Esther Cepeda: Some refuse to be boxed in on ethnicity
CHICAGO -- There is an overlooked gem of a movie called “Extract” featuring a subplot that can best be described as “Hispanic in Name Only.”
Written and directed by Mike Judge—a master of illustrating our hilariously absurd American culture—the 2009 film features a character called Brad Chavez. Brad’s name becomes a recurring joke throughout the film.
Joel, the lead character, is urgently trying to get a hold of Brad on the phone. But neither he nor his friend Dean can find Brad’s number.
Joel: “What’s the boy’s last name? I’ll call information.”
Dean: “Ummmm, I don’t remember, it’s a Mexican name.”
Joel: “Mexican?! For Christ’s sake, Dean, the guy’s got blond hair and blue eyes. C’mon!”
Dean: “I thought it was strange, too, a guy who looks like that had a Mexican last name. But I don’t judge people, y’know? I mean, it might not have been Mexican, could have been a Filipino name — I think it’s Lopez. Uhh, or Sanchez. Uhh, or Gutierrez.”
Brad Chavez is sprinkled throughout a movie that lightheartedly touches upon the tensions between Latin American immigrant factory workers and their native-born co-workers.
Judge uses the “all-American” looking Brad, who doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish and acts like any other coddled, slightly ditzy “gringo,” to make the point that the differences in culture between Mexicans and Americans will fade away after a few generations of assimilation and intermarriage.
Hispanics are already fighting among themselves over these very issues of who is Hispanic or Latino or worse, Hispanic or Latino “enough” to represent their interests in a society that doesn’t understand there’s no such thing as a cohesive, demographically similar “Hispanic community.”
All one has to do to rile a group of Hispanics is mention the names of blond, blue-eyed Cameron Diaz or Canadian-born Ted Cruz (both descendants of Cubans)—or even the topic of whether you have to speak Spanish fluently to “really” be Hispanic (San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has become the perfect example of this particular gem)—and there will be an overly tense discussion of what constitutes a “true Hispanic.”
The “Hispanic in Name Only” has a few corollary archetypes. There’s the “Professional Hispanic”—think of any actor, actress or so-called Latino leader you might know who unapologetically represents what some might consider a stereotypical or traditional Latino.
Then there are what I call “Non-Ethnic Hispanics.” They really are Hispanic, but their work and success isn’t about, dependent on, or defined by their ethnicity.
In the entertainment world there’s songstress Christina Aguilera (Ecuadorian father, like me) and TV teen idol Selena Gomez (dad is Mexican). Neither is a “Latina musician” or “Latina actress,” or has a strictly (or even mostly) Hispanic fan base. Ask their fans about them and the last thing they’ll bring up, if it comes up at all, is their heritage. It’s not an issue.
Which brings us to what made me think of Brad Chavez in the first place.
I just learned that the musical group Red Hot Chili Peppers will be playing in the aging rock star jubilee known as the Super Bowl halftime show, alongside the uber-popular singer Bruno Mars.
To me, Mars represents a new Hispanic archetype. The “Let’s-Not-Go-There Hispanic.”
You see, Mars didn’t just luck into his catchy stage name; it’s his own concoction.
Causing a bit of “Hispanic community” angst, Mars told GQ magazine last year that although he was born Peter Hernandez in Hawaii to a Puerto Rican-Jewish percussionist from Brooklyn and a singer/dancer from the Philippines, he did not want to embark on an artistic career battling the stereotype of being Hispanic at a very Hispanic moment in this country’s history.
He told GQ he simply got tired of hearing: “Your last name’s Hernandez, maybe you should do this Latin music, this Spanish music. … Enrique’s [Iglesias] so hot right now.” Instead, he avoided typecasting by taking an out-of-this-world name.
Some might take offense at such a “denial,” but they’d better get used to it. There is a coming wave of young people from mixed or different backgrounds who simply want to be celebrated for their talent or skill and not for how they categorized themselves on the Census questionnaire.
Let us welcome them with open arms instead of trying to shove them into a neat racial or ethnic box.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.