Archive for April, 2008


One Crazy Mexican

Recently, I was introduced to the art of Martin Ramirez. His strange and twisted life story can be summarized as follows:

A young Mexican man comes to the United States in 1925 to find work. Years later, the Great Depression hits, he winds up on the street, and he gets picked up the cops. He is thrown into a nuthouse in California, where he lives for the rest of his life. Over the course of his 32 years in a mental institution, he creates some of the most stunning artwork of the era. With no formal training, and often, without any art supplies beyond stray objects that he found in the building, he creates mesmerizing images that address immigration, poverty, and insanity. He has public exhibitions of his work, and critics hail him as brilliant. Yet his schizophrenia is so severe that he rarely speaks to anyone, and he never comprehends that his pictures have provoked such adoration in the outside world. He dies, still insane as fuck, in 1963 at the age of 68.

If he had been a crazy Brit or a mad German, would his treatment in America have been the same? Might his genius be better recognized and nurtured today, rather than shut off in a padded cell? And what of our social services that took care of an immigrant instead of chucking him back across the border? How would that work in the current political climate?

These are all valid questions, but all I can offer in this post is a gateway to his art. Looking at his work makes you feel like you’re taking a warped train ride (one of his favorite reoccurring motifs) through a tortured imagination, destination unknown or even irrelevant. If you get a chance, check out a Ramirez exhibition, and let the Fanatic know what you think of it.


Grab Your Maracas and Come with Me

My cousin loves the music of Tom Waits. I never saw her more excited on Christmas, in fact, than the year her sister gave her a copy of Big Time as a gift.

My cousin can groove to any tunes she wants to, of course, because she’s a Latina. It’s one of the few times that it’s advantageous to have a fuzzier, less-distinct cultural image.

If she were black, for example, exclaiming an admiration for Frank’s Wild Years would cause perplexity, and possibly outright hostility. Similarly, white people are given wide latitude in what they listen to, but if they get too far into hip-hop it comes across as slumming or co-option or a grotesque absurdity that makes all of us nervous (spare me your exceptions).

But an Hispanic can crank anything and it fits. I have another cousin who admires Johnny Cash, another who blares Ministry, and another who only listens to extended DJ remixes of techno blips and beeps (which are sounds that I’m sure will replace waterboarding as an interrogation technique).

All of it lines up, but none of it does too. So bring on the classic rock or blare some jazz or trip back to disco, because everything is equally representative.

The few Hispanic artists out there don’t present a unified front. I grew up listening to Carlos Santana, but his music is no more or less Latino-centric than Daddy Yankee, who is, of course, quite a bit different stylistically. You can go old-school with Tito Puente or Celia Cruz, but by their very nature, these artists bring up images of foreign lands and warm climates that our ancestors left behind to come to America in the first place.

So there is no music specifically associated with the Hispanic American, like hip-hop with black people or, I don’t know, The Carpenters with white people. But is this such a bad thing?

Truth be told, it’s a relief to have one aspect of life not subjected to the whims of cultural categorization. And if this is one of the few ways in which Hispanics have it easier than other ethnicities, I’ll take it. Plus, it makes it a lot easier to explain the diverse and occasionally embarrassing contents of my ipod, should it ever fall into the wrong hands.

But writing about this got me thinking about Darius Rucker. I always felt bad for the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish. It was all over for him, culturally, the moment he strummed an acoustic guitar and began getting all James Taylor on everybody. He became a curiosity, even a freak. That never would have happened if he had wised up and claimed to be a very dark Cuban. 


Kill the Messenger

When I lived in Southern California, I resembled most residents in that I spent way too much time on the freeways, to the point where numbers (eg, 405 and 101) became not indicators of specific routes but destinations in and of themselves. The 10 was my endpoint, and the 134 to Pasadena was a state of being.

One evening, I was a passenger in a car driven by an Anglo friend, and we were doing the LA crawl on the bumper-to-bumper freeway. He mentioned that, because there was more than one person in the car, we could work our way over to the carpool lane and zip past the traffic.

As he maneuvered toward this nirvana of speedy access, I smirked and said, “That’s the great thing about being Hispanic in California. I mean, the carpool lane only requires two or more people? Most of us have three times that many just in the front seats.”

He didn’t laugh. And we drove on in silence.


Introducing the BITCA

At my white-collar bastion of normalcy, the day job, one of my filing cabinets is off its hinges. It hangs askew but is otherwise functional. I believe that its aesthetic ugliness is not worth the hassle to get it fixed.

One of my co-workers, however, noticed the damage, provoking her to say, “What is it with you Hispanics? If it’s not cars on blocks on the lawn, it’s busted filing cabinets in the office.”

In light of this observation, I will henceforth refer to this woman as the Bitch In The Cubicle Adjacent, or the BITCA. It forms an acronym so descriptive that it’s almost redundant.

But allow me a moment of clarification and perhaps confession. I don’t really think she’s a bitch. In fact, BITCA is my best friend in the place. But when I told her I was starting a blog, she declared that she would soon insult me in the hopes of snagging a mention on the site. She even told me she wanted to be referred to as a bitch, and she seemed rather overjoyed at the possibility of internet notoriety.

I broke it to her that a plain insult wouldn’t do, because we do that to each other every day and, more important, it wouldn’t relate to the theme of this blog (i.e., Hispanicness, Latinotude, etc.). So she vowed to come up with something racial.

Bear in mind that this is a white woman raised in Montana. My contribution to her cultural awareness so far has been teaching her the phrase “Hola, vato!”

But she followed through on her vow. And she has succeeded in making me write about her, although her insult was strained from the start because I could tell she was just reaching for something inflammatory. It lacked sincerity and vituperation, but it got the job done.

In any case, I will write more about the BITCA in the future. But she can consider herself fully introduced.


The Best Drinking Game, Like, Ever!

So I was early in my tenure as a lowly editorial assistant at a New York City publishing house. At this particular company, 5:01 pm of each Friday marked The Running of The EAs. At that moment, every poorly compensated editorial assistant in the building sprinted for the elevator. I myself once came close to leaving my footprint in the chest of my boss, who had gotten between me and the exit with her banal wish that I “have a nice weekend.”

Once we hit the street, the EAs swarmed around one another in an unruly mob. We were like hopped-up worker ants without a queen, temporarily mystified about what to do next. We bounced around in random conversation, annoyed the passerby on Fifth Avenue, and spilled over into the street until finally, one of us asked what bar we were hitting tonight.

Because this was one of my first jobs out of college, I figured that every company was like this. It seemed that a staple of corporate life was that dozens of fun people regularly met outside the doors of their building, then walked to a bar together, where they would get drunk or make out with each other or get their all-time favorite song played repeatedly on the jukebox until it all broke up through exhaustion or the need for actual food (usually around midnight). Needless to say, a decade removed from both my twenties and New York City, I see that quitting time more often means shuffling to the parking lot and revving up the SUV for the long, solo ride home.

But at this point in history, it was all about going to a Greenwich Village hole with your peers. So I walked with them down the streets and avenues of Manhattan, a roving band of merrymakers who had little in common besides the fact that we all hated our jobs and were really loud.

When we got to the bar (an old favorite) on this night, we quickly took over the backroom by the pool table, which was our custom. To my concern, however, we had apparently used up all our witty banter on the walk through the Village, and now we had nothing to say. Perhaps it was because were only on the second round, so the alcohol hadn’t yet kicked in.

Regardless, it was going to be awhile before someone got drunk enough to say something idiotic or profound or both. So I took it upon myself to jumpstart conversation.

“OK, everybody,” I said. “Guess my race!”

One would think that, with the fragile state of race relations in this country, such a demand would prompt even more awkward silence or perhaps some aghast stares. In certain company, it’s more proper to grab an acquaintance’s hand and blow your nose into it while revealing a dark sexual secret. At least then you wouldn’t have to talk about race.

But this was a young, multiracial crowd in New York City, and I figured the odds were in my favor. Indeed, I had barely finished saying the words before an EA shouted, “Korean!”

“Wrong,” I said. “Drink up.”

“Iranian!” said another.

“Drink up.” I responded.

“Mexican,” an EA yelled.

“Be more specific,” I said. “Or less. Either way, drink up.”

It wasn’t long, of course, before I heard “Hispanic,” and I said that I would have also accepted Latino or El Salvadoran. But the game was on. For awhile, we swigged beer and shouted at each other about our ancestors.

Was that EA really Lithuanian-Brazilian? Was the other one half-black, half-white? And was Jewish a sufficient answer to a drinking game based on race? By the time we got to the Japanese-German girl, conversation was flowing more easily, and my job was done.

We never played the game again, and I’m sure that by the end of the evening, most EAs had forgotten who was a quarter-Swedish and who had been raised by a Puerto Rican stepfather.

But maybe we had opened a dialogue on the thorniest issue facing our great country, which would lead to major breakthroughs and the resolution of all the problems that gnaw at our national character.

Or perhaps it was just a way to speed up getting shit-faced on a Friday night.

Yes, I’m sure that was it.

And in any case, unlike old standbys such as “President” or “I Never,” this drinking game has a fundamental flaw. With any given crowd, you can only play it once.


More Fun Than a Barrel of Homo Sapiens

The most wretched sounds in creation are reserved for the phrase “like fingernails on a blackboard.” Despite the fact that blackboards are antiquated (does anybody even use them anymore?), the simile holds up across generations. So why does this noise inspire such universal pain and queasiness?

Well, evolutionary scientists have pointed out that the screech of fingernails on a blackboard is similar to the howls of certain monkeys, who reserve the shriek for emergency situations, such as when a predator is approaching. The theory, then, is that our primate ancestors let loose with a spine-chilling cacophony to give the subtle message “Holy shit! A leopard is closing in, let’s get the fuck out of here!” Millions of years later, a portion of our brain tells us that this particular noise is bad and it’s time to freak out.


It’s a fascinating theory, and one that verifies our common ancestry. It’s something to think about as we divide into our respective tribes and bellow at each other over minor differences in skin color or facial characteristics or vocal inflection.

If we’re all just monkeys in the same troop, why are we brimming with hostility for one another? If we could band together millions of years ago for the good of our species on the Serengeti Plain, why do so many of us melt down if the next-door neighbor turns out to be darker or lighter than us?

At one point, we could get along, but as our supposedly big brains developed, we turned on each other. The group has fragmented, with homicidal results that you’ll never see in a capuchin. It’s enough to make Darwin weep.

By the way, our monkey ancestry is also theorized to be the reason why total strangers feel compelled to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. It’s apparently a drive in primates to verify that the baby inside is ok and that the next generation will be healthy. So if you’re pregnant and get annoyed whenever somebody reaches for a belly rub, just let out a howler monkey screech and watch the offender scurry into the treetops.


Like Mars Needs Women, Peru Needs Artifacts (and Yale Needs Lawyers)

This relates to one of my earlier posts. The fascination with the Incas continues. However, in this case, it is not the imagery of ancient empires or the mystery of vanished civilizations or the majesty of complex cultures that is provoking heated discussion.

It’s that Peru wants the return of a bunch of crumbled bones that were spirited out of the country a century ago. Apparently, Yale University either miscounted or outright lied about the number of artifacts they have from the ghost city of Machu Picchu, which was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World last year. Now, Peru is pissed, and it wants the items back.

The case brings up the whole unpleasant history of cultural misappropriation and historical theft that afflicted much of Latin America. After pre-Columbian societies disappeared or were conquered, they were often rediscovered centuries later by Americans or Europeans, who then took it for granted that they could do whatever they wanted with the remains. Only now are people acknowledging the rights of host countries to their own histories.

Who do these artifacts belong to? Who gets to decide what gets put in a museum and what’s too sacred to disturb? Are apologies for lifting these artifacts warranted? What is the role of money in all this?

With hope, we’ll get the answers to these questions before a Starbucks opens on Machu Picchu, which you know is just a matter of time.

April 2008
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