Archive for February, 2009


Going Back to Cali

There will be no new posts for about a week, while I briefly escape the clutches of a Midwestern winter for a quick trip to Los Angeles. Yes, I will be staying near the Kodak Theater, where they hand out the Oscars (see my previous posts on this). The irony is nice, but the warm weather will be nicer.

As usual when I take a break, I offer you a clip appropriate of nothing (or everything, depending on your adherence to Buddhist principles). Here is a video of military recruits (country unknown) who perform the worst set of jumping jacks in history.

See you soon.


Where’s My Rosary?

When my wife and I were married over a decade ago, we had the ceremony at a Methodist church. That we had it in a church at all was more about practicality than an indication of the depth of our religious feelings. A couple of hundred guests weren’t going to fit into an outdoor tent or in some other preferred secular location. So we went with my wife’s childhood religion.

This logistical decision did not go over well with some of my distant relatives. They were older and had been raised in the Catholic crucible of El Salvador, and their opinion of the ceremony was summed up by their non-attendance. I found out later that one great aunt said, “If they’re not getting married in a Catholic Church, they’re not really getting married.”

While my relatives’ reaction may have been extreme, it is not rare in Latino societies.  Hispanic culture and Catholic dogma are so intertwined that it is often difficult to separate them. If you haven’t noticed, this has become one of my favorite themes on this blog.

There are good explanations why Latinos are fanatical about the pope.

The historical reason is because the Spaniards brought their religion with them on the point of a sword when they colonized Latin America. Natives who knew what was good for them quickly abandoned their old gods and hailed Jesus. Over the course of a few generations, this forced conversion morphed into sincere belief.

The contemporary reason is that the Church serves as a bridge for immigrants to their new country, a way for them to ease into assimilation and carry some of the traditions with them. Even for first- or second-generation Hispanics, the church often serves as community foundation and social epicenter in a way that is rarely seen anywhere else in this country (with the possible exception of Baptists in the Deep South).

But there are problems with the Catholic Church’s hold on Latino society. For starters, any culture that emphasizes religion so much is bound to be less interested in more secular matters – such as the importance of education or the value of political clout or the practicality of having many children.

In addition, Hispanic Catholicism has a strangely fatalistic viewpoint, seen in the mindset of many Latinos who think that being poor is their destiny and that they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. Believing that God will take care of everything is one of the chief reasons that Latin American countries, and immigrants from those countries, have such a high tolerance for being pushed around.

There is also the weird disconnect between real-world behavior and Church priorities. In Hispanic culture, the mere act of stepping into the Church is often sufficient to prove one’s moral standing. Growing up, I knew gang members (or at least wannabes) who were praised as “good boys” solely because of their attendance at Church. Their presence, of course, was mandated by their parents, who cared little about what their kids did at other times of the week, as long as they were in the pews on Sunday.

Of course, there is one more negative consequence of Catholicism’s hold on Latino culture. Apparently, every painting by a Hispanic artist must have, at minimum, three images of La Virgen de la Guadalupe (seriously, is this a law or something?).


Despite these issues, however, Hispanic Catholics are not on the same theological plane as heavy hitters such as Christian fundamentalists or Hasidim Jews or Islamic theocrats. Latino Catholics are, for the most part, able to acknowledge the outside world and at least tolerate others.

As for those relatives who boycotted my wedding, they have gone about their Church-centric lives. They still attend Mass so frequently (i.e., at least once a day) that they have earned the Spanish appellation of “las cucarachas de la iglesia.” This is a poetic way of saying that even cockroaches don’t live in the church pews as much as they do.

I presume that the originator of the phrase was Catholic. Also, he apparently didn’t attend a very clean church.


We Love to Love You

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I want to give a shout out to all those Latin Lovers… Actually, let me stop there. What the hell is a Latin Lover anyway?

Whenever I hear the phrase, which has actually been pointed at me a couple of times, I think of some confident guy who charms roomfuls of women but regularly loses tracks of how many ladies he’s slept with that week. This is not me, by the way.

Other images come to mind. Is it the guy who snaps his heels together, plays flamenco guitar, and presents blushing ladies with roses? Or is it the player who flashes devilish smiles, tells oily lies to naïve women, and dumps trusting females eight seconds after ravishing them? Or is the guy who is open and expressive, has a sensitive-artist vibe, and respects women as well as lusts after them?

All of these images have, at one time or another, been presented. By the way, other Latino male archtypes – such as the uber-macho hombre, the mama’s boy, and the barrio thug, among many others – don’t traditionally fit the category of Latino Lover. So let’s leave them alone, for now.

Of course, there is also a female version of the Latin Lover. These are usually exotic beauties who beguile (what a great verb!) respectable, rational men. The guys are helpless in her presence, even though she inevitably is either poor, crazy, or up to no good – probably all three.

Regardless of gender, the Latin Lover is usually presented as, at best, a fling of simple passion. They really don’t have any emotional states beyond getting aroused and flying into jealous rages, and as such, they’re poor choices for long-term companionship.

In worst-case scenarios, the Latin Lover is an obstacle to the hero or heroine’s true love. Under such circumstances, the confused woman or blinded man eventually returns to his/her stable partner, kicking the lothario to the curb or ditching the dark-skinned mistress.

Like every other aspect of our culture, Hollywood has had an influence in shaping the iconography. After the imbroglio caused by my previous posts about Hispanic representation in the movies, I don’t want to get too much into it. Suffice to say that the original Latin Lover was probably Rudolf Valentino, the silent-film star who terrified/fascinated innocent waifs in the early days of cinema.

But Valentino was Italian, which leads to a question: How strict is the “latin” part of that equation? After all, we’ve seen many people of different ethnicities play this role – everyone from Antonio Banderas (a Spaniard) to Selma Hayek (a Mexican) to Johnny Depp (a white guy).



So perhaps being a Latin Lover is more a state of mind than an ethnic identity.  Still, its roots in ethnicity cannot be ignored. And this leads to larger questions.

For starters, is the image of the Latin Lover a stereotype? If so, is the modern definition confined to Hispanics, or as we have seen, can Italian or Greek or even hot white people be Latin Lovers?

Furthermore, if it is a stereotype of Hispanics, is it a positive or negative one? Or is the concept of a positive stereotype an absurd oxymoron? Really, how insulting is it – if it’s derogatory at all – to be called a Latin Lover?

As I mentioned in one of my first posts, my future mother-in-law, upon finding out that her daughter was dating a Hispanic guy, famously said, “Those Latins. They love ya, then they leave ya.” I should point out that my wife and I will soon celebrate our 18th anniversary. So I guess I’m not much of a Latin Lover, at least not according to my mother-in-law’s definition.

So let me ask a final set of questions. Are you a Latin Lover? Are you involved with one? And in either case, is that a good or bad thing?


The Doctor Is In

I’m a little late on this news item, but it’s worth noting.

The University of Texas System has picked Francisco Cigarroa, a transplant surgeon, to be their new chancellor. He becomes the first Hispanic to lead a large public university system in America.

I say congrats to Dr. Cigarroa. It’s always good to erase the phrase “no Latino has ever” from discussions of leadership and accomplishment. The man even had to accept a pay cut to take the job, so he must really want to do it.

Perhaps his appointment is some sort of karmic balancing act that offsets the withdrawal of Bill Richardson (aka, the most famous Latino leader) from Obama’s cabinet. By the way, I’m still not sure what Richardson did that was so egregious, but the convoluted nature of his offense indicates that it was more politically stupid than actively criminal.

In any case, Cigarroa’s new gig represents a milestone for Hispanic leadership. But it is also more than that. The doctor’s quote upon taking the job was telling.

“I believe education is the equalizer of all mankind,” Cigarroa said. “The fact that I am blessed by being Hispanic carries an important responsibility for being a mentor and role model.”

First off, I like the reference that one is “blessed by being Hispanic.” It doesn’t always feel that way.

More important, however, is Cigarroa’s subtle acknowledgement that part of his job is to push Hispanics to take advantage of education’s power. Latinos have lagged behind other groups when it comes to graduation rates, test scores, and advanced degrees. There are several reasons for this, ranging from the travails of immigrant life to overt racism (sorry people, it still exists).

But I’ve always believed that the chief culprit is self-created. The lack of respect, sometimes bordering on disdain, that education receives in Latino culture is alarming. I’ve written about this before, and no doubt will again.

I doubt that one person’s appointment will change the attitude of those Hispanic parents who simply don’t emphasize the importance of education to their kids. But at least one educator recognizes how vital it is. And it helps that he was once one of those kids and knows what he’s talking about.


Cousin #3

The incident so outraged our hometown that hostile letters to the editor appeared in the local paper. Writers were split over whether it meant the apocalypse or merely Armageddon, but at the very least, they agreed that it was a sickening travesty that delivered a sucker punch to the gut of God himself.

And much of it was the fault of Cousin #3, who was about ten years old.

Understand that Cousin #3 has always been an assertive woman. And like all bold women, she has been attacked for this trait by a society that would prefer females to be meek. Fortunately, like all bold women, she doesn’t really put up with anybody’s shit.

The reason for the outraged letters to the newspaper were because Cousin #3 and her sister, Cousin #1, had just become the first altar girls in the state and, quite possibly, in the country. This straying from Catholic dogma is what upset so many religious purists in our hometown. Of course, the controversy died down soon enough, and I don’t know if my cousins ever knew that people wrote in to condemn their actions (by the way, if they read this, they know it now).

Of all my relatives, I believe that Cousin #3 is the closest one to me in terms of personality. Perhaps this is not a collective compliment. We have both been accused of cynicism and even abrasiveness, as if these were not appropriate mindsets — perhaps even virtues –  in 21st-century America.

For example, when one of the cousins had a heart-rending breakup with a longtime girlfriend, Cousin #3 said, “You’re better off without her. You might think I’m an asshole for saying that. Well, I guess I’m an asshole then.”

Actually, Cousin #3 wasn’t being an asshole. She was just being ridiculously straightforward, assessing the truth as she saw it and passing it along – not out of maliciousness but in the hopes that it would set our grieving cousin free (by the way, this approach had mixed results).

For such directness, a relative once referred to Cousin #3 as “the girl who eats scorpions for breakfast.” The phrase is much prettier in Spanish and, I believe, meant as a compliment.

This is not to imply that Cousin #3 is some kind of high-maintenance woman in perpetual attack mode. On the contrary, she finds joy in many of the simple things in life, such as her traditional mayonnaise sandwich (just bread and mayo, nothing else).

And she doesn’t demand attention or that people kowtow to her. When her parents hosted a grand feast for her quinceanera, for example, Cousin #3 lounged in her white dress like a young hipster bride, slamming Mountain Dew and accepting congratulations. There was no pretense or vanity on display, which for a quinceanera is pretty damn rare.

She’s also willing to kick her ego to the curb to help others. This was most telling when she worked in a homeless shelter, stumping many of us who couldn’t figure out how her well-known disdain for humanity translated into compassion for society’s weakest.

Along those lines, her fondness for animals knows no bounds. I asked her once if she preferred the company of animals over humans. I was expecting one of her flickering grins and a quick dismissal of the question with her trademark “Whatever…” But she looked me right in the eye and said, “Absolutely. Animals don’t lie to you or cheat you or get greedy or hold grudges or…” And I had to cut her off before she denounced the entire human race.

But the animals, in turn, appreciate her interest in them. The day after my wife and I were married, we had a party at my in-law’s farm. Cousin #3 walked up to the fence to greet the horses, who approached her. They were nervous around strangers and rarely got that close to anyone new. But they knew they could trust Cousin #3. When they whinnied away before she could pet them, Cousin #3 took it a little personally. But then I pointed out that the electric fence was on, and they didn’t want to get shocked, and she felt better. Her focus on the horses caused her to dismiss the fact that she had been perilously close to receiving a jolt herself.

But such fearlessness has been on display before. It’s led, however, to a few mysteries. For example, years ago, she managed to get hit by a bus. I still don’t understand how that happened. I mean, she was standing on the curb and everything. How could a bus just wallop her? All I know is that she was knocked down and injured.

But like all other attempts to make Cousin #3 stay down, it failed. Eventually, she got back up again.


How to Quit Smoking

When my grandmother moved to this country, she was a multipack-a-day smoker. My mother and aunt were naturally concerned that their mom was on her way to an early, hack-coughing, phlegm-coated death. So they asked her to stop smoking.

My abuela rejected their request with the scorn of someone who has lived to old age and uses that fact to dismiss other people’s opinions. Thus blocked, my mother and aunt hit upon an effective, albeit ethically dubious, workaround.

They told her that smoking was illegal in America.

My grandmother, who spoke no English, was in disbelief. What kind of place was this America?

Keep in mind that this was in the days before Spanish-language cable channels or radio programs. And considering she had just moved here and that we were among the few Hispanics in the city at that time, she had no outsiders whom she could seek out to confirm this shocking fact.

She had to quit, her daughters told her, or the cops would bust her. My grandmother refused to believe this at first, and she pointed out that she saw people smoking on the street.

“Yes,” my aunt said with great patience. “They are breaking the law.”

My mother added that the smoker was taking a grave risk, analogous to stealing a car in broad daylight. My grandmother didn’t want to stick around for that, lest she get caught up in the imminent police raid. So she went home, finished the last pack that she had brought with her from El Salvador, and went cold turkey.

Years later, when she was long off cigarettes, my grandmother learned that the whole thing had been a lie. Of course, she was pissed off, and she sputtered threats and issued oaths and sent everyone in the family to hell.

But she still hasn’t started smoking again.

Granted, this technique only works on recent immigrants who haven’t learned English yet. And even then, most immigrants have an instant community that they can join or websites that they can check out or any number of opportunities to discover if their well-meaning children are lying to them for their own good.

It’s a completely different world today, in large part because immigrants like my grandmother have come over in greater numbers and with more of a drive to know what the hell is gong on in their adopted country. So maybe the anti-smoking trick isn’t effective anymore.

In any case, my home state is considering a ban on indoor smoking, which many other places have already adopted. I’ll have to ask my grandmother if she thinks it’s a good idea.

February 2009

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