Stereotypes are not funny…
A subscriber to a Listserv I am a member of recently criticized Jewish comedians from yesteryear for having invoked Mexican stereotypes in their routines. He’s right to protest the stereotyping of our community. But comedians stereotyping Mexican Americans is not a Jewish phenomenon. Mexican American comedians such as George López, Paul Rodríguez, and Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias routinely invoke Mexican stereotypes as part of their respective routines. Their purpose – as well as that of the Jewish comedians, I believe – is to get some chuckles, not to demean or bring harm to our community.
But stereotypes are no laughing matter and should not be part of the routine of any comedian. Stereotypes have been used to justify all manner of anti-Mexican attitudes and actions from the time of the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s. Mexicans in the Southwest became U. S. citizens as a result of that war but were treated as foreigners, as a dominated people. Franz Fanon, an expert in the human dynamics of colonization, explains that a common strategy used to dominate a people is to demean and belittle the people and their culture and history. (Source 1)
Vagabonds, lazy, primitive, we herd them like pigs…
Although the Mexican people in the U.S. were not “colonized” in a formal sense, they were treated and talked about as if they were. In “With the Ears of Strangers: The Mexican in American Literature,” Cecil Robinson provides many examples of how the Mexican people were seen and described in American writings right before and after the Mexican-American War. A few representative ones:
* A U.S. Army lieutenant wrote in an 1848 report that, “(The Mexicans are) beyond comparison the laziest and most ignorant set of vagabonds the world produces.”
* An author of the 1800s feared that Mexicans would never be absorbed into American society because “They pertinaceously cling to the customs of their forefathers…Give them but tortillas, frijoles, and chile colorado to supply their animal wants for the day, and seven-tenths of the Mexicans are satisfied.
* Another American writer in 1864 stated that “Some few of the Mexicans have the good sense to fall in with the spirit of progress; but the great majority draws back before it, and live upon the outskirts of the town in the primitive style of their forefathers.” (Source 2)
There are hundreds of other such quotes, but the above illustrate Fanon’s observation cited above. These views were not idle, private ruminations. They were reported in newspapers, magazines, and the like. And as advertisers know well, if something is repeated often enough it eventually looks like, and is taken to be, “truth.”
In 1948, a century after the Mexican-American War, historian Carey McWilliams observed that, “Mexicans [in the U.S.] are…a people whose culture has been under incessant attack for many years and whose character and achievements, as a people, have been consistently disparaged.” McWilliams noted that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, writers, politicians, and others painted an image of Mexicans as being of a “degraded” race made up of “idle, thriftless natives.” In that image, “…one can find the outline of the present-day stereotype of the Mexican.” (Source 3)
An example McWilliams provides is the following: In the early 1900s, Mexican American farm workers in California began organizing themselves into unions. Testifying before a legislative committee investigating confrontations between Mexican workers and growers, a deputy sheriff said: “We protect our farmers here in Kern County. They are our best people … But the Mexicans are trash. They have no standard of living. We herd them like pigs.” (Source 3)
Mexicans are violent…
In the 1940s, even as hundreds of thousands of Mexican American men enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces and distinguished themselves in World War II and Mexican American women sold war bonds and made many sacrifices in support of the WW II effort, the stereotyping of Mexican Americans went on. Law enforcement officials fomented and propagated a “Mexicans are violent” stereotype. In 1942, Captain E. D. Ayres, of the LASD Foreign Affairs Bureau (the LASD unit that focused on the Mexican American population), submitted to the Los Angeles Grand Jury a formal report that “explained” the causes of Mexican American juvenile delinquency.
Ayres told the grand jury that when “Caucasian” youth engage in fighting they resort to fisticuffs and an occasional kick, but that the “…Mexican element considers all that to be a sign of weakness, and all he knows and feels is a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon … When there is added to this inborn characteristic that has come down through the ages, the use of liquor, then we certainly have crimes of violence.” (emphasis added) (Source 3)
Thus it was that in the early 1940s, the news media in Los Angeles, egged on by politicians, portrayed Mexican American zoot suiters (aka Pachucos) as dangerous gang members who were capable of violence, including murder. As a result, a large portion of the non-Mexican community came to believe that Mexican American youths, and particularly the pachucos, were predisposed to committing crimes. This belief led to the 1942 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in which Mexican American zoot-suiters were beaten by U. S. servicemen and stripped of their zoot suits on the spot. Sometimes the zoot-suiters were urinated on and their zoot suits burned. A local newspaper even ran an article that detailed how to “de-zoot” a zoot-suiter and gave directions how zoot suits should be burned. The servicemen were portrayed by local newspapers as heroes fighting against what was referred to as a Mexican crime wave.
“Violent” stereotype has legs…
The stereotype of Mexican youth having violent tendencies “has legs,” as it were, and persists to this day. Just one example from my personal experience:
In the mid-1990s, I was an Assistant Dean of Students at the University of Arizona. A university police official made a presentation at Tucson High School, which is about 60% Chicano/a in composition and is my and my siblings’ alma mater. Subsequent to his visit to THS, the university student newspaper interviewed the police official, who said that THS was like a “war zone,” implying that many students had weapons and that he felt unsafe. And he said that THS students would no longer be allowed on the university campus.
I went to THS regularly to speak to classes. As a THS alumnus, I attended many sporting and other events at THS. Thus, I was on the THS campus often and knew that what the police official said was blatantly and totally untrue. [Without going into details, I had a major confrontation with the police official over this matter.]
On a broader scale, I believe stereotypical thinking by police is at play in the all-too-common phenomenon of police killing unarmed people of color – African Americans, American Indians, and Mexican Americans / Latinos. In my home state of Arizona, two recent cases of Mexican Americans killed by police have sparked demonstrations and calls for justice. In Tucson, a young Chicano was held by police face down with a hood over his head. He kept saying “I can’t breathe” until he died. In Phoenix, a young Chicano was shot by police as he sat in his car. Between 2016 and 2018, Latinos in California represented 46% of deadly police shootings while comprising 39% of the state population. Nationally, 16% of the people killed by police in 2017 were Latinos (112 Latinos out of 715 total police killings). [A recent report by University of Arizona professor Roberto Rodríguez suggests the number of Latinos killed by police is undercounted.]
I believe that too often police go into interactions with Mexican Americans with the stereotypical belief that we are probably armed, criminally inclined, and oriented toward violence.I end as I started: stereotypes are not funny and should not be bandied about by comedians, or anyone else for that matter. They are serious and can and do cause harm to people. We need to fight them wherever we encounter them – in comic routines, advertising, policies, political dynamics, etc. c/s
Copyright 2021 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: email@example.com
Source 1 Franz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1963.
Source 2 Cecil Robinson, With The Ears of Strangers: The Mexican In American Literature, Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1963.
Source 3 Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of The United States, Greenwood Press, New York, N.Y., 1968.
Photo of Paul Rodriguez image in the public domain. Photo of Zootsuiters copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc. Book covers used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law.