No Laughing Matter
Anti-Latino humor enters the mainstream
Late night funny man Conan O?σΤιΌΤδσBrien recently tickled his studio audience as he touched on immigration, a hot button topic heard with growing frequency on late night talk shows: ?σΤιΌ?τA man in Mexico weighing 1,200 pounds has lost almost half that weight and might enter the Guinness Book of World Records for most weight lost. The Mexican man lost the weight when the family inside him moved to America.?σΤιΌ?Ψ Then at the Emmys on September 16, O?σΤιΌΤδσBrien, who won an award, provided a clip of his writing team depicted as Latino day-laborers.
Published on LatinoLA: November 27, 2007
During a ?σΤιΌ?τNew Rules?σΤιΌ?Ψ segment of his show broadcast in late August, liberal late nighter Bill Maher went to the well of immigrant humor: ?σΤιΌ?τNew Rule: No more produce-scented shampoo: avocado, cucumber, watermelon. Gee, your hair smells like a migrant worker.?σΤιΌ?Ψ
Jay Leno, who has gone out of his way to tell people, ?σΤιΌ?τI?σΤιΌΤδσm not a conservative,?σΤιΌ?Ψ has also joined in. During a show in mid-September, he joked, ?σΤιΌ?τWell, police across the country now say they?σΤιΌΤδσre arresting more and more illegals who are prostitutes. But proponents say, ?σΤιΌ?£No, no. They?σΤιΌΤδσre just doing guys American hookers will not do.?σΤιΌΤδσ?σΤιΌ?Ψ
And during a recent sketch making light of Latino criticisms of Ken Burns for his exclusion of the more than 500,000 Latino veterans in the filmmaker?σΤιΌΤδσs epic War documentary, Jimmy Kimmel deployed images of sombrero-wearing Speedy Gonzalez?σΤιΌΤΗ£a cartoon long considered racist by Chicano activists?σΤιΌΤΗ£yelling ?σΤιΌ?τArriba. Arriba.?σΤιΌ?Ψ Kimmel?σΤιΌΤδσs shtick includes placing parking lot attendant Guillermo (pictured) in compromising positions as when the heavily accented Latino immigrant participates in spelling bee contests with young champions. In another humiliating sketch, Kimmel begs him, ?σΤιΌ?τPlease do not resort to violence.?σΤιΌ?Ψ
While the immigration debate in Congress ended months ago, the immigrant jokes haven?σΤιΌΤδσt. This is not so much because the late night hosts are at the tail end of a political trend, but because they are, in fact, at the front end of a major cultural trend: the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Immigrant rights activists have concentrated much energy on challenging rightwing radio as well as blatantly racist, formerly fringe video games like ?σΤιΌ?τBorder Patrol?σΤιΌ?Ψ in which players shoot immigrants for points. But little attention is paid to the more mainstream fare: Top-selling video games in which white good guys kill immigrant bad guys and black and Latino zombies; popular television shows like NBC?σΤιΌΤδσs The Office, in which immigrant characters are ridiculed for their accents, nationality, and other traits; movies like the supernatural thriller Constantine or last year?σΤιΌΤδσs comic hit Nacho Libre, in which immigrant characters embody evil and stupidity.
The proliferation of anti-immigrant messages in pop culture moved UCLA linguist Otto Santa Ana to study what he calls an ?σΤιΌ?τexplosion?σΤιΌ?Ψ of anti-immigrant representations in pop culture.
?σΤιΌ?τThere?σΤιΌΤδσve always been racist, anti-Latino stereotypes in the media, but things are getting quite bad now,?σΤιΌ?Ψ says Santa Ana, who started documenting anti-immigrant language and imagery he found in California newspapers in 1993, the year that launched the political battles around that state?σΤιΌΤδσs Proposition 187, which sought to deny education and social services to the undocumented and their children.
Since then, says Santa Ana, anti-immigrant themes have become more intense.
In his efforts to document these trends, Santa Ana, author of Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse, and several of his students have gathered more than 100 YouTube clips that he says represent only a small portion of a growing number of ?σΤιΌ?τextraordinarily racist, anti-immigrant jokes and other content in sitcoms, film, standup comedy, and other mediums.?σΤιΌ?Ψ Santa Ana?σΤιΌΤδσs collection includes a wide spectrum of mainstream programming and movies.
?σΤιΌ?τSome of the clips will make you laugh,?σΤιΌ?Ψ he says. ?σΤιΌ?τBut once you see the stream of those clips, you stop laughing. You see ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and then you recognize that they?σΤιΌΤδσre actually laughing at you.?σΤιΌ?Ψ
In an episode on Fox?σΤιΌΤδσs popular Family Guy animated comedy, for example, a couple of bandanad, knife-wielding, Chicano-accented gangster cockroaches in a dirty motel threaten intruders by saying, ?σΤιΌ?τHey, you?σΤιΌΤδσre on our turf, man,?σΤιΌ?Ψ and, ?σΤιΌ?τHey, man, I gonna cut you up so bad, you gonna wish I no cut you up so bad.?σΤιΌ?Ψ One of the white characters responds, ?σΤιΌ?τI blame the schools.?σΤιΌ?Ψ
In a different episode, after Peter Griffin, the family guy, complains about another character, ?σΤιΌ?τHe?σΤιΌΤδσs a bigger mooch than the Mexican Super-friends,?σΤιΌ?Ψ the scene moves to a tall, crowded building called the ?σΤιΌ?τMexican Hall of Justice?σΤιΌ?Ψ that is packed with people. A white landlord walks up to Mexican Superman and says, ?σΤιΌ?τHey, Mexican Superman, when you signed the lease, you said there were only going to be five of you here.?σΤιΌ?Ψ
Or take the Academy Award-winning hit Happy Feet. Santa Ana explains how the protagonist, Mumble, a blue-eyed emperor penguin, leads a group of bungling, Spanish-accented, smaller, weaker penguins known in the film as the Amigos. Mumble is exiled from his land and scapegoated by elders for allegedly causing a fish famine. Mumble then vows to find the ?σΤιΌ?τaliens?σΤιΌ?Ψ that, he says, are the true cause of the famine. Along the way, Mumble, says Santa Ana, has to ?σΤιΌ?τteach?σΤιΌ?Ψ what is right and wrong to the Amigos. ?σΤιΌ?τIt?σΤιΌΤδσs striking to see these penguins speaking in Mexican accents, walking funny, and being subservient,?σΤιΌ?Ψ he says.
Santa Ana worries about the effects on his students, most of whom said at the beginning of the class that they enjoyed and even bought the Happy Feet DVD. He also worries about the effect of the $384 million blockbuster on children worldwide, many of whom will also play the Happy Feet game that is part of the gigantic and expansive world of video, a more interactive world that may portend the future of funny and not-so-funny depictions of immigrants.
Depictions of Latino immigrants do not all fall into the negative category, however. The Emmy award-winning Ugly Betty sitcom treats immigrant and immigration in a funny yet respectful manner. It?σΤιΌΤδσs no accident that the show is produced by immigrant Salma Hayek. A new video game, ?σΤιΌ?τICED! I Can End Deportation,?σΤιΌ?Ψ developed by the New York-based nonprofit Breakthrough, turns players into undocumented immigrants as they flee from cruel border patrol agents. The same Spanish-language radio jocks who played definitive roles in last year?σΤιΌΤδσs immigrant mobilizations are continuing citizenship and voter registration campaigns. Comedians such as George Lopez draw attention to racial issues in much the same way African American comedians have done for decades. Columnists such as Gustavo Arellano, who writes the popular ?σΤιΌ?τAsk a Mexican,?σΤιΌ?Ψ similarly use judo-like methods to deflect and draw attention to an anti-immigrant streak that grows.
For his part, Santa Ana, who lives in Los Angeles, takes the long view: ?σΤιΌ?τIn twenty or thirty years we will be absolutely astonished that people could consume these racist depictions.?σΤιΌ?Ψ
Roberto Lovato is a contributing associate editor with New America Media. He is also a frequent contributor to The Nation. His email is email@example.com.