Thursday, September 06, 2018

Bikers, Mayans, and Literary Criticism

Daniel Cano                                                                            
Actor Emilio Rivera aka Marcus Alvarez, the Mayans
    It was around 2008. I was flying home to L.A. from an education conference in Virginia. Our plane stopped in Chicago to unload and pickup passengers. The seat next to me was vacant. I was tired, sleepy, and I wanted to stretch a bit. I hoped no one would take the empty seat.
     As I looked up the aisle toward the front of the plane, I noticed no other passengers entering. I was elated. Except for the seat next to me, it was a full flight. Just as I was preparing to enjoy the extra space, I heard some commotion up front, one last passenger coming up the aisle. He said something like, “All right. That must be my seat waiting for me.”
     He laughed. He was definitely Latino, and by his slight accent, I guessed a Chicano. He put away his luggage, and as he looked around the plane, all eyes on him, he said, as if reading my mind, “Ay, I bet you thought you were gonna have the row to yourself, didn’t you?”
     I could hear a few chuckles. The way he said it, I also had to laugh. He sat, introduced himself, and began talking, charisma oozing from every pore in his body. He was handsome, a horseshoe mustache, and his hair combed straight back.
     On the cross-country flight, we talked about everything, our families, our lives, our work, our hopes and dreams. I told him I was an English professor, and we talked about books and movies. He told me he wished he would have gotten a better education. Still, he was making it as an actor, which I took casually, since everybody in L.A. was an actor, yet, he did look familiar. When he talked about his father, his eyes teared.
     At one point, he told me he had a lot of hope riding on his new project. He was playing the president of the Mayans, a Mexican motorcycle club in a new series called “Sons of Anarchy.” If all went smoothly, it might turn into a regular gig.
     I told him I’d seen a few episodes. I wasn’t a fanatic, like some people, but I liked the outlaw life, and Sons captured a complexity of motorcycle culture we don’t see every day. Like the Sopranos in leather jackets and riding motorcycles, Sons took the audience inside biker life, not just the clubs and guys, but their families, wives, children, and jobs. The writers turned the motorcycle outlaws into real people.
     Upon landing, he told his name, again, Emilio Rivera. I wished him luck and told him I’d watch for him on the show. We’d made a close connection. I felt like asking him to come by the college and maybe talk to one of my classes. My shyness got the better of me, so I refrained.
New television show on FX

     Tuesday night, September 4th, the spinoff series of Sons of Anarchy, the Mayans M.C. premiered on FX television, a show about the Chicano motorcycle gang, staring Emilio Rivera and Edward James Olmos. When I saw the first advertisements, I could hardly wait, even if I felt I’d be disappointed, for Hollywood rarely handles Chicano life accurately, but, in my estimation, with two exceptions, “La Bamba” and the “Milagro Beanfield War.” There were other movies that were just okay, and some not-so-good.
     In these days, when popular songwriters like Bob Dylan and Kendrick Lamar receive awards historically reserved for writers, are the canon-busters telling us it’s okay to evaluate popular artistic genres the same way we evaluate literature? Is there as much thematic “meat” in a popular television show portraying Chicano motorcyclists as there is in a play, poem, or novel about Latinos? I would argue, yes, there is, if the writing and production are superb, two elements needed in any work of art.
     Actually, I never needed the Swiss Academy’s permission to consider all varieties of creative endeavor art, whether a popular television novela or a classic novel. For me, it’s instinctive, kind of like Michele Serros’ short story “Attention Shoppers,” where the protagonist flies into a rage critiquing the racism in the names of frozen vegetable in her neighborhood grocery store.
     Of course, I understand, movies or books about motorcycle gangs, generally, aren’t for everyone, but a classic work of art transcends its topic and taps into what critics call the human condition. Is Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” an adventure story, a man against the jungle, or is it the story of a man facing the darkness within his own heart?
     I heard one literary critic argue that, in its day, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was a young man’s adventure at sea. Who knew that in following years it would become a literary classic? That’s what made “Sons of Anarchy” the most watched show on FX, the artistic complexity of the characters, a search for their humanity.
     In Mayan MC, firstly, I wanted to be entertained, and secondly, I wanted to see how Hollywood portrayed Latinos, especially since so few programs depicting Latinos ever get made. Sadly, the first episode of Mayans, to me, was disappointing, mainly because of the writing, a contrived, often unrealistic plot, and, at times, forced dialogue. I didn’t feel like I was watching a Chicano motorcycle gang but actors portraying cholo stereotypes on motorcycles.
     There was little definition between the characters, mostly snarls and growls. In real life, there is marked difference between Chicano bikers and neighborhood gang members. From my observations, Chicano bikers are more like the ubiquitous American biker-outlaw than they are to neighborhood cholos.
     All bikers, Chicanos, African-Americans, Asians, or Anglos live for their bikes. They love them, talk about them, and die on them. In the Mayans, the bikes might as well have been ’64 Chevys, props, nothing more. Even in “Sons of Anarchy”, bikes played a major role, another character.
     It doesn’t appear the screenwriters of “Mayans M.C.” read the book, “Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws,” which explores the underside of the Chicano motorcycle culture. Chicano bikers have their own language, their own music, and their own style. They aren’t Cholo wannabes or Mexican narcos. They are bikers, even those born in Mexico and raised in the U.S. They have inhaled American culture in their own unique way.
The Mayans on the move

     Oh, the program had epic moments, the motorcycles roaring across the desert highway, the gorgeous shots of horizons, and landscapes, the images of life on the border, both sides. The Mayans M.C. has the potential to cover so many important themes that non-Latino programs cannot.
     One plot point I found hard to swallow, that the protagonist, a Mayan biker “prospect” was just eight years earlier preparing to graduate from Stanford. He ended up in jail. In the ensuing years, his beautiful, blonde, high school girlfriend has become the wife of a powerful Mexican cartel leader. The coincidences are astronomical.
     Emilio Rivera’s character, Marcus Alvarez, leader of the Mayans’ Oakland chapter, rides high, and plays an important role, trying to figure out who in the Mayans has betrayed the gang. But unlike “Sons of Anarchy,” where most of the Anglo bikers have wives, girlfriends, kids, brothers and sisters, the Chicano bikers seem to stand alone, making them more caricatures than complex characters.
     Still in its infancy, the series has much potential. We just need to see more humanity in the Chicano characters, less savagery, and immunity from pain and suffering, even if they must hide it.
     It would explain worlds to have us know how Marcus Alvarez’s character El Padrino got his name and reached his status? As they say, behind every successful man is a woman, and I’m sure the same goes for outlaw bikers. Katy Segal showed us that in Sons of Anarchy.
     What makes it difficult for a Chicano to critique Chicano art, whether movies, writing, or painting, is that the critic wants the work to succeed, to triumph, so that more works can follow. It is difficult being negative, since there are so few Chicano/Latino projects in U.S. cinema. Everyone knows that Hollywood is about the money, not about cultural representation or sensitivity. If certain movies, books, songs, or paintings make money, agents and studios ask for more. If not, they don't ask.
     So, even though there are deficiencies in the Mayans, with a little care, the correct advising from the right folks, maybe some Chicano bikers or writers, I can see a work like the Mayans walking away victorious and humane, and maybe, giving actors like Emilio Rivera and others more roles to look forward to in the future.


msedano said...

used to be chicanos and raza generally came in for ample coverage in the press. crime reports, that type of stuff, gave us ink. now art imitates life, we get footage, we're bikers, outsiders among outsiders. is this better than the only raza in space had to have bumps on their foreheads and weird tattoos on their faces? please review it when it gets watchable. i thought rivera real good in water&power.

Daniel Cano said...

It wasn't unwatchable but somewhat unengaging. Murder, mayhem, and betrayal aren't enough to make one turn the page, or, in this case, wait impatiently for the next episode. Though, I will be there watching and hoping to report something better. Sons of Anarchy became something of a cult classic. I was hoping the same the Mayans M.C., because beneath it all, the characters still represent raza, and humanity, with all its warts.

Unknown said...

Well fortunately you didn’t see the original pilot. It was reshot wth a different director and we looked for more flavorful locations in Calexico and Tecate as well as in between, its hard to fully set up the story in 42 minutes, I don’t know who the riders are for the season but fairly certain this show will do well with the audience.
M. Haro
Location Manager

Daniel Cano said...

Michael, I have to say the locations and settings were outstanding, the highlights of the film. Even the plotline was interesting, though parts of it stretched the imagination. My may criticism of the film, as I stated, was characterization. Sons of Anarchy fans will get some of the relationships. For me, I had no character to sympathize with. In the first episode, which I know is early in the film, I wanted to like one or two of the characters. The writers need to work on making them real people, like in Sons. I loved seeing Calexico and Tecate. Those two locations made the film worth watching. Keep on trucking. Great work.