“I don’t have a culture,” the student complains, “how can I write a paper on my own culture? It’s easy for all them, but what about me?”
I sympathize with the young man and see his resentment dilute with confusion when I tell him he’s a white ethnic and is a member of a culture with its own traditions and communication issues “just like all of them.”
“What are you?” I ask, unnuanced despite a lifetime of having that question shoved in my ear by sundry tipos who look and sound like this student.
I point him in the direction of the cartoon bigotry of Thomas Nast, and ilk, in the latter years of the 19th century. Nast soldiered along in his society’s culture wars between Anglo and Irish white ethnics, calling Irish immigrants everything but a white man, drawing paddy caricatures that dehumanized Irish as apes. It is a social strategy meant to keep the Irish unequal.
The student produces an excellent paper that opens his eyes and softens his hard heart toward the “victim mentality" of the Chicana Chicano students in the class.
When the student presents his oral report, raza students get an eye-opening understanding they’re not uniquely los de abajo in US culture. The class talks about “meltable” versus “unmeltable” gente and the melting pot metaphor of US culture, and get insight into the power of U.S. mass media to create an ethos that conditions attitudes toward other people.
Today, Irish ethnicity has a most-favored culture spotlight as witnessed in March when St. Patrick’s Day coerces the wearing of green at risk of a pinch, and all manner of folk sport their “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” tee shirt. My orange tee reads “Relax, Gringo, I was born here.”
How’d they do it, the Irish?
They went to the movies. Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as lovable Irish priests was a major hit in 1944's Going My Way. Fitzgerald’s sentimental old priest steals the movie and ticket-buyers stream out daubing tears and loving the Irish. The 1949 John Wayne movie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, features Irish grunts and a lovably gruff old-country Sergeant played by the professional Irishman Victor McLaglen. Wayne goes the full Irish monty in the 1952 megahit, The Quiet Man. Set in Ireland, the movie defines a montón of Irish stereotypes from fiery pelirroja Maureen O’Hara to the hard-drinking Irishmen of McLaglen and Fitzgerald, a lovable parish priest played by Ward Bond, and an epic comedic fistfight that ends with the Irishmen drunk, unbloodied, and BFFs. Irish were now white.
It’s that moment in history for Chicanos. Not that we want to assimilate, but be seen as gente buena.
Media momentum builds. A few years ago there was Ugly Betty on teevee starring a Latina named America. How can it get much better than that?
This year’s Oscar awards has gente talking about Afro-Mexicans with the emergence of Lupita Nyong'o and her pride in being Mexican Kenyan. Beauty moves the heart of the savage xenophobe, like forcing a bigot or a nationalist to defend a counterattitudinal argument.
Cesar Chavez blazes a trail, but it seems the audience is blazing it right back at the film. People are not buying tickets. It’s tough to sell the story, evidently, since everyone knows how it turns out.
Sadly, there’s a smattering of critics, perhaps envidiosas envidiosos, who cavil that Mexicans, not Chicanos, made Cesar Chavez, that the film put money in Mexican pockets not U.S., that Chavez the man didn’t like wetbacks, and crud like this. Instead of finding ways to like a product, these tipos don’t talk about the film itself, preferring to trash the film on the basis of what it doesn’t do, or how it failed their biopic assumptions. Lástima.
Nonetheless, Cesar Chavez is out there in big theatres buying big ads. People are aware. If only subliminally, the presence of the film chips away at the malice and xenophobia that characterize U.S. culture. No movie is an island entire of itself, that’s my theory. Every frame benefits someone, can become part of the national consciousness. But the producers need to get people into those seats to have widespread impact and build momentum for other films.
In May, Richard Montoya’s Water & Power hits the screens of AMC theaters. I saw Water on the Mark Taper Forum mainstage a few years ago, and dug it. A powerful drama featuring Chicano characters--the members of Culture Clash for example--without being about Chicanismo, Water&Power stands a better chance of finding a big audience than Cesar Chavez has.
I didn’t get to see the preview screening of Water&Power last year when Montoya was gauging public support. I don’t know if the charm, power, and humor I saw on stage have survived the transition to film. One thing for sure, I’m hoping Montoya will bring droves of white ethnics into the moviehouses. He's not taking brown ethnics for granted, making a major marketing effort in the next couple weeks.
It will be encouraging to see raza come in droves to see Water&Power. And for that matter, start seeing Cesar Chavez. Sales drive showings, and heavy public demand can move Water&Power into the bigger auditoriums of the AMC chain, and lure other chains to ante up and cut themselves a part of the action.
2014 has a strong chance to turn back the clock to the 1940s when movies helped WASP culture reconstruct its view of Irish immigrants from noxious foreign scum and thugs to gente buena. "La lechuga o la justicia es lo que van a sembrar" Abelardo wrote. Today, he might add, "y luego van a los movies."
Water&Power hits the screen El Drinko de Mayo weekend. See you in the auditorium, gente.