relish in the relajo as an expression avant la lettre of a transborder pícaro sensibility?

IS: They are pícaros, that is, rogues, rascals ...

FA: Carlos Monsiváis called out Tin Tan as a "sujeto transfronterizo" ... How might we also think of their upturning convention as performative pachuco figures?

IS: Cantinflas isn't a border-crosser, certainly not in the way Tin Tan plays for the pachucada, the Mexican-American population in California. Like W. E. B. DuBois, he is a promoter of a double-consciousness, an identity that exists in the interface between two languages (Spanish and English) and cultures (Mexico and the United States).

FA: One primary source of hero-worship in our popular culture is soccer. It doesn't traffic in humor but in athletic competency.

IS:El fútbol ... The role soccer players (Pelé, Maradona, Kaká, Forlán, Messi, "Chicharito") have is that of idols. But what kind of idolatry is being presented here? Their private lives are often kept in private. What the fans celebrate is their team spirit — that is, if they have such a thing, which sometimes, when they play for the national team, is turned into patriotism — but especially their bodies and the gymnastics they engage in during a game. That is what interests me: the athlete's male body.

FA: At first blush, the sculpted athlete's body can be beautiful — even enter the realm of the sublime. Some, like Jets' quarterback Mark Sanchez, exploit this magnificently. Of course, there is the physical training involved in the making of the athlete's body. This is an amazing feat. Even more amazing are the myriad ways in which the athlete's body shapes those movements and actions that constitute the game, that are beautiful in themselves individually and that make the game globally an aesthetic experience. Soccer players are heroes because they are both athletes and artists. When you watch a football match you are both admiring the work well done and the artistry in which it is done.

IS: In Hispanic culture, the female athlete's body lags far behind. Instead of women athletes, we celebrate women models. That is because people do not equate women's muscles with beauty.

FA: Yet there is great beauty in the body of an accomplished female gymnast. Women participate and excel in many activities that require strong muscles and physical beauty. I am thinking, for instance, of the physical training ballet dancers have to undergo to be proficient in their profession. Nobody would deny that their muscles are those of an athlete, yet they are lean and strong and beautiful.

IS: Perhaps this applies to women divers. In any case, Hispanic civilization is still awkward when it comes to female athletics. A handful of women athletes are celebrated, but they are easily eclipsed by their male counterparts. What we cherish in women is their beauty, their delicacy, and — unfortunately — their quiet demeanor. Take women's soccer. No league in the Spanish-speaking world commands attention. In fact, I'm not sure there are even professional leagues, although there must be by now. The United States isn't altogether different, I'm afraid. Women's soccer here is big every four years, as the World Cup takes place, otherwise the sport is dormant, not to say ignored. In Spanish-speaking movies — I'm talking here of the type that is set in ranchos — the same phenomenon occurs: men distil valor whereas women represent beauty.

FA: Let us then talk about movie stars, another — and essential — form of hero-worship, albeit a more democratic one, don't you think?

IS: At least males and females are equally adored ... I will start with Mexican matinee idols like Vicente Fernández. He is always photographed with his sombrero and mustache. The look is a legacy of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, where the hero was always a rural male, valiant and independent, whose personal pride — he was humilde and honrado — turned him into an admirable type. Since then, the countryside has lost its allure. For instance, I recently translated Juan Rulfo's stories in El llano en llamas(1953), which I titled The Plain in Flames (2012). None of the characters there falls into this kind of heroics. They are not only poor but they have been pushed to make untenable moral decisions. Plus, they do not see the countryside as desirable. It seems to me that Rulfo's aesthetics are a refutation of the Vicente Fernández model.

FA: I agree with you entirely, Ilan. In fact the rural appears in Mexican films of the last decade or so mostly as the site or location of gun-fights between law officers and drug smugglers (the films generically known as narcopelículas). And the rural areas of yesteryear packed with Mexican cowboys (charros) wearing big hats have shrunk to a town and a bar (a cantina) with a Mariachi (solo or band) singing boleros (romantic songs) or narcocorridos (songs about drug traffickers).

Ilan, for the time being please hold your comments on the role of drugs in Latino culture for our third conversation. I do want us to say something now about the Mariachi as a type, since it holds a central role in Latino popular culture.

IS: It's true. Mariachis are descendants of the medieval troubadour. They use their instruments (accordion, guitar, trumpet, etc.) to sing the misadventures of the heart. They do so in bands. The majority of them are men, although recently there have been some women mariachis. Their custom is intriguing: they look like bullfighters, their pants and jacket tight; but they wear a large sombrero, which they take off when the lyrics deal with romantic love.

FA: In Mexico City, there are places, such as the Plaza Garibaldi, surrounded by bars and restaurants, where many mariachi bands hang out waiting to be hired and taken to the place where they are to sing one or several songs, usually as part of an attempt to seduce or court a woman or to celebrate somebody's birthday. Perhaps, too, we see just a sprinkle of irony — or would this be parodic pastiche? — in that these balladeers in tight pants increasingly share space at night with the city's queer romancers.

IS: There is much to say about ranchera movies. In Mexico today, these movies are still shown on TV on a daily basis, although to the best of my knowledge they are not being made any longer. Perhaps the ranchera movie has been replaced by its narco counterpart.

FA: Yes, the ranchera movies are no longer made. Yet at the peak of their production, you would still find some strange and strangely appealing iterations of the genre, such as Abismos de pasión (or Cumbres borrascosas, as it was sometimes titled — Luis Buñuel's 1954 adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights; this film resets the Brontë story in Catholic Mexico, with Heathcliff played by Jorge Mistral and Cathy renamed Catalina. In a different vein, there was director Emilio "El Indio" Fernández's film La Perla, an adaptation of Steinbeck's eponymous short novel, The Pearl (1947). It starred the famous actors Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqués and, like the Buñuel film, was a blockbuster.

IS: I love The Pearl (also 1947). In fact, I find "El Indio" Fernández's film more accomplished than Steinbeck's novella. How about Allá en el Rancho Grande?

FA: Yes. I am glad you mention this picture, for it is both a classic and an oddity. Fernando de Fuentes directed it in 1936, and the cinematographer was Eisenstein's Mexican disciple Gabriel Figueroa. The film's plot is not only highly artificial but so too is the particular way it is developed. On the one hand, the film fits nicely within the traditional genre of realism. It all takes place within a real time and place: real horses, real hacienda, and supposedly real events. The two close childhood friends, José Francisco (Tito Guízar) and Felipe (René Cardona) hail from different social classes (hacendado and employee) and happen to fall in love with the same woman. As friends since childhood their mutual affection has transcended class differences and barriers, but their love for the same women turns them into rivals and ultimately total antagonists.


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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Chatter Box 1

1 On Hero-worship 11

2 Cartooned!!! 45

3 The Allure of lo cursi 85

Epilogue: Sense and Porqueria 121

Index 129

Illustrations following page 84

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