Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse “Go Mexican” on Independence Day
Who woulda thunk it? Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse served as the Honorary Grand Marshals of this year’s Mexican Independence Day Parade in East L.A. The ratoncitos actually played second fiddle to the mero mero Grand Marshal of the Parade – the ubiquitous Edward James Olmos (from “Zoot Suit” to “Battlestar Galactica.”) In the comunidád, Eddie Olmos has become almost as recognizable as Hollywood icon as Mickey Mouse. But what a trip, right? Mickey and Minnie as stars of the Independence Day Parade in East Los, the parade that’s been organized annually for years by the Comité Mexicano Cívico y Patriotico. (That’s always been a mouthful for me to say.)
And the giddy appearance of the two iconic mice in the Mexican Independence Day Parade brings to mind Disney’s quixotic and revealing relationship with Latino media imagery over the years. It also brings to mind the varied relationship Hollywood has had with Latinos and the image of Latinos over the one-hundred years of professional movie making.
Mickey Mouse and his stable of homies, notably Donald Duck and Goofy, were long ago enlisted in the Good Neighbor Policy hatched during World War II. Fascinating historical stuff. Consider the context of the times. The United States and its WWII Allies were terrified that Latin America would side with the fascists. (Imagine Mickey goose-stepping to a Wagnerian beat beneath a giant swastika.) The United States took some assertive steps to keep the millions of Latin Americans (who were huge consumers of Hollywood made movies, by the way) from joining Hitler and Mussolini and remaining “on our side.” The U.S. State Department picked up the phone and called none other than Walt Disney himself. They dubbed him “America’s Goodwill Ambassador” and dispatched him to Latin American, complete with film cameras and a big production staff of writers and storyboard artists.
The goal of that mission was to convince nervous Latin Americans (who were big filmgoers) that their interests lay with the gringos and not the Axis Powers. The avuncular Walt met with heads of state and made personal appearances with “the people.” And his acolytes took copious notes and shot pictures of historical landmarks including Machu Picchu, all in preparation for films intended to further the goals of the “goodwill tour.”
In short order, the result was two films. The first one, “Saludos Amigos” was released in 1942 in Latin America and a year later in the U.S. The film is a slightly bizarre amalgam of newsreel documentary-like footage of smartly dressed men and women in the modern big cities of several South American countries, along with Disney animation. There is, for example, a little Chilean cartoon airplane named Pedro who can’t complete his tasks because he’s rather shy and a bit inept. (Chileans did not warm up to this character. I wonder why.)
There’s another scene in which Donald Duck pokes about with a headstrong llama that’s as stubborn as a mule. The wacky scene takes place on the shores of Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia. (I just like to say Titicaca.) (I also like to say hockey puck over and over again, but that’s quite a different story.)
Overall, the film and the ersatz ambassadorial tour by Uncle Walt himself seemed to accomplish its goals: promoting good vibes between the United States and Latin American countries – from Argentina to Brazil to Chile. (This, even though the U.S. had long – arrogantly, I might add – expropriated the term “American” for itself.) Good neighbors in the Good Neighbor Policy campaign. The endeavor was underwritten by the State Department and additional feria was thrown in by Nelson Rockefeller, whose family and companies clearly had a particular interest in the exploitable natural resources and economies of Latin America.
The relatively positive reaction to “Saludos Amigos” led to a more elaborate feature film whose goal was nurturing positive Western Hemispheric relations – the animated film “The Three Caballeros.” It was released in 1944. It’s an ambitious cinematic endeavor, which combines animation with live action in several simulated Latin American environments. (We don’t get to see Carmen Miranda perform, but we do get to see her sister – Aurora Miranda – dance a samba with a hat of bananas on her head.) Hey, and given our 21st century good neighbor policy with the LGBT community, it’s quite a kick to see Donald Duck and his partners sing, “We’re three caballeros, three gay caballeros, we’re three happy chappies, with snappy serapes.”
The film has Donald Duck ogling señoritas as he dances and sings with birds of a feather Joe Carioca, the Brazilian parrot, and Pancho the Mexican rooster. Oh, and we get to see Goofy trying his hand at being a gaucho in Argentina’s pampas region. It’s a kick to watch; it almost makes you wanna smoke pot again. Lots of laughs, but the unmistakable sub textual thread imposed by Walt Disney is “United States good, Axis Powers bad.” Leni Riefenstahl couldn’t have been more effective.
The Disney entertainment machine – and the Hollywood movie factory in general – always looked eagerly to Latin America as a source of cultural consumerism. There was money to be made entertaining the millions upon millions of Spanish speakers. The goal has always been making money, but some interesting history was made along the way as well. Take the tale of El Gordo y el Flaco, aka Laurel and Hardy. As a kid I always wondered why Stan and Ollie were so popular among Mexicans of my mother’s generation. (We’d watch the Laurel and Hardy movies on Saturday morning TV in the 1960s.)
I later learned that cinematic history provided the answer to the enduring popularity of Laurel and Hardy among Mexicans in the United States. (The films were funny, that’s for sure.) But it turns out the Hal Roach Studies, which produced the Laurel and Hardy films, made an early, conscientious effort to make the duo popular in Mexico and the rest of Spanish-speaking Latin America.
In the very early days of talkies, Hal Roach himself supervised a campaign to make Laurel and Hardy popular south of the border by having them shoot additional scenes actually speaking Spanish. Stan and Laurel read off of cue cards and often didn’t really understanding what they were saying. They recited the Spanish lines phonetically. And those films were a big hit in Latin America. Sure, Laurel and Hardy butchered the language, but that seemed to endear them all the more to the audiences south of the border. Who woulda thunk it? Advertisers today are probably nodding their head and reciting the mantra of salesmanship: “Know your audience.”
The Laurel and Hardy Spanish-language experience also brings to mind another bit of celluloid history that’s pretty trippy. This involves the Spanish-language “Dracula” movie. It was the result of a rather innovative approach concocted by the studio heads at Universal. They knew about the enormous potential of the Latin American market of moviegoers. They had a very hot property in Bram Stoker’s book and hoped it would attract big audiences in the United States, but they also hoped to broaden the tent and include Latin American audiences.
So, they decided to shoot an English-language version and a Spanish-language version of “Dracula” practically simultaneously. Here’s how it would work: during the day the cast and crew would shoot scenes for the English “Dracula” then the “night shift” would take over. During the wee hours of the night, using the same sets and props, the Spanish-speaking cast and crew would shoot its version of “Dracula.” The cast comprised mostly Mexican and Argentine actors. Both films were released in 1931 and remember, these were among the first all-talking films. They were both smash hits with their audiences.
The Spanish-language “Dracula” was actually lost for decades. It was unearthed in a long forgotten vault in the 1970s. It is hard to find, but it is available now on DVD. Believe me, it’s a trip to watch. It is a darker version than the Todd Browning version and it is certainly a sexier version than the “American” version. In fact, many critics have suggested that what I call the Mexican “Dracula” is superior to the “regular” version starring Bela Lugosi. (Mr. I Never Drink, pause, Wine.) Get your hands on the DVDs and judge for yourself.
Despite the seeming absence of positive Latino images on the screen today, the Hollywood outreach to the Latino community continues to this day. They want to reach us as consumers, but they don’t quite know how.
That outreach to the Latino community is why you see Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse serving as Honorary Grand Marshals in the East L.A. Mexican Independence Day Parade. And perhaps it’s a positive sign of the times that the two ratones didn’t get top billing at the parade. That honor went to Eddie Olmos. Who woulda thunk it?
Luís Torres is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian.” He is at work on a book about the former students of calculus teacher Jaime Escalante.