Oscars 2014: The “Latino” Roundup


So the big news in the entertainment world last weekend was the Oscars. I inherited my mother’s passion for movies, but over the past several months, I hardly saw any new releases in the theater. My fiance isn’t a big fan of going to the movies (or watching a lot of TV), and so in the past two years of being with him, I’ve spent much less time going to the movies…which is a good thing overall, because I haven’t missed out on much. The only Oscar-nominated film I wanted to see but didn’t was Inside Llewyn Davis because (1) I love the Coen brothers’ films; (2) the soundtrack was great; and (3) I can look at Oscar Isaac all day long. I did see the two most talked-about “big” films: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.

What has irked me in recent days is how people have been talking about the “Latina/o” moviemakers and celebrities who were part of this year’s show. For example, there’s Alfonso Cuaron, who is being hailed by multiple media outlets “the first Latino to win best director.”


Alfonso Cuaron

And then there’s Penelope Cruz, whom the Academy’s Instagram feed mistakenly identified as Salma Hayek…because, you know, we beautiful spicy “Latinas” all look the same, right?

The Los Angeles Premiere of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" - Red Carpet

(Left to right) Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek (or is it the other way around?)

Huffington Post caught the mixup and explains that “some are still upset that the Academy mixed up the two Hispanic actresses.”

So what’s the problem here? Well, none of these folks are actually Latina/o (or “Hispanic”). Cuaron and Hayek are Mexican nationals, i.e. Latin Americans who happen to make movies in the US. And Cruz is Spanish, i.e. European.  Pointing this out doesn’t mean that as Latina/os, we shouldn’t be proud of their accomplishments or excited to see “brown” faces featured on screen or taking control behind the camera. Just don’t call them “Latina/o.”

You are welcome to disagree with me on this, but I understand “Latina/o” to be someone born and/or raised from a young age in the US who can trace his or her ancestry to any number of Latin American countries. Latin Americans who come to the US as adults frequently share close political, social, and cultural commonalities with Latina/os, but in general, their outlook on many things is very different from ours precisely because they didn’t grow up here. The US-context in which we navigate our racial and ethnic identities as Latina/os inevitably marks us. I have found that many Latin Americans just don’t “get” it. They often judge us for being sell-outs, speaking less Spanish, and knowing less about the politics and cultures of our “home” countries. I’m incredibly proud of my Mexican heritage, but I’m not Mexican. I’m Mexican American. There’s a difference.

And this definition matters when we misidentify Latin American and Spanish actors and celebrities as “Latina/o” because it further obscures our already minuscule representation in Hollywood. Check out this infographic, by Lee and Low Books, about race in the Academy, which was recently featured in Colorlines:

Academy Awards Infographic 18 24 - FINAL - REVISED 2-24-2014

Notice any trends? As Colorlines writer Jamilah King explains,

Academy of Motion Picture Arts the Sciences, the group that votes for the Oscars, is nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male. Oscars voters have a median age of 62 and people younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the Academy’s membership. Black voters make up just 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos make up an even smaller percentage.

Latin American wins at the Academy Awards are great. Anything that widens the diversity of people and stories represented in Hollywood is something to celebrate. Yet, just be aware that our list of Latina/o Academy Award winners did not, in fact, grow at all this year. We still have a lot of work to do.

Where are Chicanos in the Humanities?


Cover of the 1989 Vintage edition.

I am excited to head into my Chicana/o Literature class this week because we’ll be discussing Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street. I love using this book because the stories are so short, it’s a useful way to introduce students to the techniques of literary criticism. Seriously, when a story like “Hairs”–in which the main character, Esperanza, describes her family member’s hair–is all of ten sentences long, we can read it aloud, pick it apart, discuss the meaning of the details, and create a model thesis statement about it all in the space of one class time. Aside from being beautifully written, Cisneros’ work is a pedagogical treasure.

I love House on Mango Street for very personal reasons, too. It was the first work of Chicana/o literature that I ever encountered. Nowadays, of course, it’s a common reading in middle and high schools across the nation. Not so when I was in high school. I picked it up during my senior year. I don’t recall how it came into my hands, but it wasn’t through any of my teachers or friends. I might have stumbled upon it at the bookstore. Or maybe my mom read about it in the newspaper and picked up a copy for me. (She once showed me a newspaper interview with the writer Victor Villaseñor, but in my know-it-all teenage stubbornness, I took a look at his photo and thought, “Who’s this old guy? Whatevs.” And so the novel Rain of Gold narrowly missed out on the chance to be my first ever Chicana/o literature reading.)

I had always been an avid reader, from a young age. The best day of the month would be when our Scholastic or Troll Book Club orders arrived at school and I got a new set of paperbacks to call my own. My parents did not have a lot of money, but my mom always found a little extra to put towards the little library burgeoning in my bedroom. Yet, in all my literary explorations, I never had encountered a character who was Mexican, like me. Or hated her long name, like me. Or was living in the Midwest, like me. House changed all this . . . and changed me forever. I already had dreams of becoming a fiction writer, and now, in Sandra Cisneros, I had an actual role model. If she could do it, then maybe I can, too. What a comfort the thought was to a young Chicana who felt all alone in her ethnic experience.

I arrived at college ready to declare an English major. I was the only one of my circle of friends who was interested in the field. Most of my friends were pre-med and, as luck would have it, the TV show ER premiered during our freshman year. All those pre-meds would gather around the television set in the common room of the dorm and watch the show religiously, convinced they were getting a preview of what their professional lives would look like. Most of them did go on to become doctors, and who knows? Maybe they really are living out primetime-worthy dramas and having lusty affairs with their coworkers.

As far as I knew, there were no TV shows about English majors or the lives of literature professors or literary scholars or writers. And the pre-meds never let me forget it. They loved to tell me, “All you’re gonna need to know after graduation is how to say, ‘Would you like some fries with that?'” I heard that “joke” quite often. If I could track them down today, I still would be tempted to slap them in the face with a photocopy of my Ph.D., and say, “Guess what? I’m a DOCTOR now, too! So suck it!”

I hear echoes of their question (“What on earth will you do with that degree?”) today when students come into my office, seeking advice on choosing a major. Many who come my way are inspired by the issues of social justice we discuss in class and a desire to “help” their communities of origin. Their heart calls them towards a degree in Sociology, Criminal Justice, Political Science, History. Yet, time and again, they sign up for a bachelor’s degree in Business, concentrating in Marketing, Accounting, or Human Resources. (No offense, but who in their right minds chooses to major in Human Resources? What exactly is there to study?)

“Why are you a Business major?” I ask. “You don’t even sound excited about it.”

The usual answer:  “Because I know I’ll get a job. If I major in Sociology, what kind of job would I ever get?”

If they view social science degrees with skepticism, what chance do degrees in the humanities have? In all my years at this school, I have never, not even once, met a Latina/o English major. Every once in a great while, I will meet a Spanish major. But at my school, where students of color outnumber white students, the Chicana/os in literary studies (or philosophy, dance, music, etc.) are rare.

Part of the reasons boils down to the fact that most of the students at our institution are the first in their families to attend college. And times are tough: They struggle to pay for their education; they work part or even full time to support themselves. As classes are constantly being cut by the administration, students have a harder time making timely progress towards their degrees and getting into the courses they need. Currently, our Chicana/o Literature class does not “count” towards any General Education requirements, so for many students, there is little incentive to enroll. They are under tremendous pressure to finish college and start working to help support their families. There is no time or money to waste on something as “frivolous” as literature. I need a job–now!

I encourage students to major in what they love, since they have to spend 4+ years doing the work. To some extent, it doesn’t matter what field that happens to be. Having a bachelor’s degree is a requirement for any entry-level position. Whether you major in business, history, sociology, or art history, employers will assume that because you completed your degree, then you must have decent writing abilities and have a general education about the world. You can write a memo, create a PowerPoint presentation for your team, and greet clients without embarrassing the higher-ups. Before I applied to my doctoral program, I had a job for a company that designed parts for railcars. Was I putting my literary training to use each day? Not exactly. But did I have a steady paycheck? Yes.

And here’s where I come back to Cisneros and House on Mango Street. Most of the students enrolled in the Chicana/o literature class come from non-literary majors. I then spend a lot of class time introducing them to the basics of analyzing poems, short stories, and novels. It takes a lot of work to draw them into discussion and to help them feel comfortable sharing an interpretation of a text, which is always accompanied with, “Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but…” I constantly assure them, “No! There is no such thing as ‘reading too much into’ literature. That’s the point–just think out loud, let’s reflect on what this detail might mean.”

I’m just happy that the class had enough enrollment to happen this semester. On the first day, I announced: “Many of you are interested in heading back into our communities and making a difference. Maybe literature seems like ‘just’ entertainment. But let me tell you: There is nothing more political than literature and the arts. And there has never been a political movement that survived without literature, art, and music.” I saw their heads nodding. Okay, class was underway!

Literature matters. It matters to me. It matters to Chicana/o communities. It is how our people have expressed their deepest pain and most beautiful dreams when no other outlet was available to them. We have always sung our songs and shared our stories. It’s in our blood. We can’t exist without our stories–and we can’t afford not to study the humanities.

I Am Alive!


Chicana activist at the University of Iowa (1970s).

Hello everyone! Yes, I am alive! And I’ve been ignoring my blogüita for way too long. That’s what happens when you return to campus from a research sabbatical: Teaching, service, and just getting through another semester become the primary forms of procrastination on your writing. Who’s got time to blog?!

I wanted to say thanks to the many readers who left me notes of encouragement and asked me where I was and to please come back.  One of the highlights  is this note from llasa001:

Don’t leave me alone out here like La Llorona’s ghost children, haunting the internet with late-night Google searches: “chicana phd,””chicana dissertationnnnnn??”. Come back, come back, and we will wreath you in roses or marigolds, whatever’s your thing. I know how to do Frida braids, even!

llasa001, you had me at “La Llorona”! Truly, thank you to everyone who wrote to me; each of these comments were much-needed, gentle pokes in the shoulder that said, “Hey, quit ignoring your blog.” Believe it or not, I was always listening, and now I’m back and recommitted to Daily Weekly [ahem] Yearly Chicana.

Life has been good. Teaching, my passion in life, keeps me very busy, especially since we teach more courses at my university than faculty do at other places. Recently, a grad school friend who just changed schools was complaining to me about his busy first semester teaching two classes. Two classes? See this? I am playing the world’s tiniest violin for him. I absolutely love my students, though, and find so much meaning in my line of work. Maybe it sounds corny, but the students teach me as much as I teach them, and it’s a privilege to work with them. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when they drive me crazy because of the in-class texting or on days when I’m trying to get them really excited about something and all they give me is deadpan faces and the sound of crickets. More often than not, though, most teaching days are absolutely great.

I am currently up for tenure and promotion, so much of this past summer and early part of fall was spent assembling all the required documentation for that process. The result was two fat binders filled with seven inches (fourteen pounds) of paper. Why so much? A large portion of the file was comprised of student evaluations, and because I often teach a large lecture course and my university only recently transitioned to electronic evaluations, I had to include each and every student comment page. For the record, I sincerely apologize to the many trees that sacrificed their lives for my tenure quest. In any case, so far it’s all good news on the tenure front, but I won’t have official word for a few more months.

My other exciting development is that I am engaged! Thus, wedding planning has recently moved to the front burner of the Stove of Procrastination. Just a couple of years ago, in the aftermath of my divorce, I publicly swore that I never would get married again. Forever. For reals. I was over it. Then I met the most amazing, generous, smart, funny, tall and handsome man…and what’s that saying about the word “never”? Something like, “Never say ____”? Hmm, I can’t seem to remember. Anyhoo,when he proposed, there was only one answer: Hellz, yeah! (Btw I may never live down my actual first response to the proposal: “Are you serious?!” which was uttered not sarcastically, but with happy incredulity.) We are getting married at the end of the year in his hometown, which is halfway across the world from where we currently reside. I never imagined I would be traveling to this country, let alone getting married there! But you never know what wonderful surprises life has in store for you.

What’s missing from this update? Oh yeah, my research and publications. They are happening, very slowly. S U P E R . . . S L O W . . . L Y. Right now I’m working my way back to a daily writing practice. I’ve just started reading Patricia Goodson’s Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing. Her book is based on the principle of “writing with POWER,” by which she means (1) writing that moves and inspires readers, and (2) taking control over your writing process. The central idea is that when you practice writing more deliberately and slowly, your brain creates more myelin (protection around the nerves), which then leads to stronger writing skills. She also addresses the importance of conceiving of yourself as a writer, for that’s what professors are, first and foremost: Writers.

When I say that I just started reading Becoming an Academic Writer, I mean very recently: I’m still on Exercise #1 of 50. Nevertheless, it’s working so far: The first exercise has given me a structure for finding time to write and–just as importantly–actually showing up for said writing time. Woo-hoo!

Which leads us back to this blog. I am working my way back to regular postings here. Again, the topics for the most part will center the following:

  • the rewards and challenges of writing and teaching in general field of Chicana/o Studies;
  • representations of Latina/os in the media; and
  • the trials and tribulations of being a Latina academic.

If there’s a particular topic you’d like to see addressed on the Daily Chicana, please leave a comment at any time. I’m listening, I promise.


Latinos seen as super-sexual the world over

Rudolph Valentino, “Latin Lover” of yore

Woo-hoo, I’m back, folks! I’m all moved into the new digs and am 95% unpacked. And being unpacked means I can refocus on work (teaching/research) . . . which in turn means that I can procrastinate in earnest and get back to blogging. Yay!

As ever before, I’m riled up about representations of Latin@s in the media–in this case, the international media. For this just in: 18 Again, a “vaginal tightening” gel from India promises to make you feel “like a virgin” at any age. Which, of course, is just what every woman wants because the first time is always so pleasurable and all. (Fun fact that I must mention here: my first time was with a guy who had the surname of “Laycock.” Yes, Laycock. I’m serious–you can’t make this sh*t up!) I found out about this lovely product from this post over at Jezebel.

So what does this have to do with Latin@s? Well, check out the video for 18 Again:

Surely you will notice that the couple at the center of the video performs salsa- and tango-inspired moves to a hodgepodge of “Latin” sounds, including strumming, flamenco-style guitars; bongo drums; conga rhythms; and even a shrill samba whistle, thrown in for good measure. Why is this music playing instead of something more specific to the culture that produced the product?

The answer seems obvious to me: In the minds of many people–in the US and clearly well beyond–Latin@s have a lock-down on all things sexual. Because we are by nature hot-blooded, passionate, sensuous, ready to bust out salsa moves at the drop of a hat…ugh. I find this stereotype so exasperating.

It reminds me of a feature article I read in Glamour back in the late 1990s. The title was something like, “10 Reasons to Try a Latin Lover.” The piece began by saying, “Fortunately, you don’t have to be Columbian, Brazilian or Puerto Rican to experience the prowess of Latin men!” It also included several testimonies from white women whose world had been rocked when they slept with said “Latin” men. One of the women dreamily observed, “I loved dating Ramon. He was literally HOT to the touch!”

Just thinking about this article makes me want to vomit. At the time, I was so irate I had to pen an angry letter to the editor explaining why the article was so offensive. I clearly recall that my letter began, “Fortunately, ‘you don’t have to be Columbian, Brazilian or Puerto Rican’ to realize how stupid this article is.”

So here’s a special announcement for the makers of 18 Again and anyone else who cares to perpetuate this pernicious ethnic stereotype: Latin@s do not have any special sexual secrets, techniques or powers. Although our skin may come in various shades of brown and our families sometimes come from tropical regions, we are just like any other group of people when it comes to sex. And not every “Latin lover” is worthy of the title. Trust me, I know, I’ve been with some of them. They’re not always worth writing home about!

The open road

The Daily Chicana aspires to be the next Ansel Adams.

Just a reminder, folks: the Daily Chicana is on a brief hiatus. I’m in the midst of a cross-country move back to my university town. As soon as my home internet service is up and running, I’ll resume this blog. Until then, my boyfriend and I are in full trucker mode as we haul all of my belongings in a van and tow my car behind us.

The pros: It’s been fun and scenic. And if I have to be in a small space with two other souls, there’s no one better than my boyfriend and our dog.

The cons: I’ve eaten more fast food in the past three days than I have in the past ten years, and it’s slow-going at times, especially navigating curvy mountain roads.

In the meantime, I hope you’re staying cool as we head into August, one of the hottest summer months around and the birth month of yours truly. And please stay tuned for the return of Daily Chicana!

Mourning Lupe Ontiveros

Lupe Ontiveros

Sad news today: the one and only Chicana actor Lupe Ontiveros lost her battle with liver cancer. She was only 69 years old. (Yes, I say “only” because my parents are just a couple of years younger and they are still, in my mind, young enough for my sister and me to not have to worry about their dying any time soon. To me, “old” is my grandma, who just turned 94.)

Born in 1942 in El Paso, Texas, Lupe bucked the trends from an early age by graduating from high school and earning a bachelor’s degree, a notable accomplishment for a Chicana of her generation (as even today, according to some figures, only 46% of Chicanos graduate from high school and only 8% earn a BA. For more info on such statistics, please check out my Latina/os in Academia post). After working for some time in social services, Lupe managed to transform her work as a film and TV extra into a long, outstanding, full-time career.

Although Lupe frequently was cast as a maid–by her estimate, at least 150 times–she fully embodied such roles, so that instead of stereotypes, they became real people, living with dignity and humor, and making the best of their circumstances. As she told the LA Weekly in 2002,

I’ve had a hell of a good time playing those maids. No matter how much I resent the stupidity that is written into them, the audacity that the industry has when they portray us in such a nonsensical, idiotic, such — oh my God! — such a degrading manner, still, my humor survives in these maids. I’m very proud of them.

One of her performances that my mom and I love best is her turn as Nacha in El Norte. In one scene below, Nacha mentors recent immigrant Rosa over lunch after an INS raid at their factory (scene starts at 2:30):

To this day, my mom loves to say, “Qué tú no has conocido a Sears?!”

In 2010, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers honored Lupe with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Here’s a short video that shows the range of her work and the impact she had on her colleagues:

R.I.P Lupe. Thanks for sharing your talent with the world and please know that your legacy will live on.

Hey, Aubrey Plaza is Latina!

Actor Aubrey Plaza

Today, I’m veering away from Comedy Week to talk about briefly about race at the movies.

Yesterday I went with a friend to see Safety Not Guaranteed, a quirky little film about three reporters trying to get to the bottom of a mysterious man seeking a time traveling partner. I liked everything about it: the performances, storyline, soundtrack. I recommend it! You can see the trailer here.

[Quick aside: It was a miracle that I managed to enjoy the movie at all because two elderly white ladies sitting directly behind us giggled at every single thing that happened in the movie. And I mean everything. A character stacks soup cans? Giggle. A character sneezes? Giggle. A car drives past some trees? Giggle. I had already shushed their loud chatter during the previews, but I was not prepared for the constant giggling once the film was underway. Yes, the movie is a comedy, but not every single minute is meant to be laugh-out-loud. At first I chalked it up to white privilege (not giving a damn about other people's movie experience), but looking back, I suspect that they were high. In which case, go grandmas!]

The lead character of Safety, Darius, is played by Aubrey Plaza, an actor and comedian who I guess is a regular on the TV show Parks and Recreation. Before this movie, I’d only seen her in the film Funny People. She strikes me as the smart, semi-hipsterish, a little awkward, dead-pan humor type. As I watched the film, I felt a connection to her simply out of gratitude that here was a different looking actress on the screen, in a lead role, no less. Don’t get me wrong, she’s totally gorgeous, but just not in the usual mainstream way:

Plaza as Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed

Today, in preparing to write about the film, I googled her name and discovered that she’s Latina. Her father is Puerto Rican, and she has described herself as “the only diverse” kid in her hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. “Aha!” I thought, “I knew there was something extra special about her!”

Notably, in an interview with David Letterman, her ethnicity doesn’t come up as a topic of conversation at all. Meanwhile, what George Lopez describes as her “exotic makeup” is one of the main issues during her visit to his show, Lopez Tonight. Ugh! Lopez uses one of my most hated keywords, “exotic.” It’s bad enough when white people describe us as exotic, but et tu, George?

Plaza admits that many people are surprised to find out that she’s Puerto Rican. “It comes out of me when I drink,” she jokes her in deadpan way. “I get really spicy.” This part of the interview starts at 1:15 in the video:

It’s interesting to think of Plaza as being on a continuum of Latina beauty, one that’s far outside of what people imagine when they hear “Latina” generally or, in this case, Puerto Rican specifically. In the eyes of the mainstream, being Latina is most accurately represented by someone like JLo, with more tan skin:

The one and only JLo

Though–ahem–let’s not forget that JLo was not always she of the straight, golden hair:

Jennifer Lopez, still fresh off “the block”

Of course, there are also those gorgeous Puertroriqueñas like Rosie Perez, as seen here in the opening to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing:

And let’s not forget afro-caribeñas like Zoe Saldana, who, at the other end of the Latina beauty spectrum from Plaza, is also so far outside the mainstream’s idea of what constitutes “Latina” that she can be reasonably cast as a southern African American sorority girl in Drumline:

Not that I see myself as a spokesperson for all Latinas, but I’m happy to welcome Aubrey Plaza to the umbrella term that is “Latina.” For in supporting performances like hers in Safety Not Guaranteed, we have a chance to broaden people’s assumptions about what Latinas look like, how they sound, and how they act. There’s no one way to define us. And that’s a good thing. I hope she keeps winning new fans and surprising them when they discover her mixed ethnicity.