Latinos: ‘Sheik’ to chic

'Latin Lovers,' illegal immigrants go hand in hand

I have long thought Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” was the most radical piece of Latino filmmaking around. Carmen and Juni Cortez inhabit a suburban America of appalling normalcy. The Hispanic has taken up residence in America and nobody notices or cares.

At a time when many Americans are of the opinion that there are too many Mexicans around, it is time for the 2007 Imagen Awards “to encourage and recognize the positive portrayal of Latinos.”

I write on the occasion of these awards to observe that the genius of popular entertainments is that they can seek and they often find the correlation between fear and desire. Americans fear what we have always feared — a history that is out of our control. The genius of popular entertainments is that they give us a way of transforming objects of fear into objects of desire.

At a time of vast demographic change, when nearly 40 million citizens of the United States trace our ancestries south of the U.S. border, at a time when brown has overwhelmed the black-and-white mindset of America, and the burrito is as American as pizza, at a time when the presence of millions of “illegal aliens” angers many Americans, in the hour of the Minute Men, you should expect to see more Latinos in the movies and on television — especially as lovers in the afternoon.

Consider this: During the 1930s — the Depression years in America — many hundreds of thousands of laborers from Latin America (most from Mexico) were rounded up and deported. At the same time, the Latin Lover — the rakish opposite of the poor man we were deporting, though somehow related to him in our minds, romanced American audiences. Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland. There were many others through the ’30s and ’40s.

Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, promises accelerated raids by immigration officials of factories and fields. So: We should expect more Salma Hayeks, more Gael Garcia Bernals on the screen.

Popular entertainments can also deepen anxiety. The idea of Latin America as lawless territory was conventional in American cowboy movies. The black-shirted outlaw whipped his snide stallion to a lather to get to Mexico. The outlaw was safe in Mexico. That old legend of lawful America and unlawful Mexico was revisited in “Brokeback Mountain.” Jack Twist took his homosexual desire to Juarez.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently riled a convention of Hispanic journalists by advising Hispanic teenagers to turn off Spanish-language T.V. and immerse themselves in English as he had done as a young immigrant.

That is excellent advice, I think — the part about learning English. But the trouble is that Hispanic kids are being Americanized by videogames and rap music and monster movies. That’s what English-language Hollywood is offering them.

Many non-Hispanic children in America now grow up under the influence of Latin America. They are surrounded by nannies and housekeepers and caretakers and gardeners from Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia. Presumably some of these children pick up the words, and not just the words, but the prayers, and not only the prayers, but the recipes, and not only the recipes but the irony.

Truth-tellers and fantasy wives

The Latina housekeeper has assumed the role of truth-teller in American domestic comedy — the new Thelma Ritter, the new Hattie McDaniel. Or, when she is played by a particularly comely actress from Spain named Paz Vega, the Latina housekeeper becomes the fantasy wife — like Loretta Young in “The Farmer’s Daughter” — a judgment on the overprogrammed and self-absorbed American wife and mother.

In an earlier time, Hollywood thought nothing of casting whoever was under contract — Paul Muni, Charlton Heston, Marlene Dietrich, Tilly Losch — to play the Latin American. Now Hollywood’s attempt at verisimilitude runs to Spain. The reliable Old World is enlisted to play the New World that we fear. Antonio Banderas has played the whole busload of Latin Americans.

Those who best enunciate the threat are those who most resemble the threat. Carlos Mencias and George Lopez most resemble the face of Latin America that Americans fear. Latino comics are an unpretty breed because their work is mordant and dirty, like grave-digging or soldiering. That’s why comedy is closer to our real lives at the moment than romance.

Even as I write these words, a real wall is being cast in concrete and raised between the United States and Mexico. On the American side, the wall represents American sovereignty, the trauma of 9/11, a renewed nativism. On the Mexican side, the wall invites obscenity and humor as chattering hands press the levers of aerosol cans.

The wall is rendered transparent by the remarkable success in the United States (and internationally) of three Mexican directors who seem galvanized by a fragmented world, rather than restricted by it. Alfonso Cuaron in “Children of Men” forecasts a dystopian England of zero birth rate. Guillermo del Toro, in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” concocted a black pudding of a fairy tale, far from 19th-century English summers where we are accustomed to finding our fantasy. Most audacious of all was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” a world where rich and poor meet with mutual incomprehension.

Mel Gibson also climbed the wall. Gibson began his career playing Mad Max, the perfect postapocalyptic renegade. American-born Gibson (who grew up in Australia) last year gave us “Apocalypto,” a movie about the sudden collapse of the violent Mayan empire. Was it the perspective of Australia that encouraged Gibson’s realization of the continuity of the Americas and the continuity of an Indian presence? (Most Americans see the U.S. as discontinuous; most American filmmakers have portrayed Indians as unmakers of civilization.) Moreover, Gibson cast American Indians in some Mayan roles.

A new seducer

Look carefully at the illegal faces crossing the border. Most illegal immigrants look Indian, don’t they?

I suspect the breakthrough Latino in the movies — a heartthrob on the order and scale of Rudolph Valentino (an Italian who nevertheless partook of the mystique of the Latin Lover) — will be the face of the Indian. It will be the face one sees everywhere in Latin America and now in the U.S., but never sees on television or in the movies as the romantic lead. An ancient face. This new Latino will make his debut in America, I think, and only then will he turn to seduce Latin American audiences.

The United States has always attempted to address its social problems through popular entertainment. “The Grapes of Wrath.” “Ramona.” “The King and I.” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” We get the Vietnamese cook on television. We find ourselves an Arab sportscaster. We run an ad for a Latin Lover.

The funny thing is, it works.

Richard Rodriguez is a Peabody Award winner and author of Pulitzer Prize-nominated book “Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father.” He is a regular contributor to “The NewsHour” on PBS.

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