Archive for the 'Culture' Category


Doesn’t Everybody Love LA?

I moved back to Los Angeles about six months ago. In the half year that I’ve been back, I’ve been most grateful to see old friends, to discover great places and events that sprung up in my absence, and to skip winter altogether.

But I’m also happy that my return to California has had a positive effect on this blog. In my previous hometown in the Midwest, Hispanics are still a fairly rare sight, so Latino-themed stories don’t pop up too often. But in LA, every other newsmaker has a name that ends in Z, or some debate gets going about clashing cultures, or there’s a new Hispanic-influenced restaurant, art form, or social movement taking hold.

For example, the Catholic Church recently named a new leader of the Los Angeles diocese, which has the largest concentration of Catholics in America. Archbishop Jose Gomez is now “in line to become the highest-ranking Latino in the American Catholic hierarchy and the first Latino cardinal in the U.S.”

His predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, said he was “grateful to God for this gift of a Hispanic archbishop” and said he personally asked the pope to supply him with a Latino replacement. Los Angeles has five million Catholics, over 70 percent of whom are Hispanic, so Gomez’s appointment couldn’t have been too much of a shocker. Even so, Mahony’s sentiments – thanking God for a Latino and pressing to replaced by a Hispanic – are somewhat rare occurrences in the United States, as I’m sure you can imagine. But it happens here in California.

By the way, Gomez was a member of Opus Dei, which according to several conspiracy theorists and best-selling authors, is really just a front for power-hungry zealots, albino assassins, and killer dwarves. If true, it could make the line for communion very interesting.

Another only-in-LA moment came when I saw the poster for an upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration. But this was not some bland, half-assed get-together with cheap tequila shooters, which you might find in other parts of the country. No, this party (called Cinco de Mayan), features “mucho sexo y violencia in the form of burlesque dancers, masked Mexican wrestlers, comedians, mariachi, Aztec dancers, and more.”

To be honest, I have no plans to attend this event. But just knowing that it exists here makes me smile.

Still, it’s not just traditionalist priests and masked wrestlers who get noticed in California. As the LA Times points out, Hispanic influence is part of an accelerating trend in this city, as “the power positions held by Latinos in the Los Angeles area are multiple and manifest. Besides the Mexico-born archbishop… there is the mayor. The speaker of the Assembly. The sheriff. A county supervisor. Several members of the City Council, of Congress, of the Legislature, of the Los Angeles school board…. All told, the taking of power has been stunning in its breadth.”

And that power can resonate beyond Latinos. This brings me to one more tidbit that made me happy to be in California. A UCLA professor, Don Nakanishi, is leading a movement to make East LA, which is 97% Latino, a separate city. I don’t agree with his position, but I have to respect his goals. I especially liked his comments about becoming politicized as a young man.

In college, Nakanishi “joined ten Latinos in forming a group called Los Hermanos, Spanish for ‘the brothers’.” He later formed an Asian American student group and said of the process, “We learned from the Chicanos.”

Yes, people learn from Latinos here.


Hail Britannia

In a recent post, I expressed my admiration for the British accent. I said that it was pretty damn sexy, at least on women. I can’t judge if it’s sexy on guys (one of you ladies or gay men will have to inform me). But I will admit that British men sound more sophisticated and intelligent than we who have been afflicted with the flat American way of speaking.

And of course, anything witty sounds twice as funny with a crisp English accent.

I presume that many Americans share my belief in the inherent coolness of these island dwellers. But for a Latino, this fascination is an extra burden. It comes across as self-loathing or pathetic.

For the record, I’ve never been ashamed of being Hispanic. Nor have I ever wished that I could magically turn white or become black or pass for Asian (although many people assume that I’m Japanese, as I wrote here).

But I have to admit, part of me would like to do life all over as a British guy. Those cheeky bastards have a hold on me.

The chief cultural influence on my sense of humor is Monty Python. My favorite band is Led Zeppelin. I think the Union Jack is the greatest flag design ever.

My god, Great Britain is everywhere in my head.

Perhaps this explains my running jokes about having an unhealthy obsession with Kate Winslet (my sympathies on her recent divorce, but I can’t understand why she is still not returning my phone calls). And maybe this is why I’ve spent my professional life focusing on the English language. Hell, maybe this is why I’ve had so many problems with my teeth (I’m not at British level in that regard, however).

I’ve written before about feeling a kinship with Jews. That’s true. But if I were not a proud American Latino, I would adopt an English persona. And I’m sure that many of you – whether white, black, Asian, or a fellow Hispanic – agree that it would be most cool to issue snide asides with flair and take the tube to Piccadilly Circus and complain about the bloody weather and keep a stiff upper lip and all of that.

My wife and I travelled to London once. We still talk about ditching it all and moving there someday. This is usually after a few drinks and/or a Republican political victory. In any case, don’t hold your breath, because we both agree that we would miss America too much to adopt the expatriate life (by the way, would I be considered an expat or an immigrant?).

Still, before I glamorize the British even more than I have, I will bring these smart, sexy, clever people back down to earth:

Their food really sucks.

There, I said it. It’s a cheap shot, I know, but at the moment, it’s all I’ve got.


The Education of La Gente

In an earlier post, I wrote about my experiences as one of the few Latinos on my college campus, back in the day. At that time, the percentage of Hispanics at my alma mater was less than two percent.

In the years since, it has gone up, which is part of a larger, welcoming trend. Although Hispanics continue to be rare sight on American campuses, the number of young Latinos who are giving it the old college try is on the upswing. Some estimates say that about 12 percent of college students are Hispanic, which isn’t far off our proportion in the general population (currently at 15 percent and rising).

Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 27 percent of Latinos ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college. That’s apparently the highest the number has ever been, although it still pales in comparison to the percentage of young whites (43 percent) and blacks (33 percent). I don’t know the percentage of young Asian Americans in school, but let’s face it, I’m sure it’s impressive.

So more Hispanics are signing on for student debt and hitting on sorority girls and drinking too much on Thursday nights and living in shitty apartments with roommates who have loud sex with strangers in your bed… Sorry, I got a little nostalgic there.

One reason for the increase in Latino attendance is simple demographics. As Hispanics continue to assimilate into the general population (and assimilation is indeed underway, regardless of what you’ve heard on talk radio), they are more likely to adopt the cultural advantages of the majority. The chance to attend college, of course, is one of the biggest pluses of being American.

A lot of young Latinos see higher education as a natural extension, or as a clear benefit to their lives. Previous generations, including my own, were more likely to view going to a university as something for rich white kids, or as a laughable proposition that they were foolish for even considering.

When I was younger, several of my Latino peers even proclaimed that it was “selling out” to move past the twelfth grade. The implication was that choosing ignorance and poverty was a noble cause for La Raza. Today’s generation of young Latinos is far more likely to view this sad justification as the self-defeating prophesy that it is.

Another factor for increased Hispanic attendance is that major universities are more likely to actively recruit young Latinos. This is primarily because society has become more accepting of the idea that not everybody is white (well, most of America has, at least). But it’s also simple economics. A larger percentage of young people today are Latinos. As I’ve written many times before, Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population. Therefore, if colleges want to continue to get students to fork over tuition, they must reach out to Latinos.

I’ll just mention that when I was eighteen and trying to pick a school, most universities’ minority outreach consisted of mailing out a pamphlet on the importance of diversity. And most of the time, all the pictures were of black people.

The fact that more Latinos are attending college offers one final interesting factoid. Hispanics who attend universities are now more likely to actually go away to college, as their white and black peers do, than they were in the past. According to the LA Times, “since 1975, the share of Latino freshmen at four-year colleges who choose schools more than fifty miles from home has risen to nearly 59% from about 46%.”

Of course, leaving one’s family provokes conflicting feelings within Latinos. Because many of us are first-generation, we can still access our parents’ immigrant roots. We can comprehend travelling great distances to start new lives.

However, the tight bonds of the traditional Hispanic family often clash with the individual’s need for fulfillment. At such times, will the biggest obstacle to a Latino going away to college be a guilt-tripping father or a perplexed abuela or a needy cousin?

It’s difficult to say. But I’m sure that for many of next year’s Latino college freshman, calling mom every day will be a top priority.


A Priest, a Rabbi, and Latino Walk Into a Bar

Here’s a quick shout out to Frankie, Ankhesen, Ulises, and Chris for their comments on my recent posts. Thank you all, and thanks to everyone who shares his or her thoughts here.

But now let me backtrack a little.

Recently, I used my cyber bully pulpit to disparage comedian George Lopez and, by extension, anyone who thinks that he’s funny. I’m not backing down on my criticism, but I need to qualify it.

You see, I’ve written much about the positive aspects of Latino culture, such as our strong familial ties and powerful work ethic and openness to share emotions and many other good and true characteristics.

But I’ve also written about some less uplifting traits. And to that list, I have to add one more item:

We’re not particularly funny people.

I realize this is a gross generalization. I’m sure that plenty of Latinos are hilarious. It’s just that I haven’t met them or seen them on television or watched their stand-up routines.

We have to be honest and say that no Hispanic has ever really made America laugh, except maybe Cheech Marin, and he put the low in low-brow.

Indeed, the first Hispanic sitcom, back in the 1980s, was “Aka Pablo,” starring Paul Rodriguez. It was such a monumental flop that Latinos have been rare on comedies ever since (by the way, my hatred for this short-lived show is so intense that it demands a full post sometime).

The first Hispanic comedian to receive any kind of mainstream success in America was Cantinflas, a star from the 1950s. You are forgiven if you don’t know who he is. The guy seems to be more of poor man’s Charlie Chaplin than anything else.

One could argue that Latino culture’s history of death, destruction, and poverty does not lend itself to big laughs. That may be true, but then what do we make of the fact that some of the most insightful and cutting comedians of the last few decades have been black? Think of the line from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock and beyond. African Americans, of course, have just as much, if not more, misery in their collective backgrounds. They have apparently been better able to mine this history to create cutting-edge observations.

As a result, black people have Dave Chappelle. We have Carlos Mencia. That contrast is just depressing.

Similarly, a look at Jewish comedy reveals such heavy hitters as Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, and others too numerous to mention. We’re talking about decades of mainstream success across a wide range of styles. And of course, Jews have endured one or two negative developments over the course of their cultural history. It hasn’t stopped them from coming up with a witty line now and then.

So why aren’t we funnier? I haven’t the slightest idea. But with this blog, I’ve tried to avoid becoming a writer who is, in the words of the great humorist Spalding Gray, so very “earnest, earnest, earnest.” That seems to be the default setting for many Latinos (and many bloggers, while we’re at it). By the way, Spalding Gray was a white guy.

In any case, the situation for Latino humor is grim… hey, I guess that was a joke, given the subject matter.

Yes, as you can see, you don’t want me to accept the challenge to be the comedic Latino. I’m just not that funny.


Creating a Buzz

Like many people, I check out PostSecret weekly to see what kind of freaks, weirdoes, and social deviants are out there. For those of you who don’t know, PostSecret is a wildly successful website where people send in postcards detailing their dark secrets, obsessive thoughts, and big regrets.

The site is designed to bring us together, an online therapeutic effort to help people see that others share their fears and hopes. I’m sure it does that for many readers. But I imagine that for many others, it just provokes a voyeuristic “Wow, that guy is nuts” reaction.

Every now and then, I read a submission that resonates with me. For example, the following was in this week’s batch of new secrets:

I must admit that I’m annoyed. Sure, it’s offensive that somebody believes that a violent act is representative of Latino culture. And yes, it’s an odd and pathetic response for a victim to dwell on the mugger’s race (to the point of becoming “obsessed”).

But what really pisses me off is this: I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Latino culture, trying to express the nuances and intricacies of Hispanic thinking, when all I really had to do in order to get someone’s attention was to punch him and steal his wallet. That would have been substantially easier (and while we’re at, much more profitable).

So I’m sure you understand why I will refrain from any further efforts to publicize this blog via social media, google analytics, keywords, SEO marketing, word of mouth, or other techniques that are oh so inside-the-box thinking. I will also pay substantially less attention to quality writing and original insights, because that clearly doesn’t matter much.

Instead, you will find me wandering the alleys and badly lit streets of America, ready to pop someone on the head and then mention, while I’m counting their cash, that I’m Latino. That should get them good and interested in Hispanic culture.

By the way, one interesting thing about PostSecret is that the site doesn’t accept advertising. They’re actually a little smug about it. Of course, this blog has been ad-free from the beginning, so who could blame me if I finally wised up and added a couple of revenue enhancers? That’s just conjecture, of course, because any ads you see here will just be figments of your imagination…


Tempus Fugit

First, let me thank everyone who has commented on my recent posts. I’m extending a big shout out to Pipil, Jeremy, Emma, AnaRC, Bugys, Jose, and Macon D. Keep those cards and letters coming!

Second, at the risk of trying your patience, I have one more thought about my recent move to Los Angeles. As I wrote, the movers who took our stuff to California were Latino. I wrote about how they arrived late at every stage of the process, but I didn’t say why.

Well, the reason is simple: They were on Hispanic time. As such, they were incapable of being punctual.

It is a cultural trademark of Latinos that we run late, or flake on deadlines, or just wander in at some point during the party. I’ve heard many reasons for this. Perhaps it is the laidback culture of the siesta that carried over to America. Maybe we don’t sweat the small stuff, and therefore refuse to obsess about what the clock says. Or perhaps we’re prone to some kind of time-space dyslexia that causes us to proclaim, “It’s only two minutes away” when the destination is in another city.

All I know is that every clock in my mother’s house is set fast. I am not exaggerating. My mom claims that this forces her to pick up the pace, because it tricks into thinking that she’s even later than she actually is. It works to some degree, because she tends to run less behind schedule than she did in the past.

For example, when I was in high school (and before I got my drivers license), I racked up myriad detentions because I had to rely on my mom to get me there. Every morning we rushed out the door as if the starting time for school had been cruelly moved up without notice. I protested to my teachers that arriving late was out of my control, but they insisted that I was consistently tardy because of adolescent belligerence rather than cultural norm. Then I got slapped with another detention.

In my family, I developed a reputation for being the only one who is ever on time. Perhaps it’s because I’m half-white. More likely, I just got frustrated at everyone always being late and tried to make up for it singlehandedly. My efforts have served only to increase my blood pressure.

Look no further than the Christmas Eve celebrations at my mom’s house, which start promptly at 4:00… or 5:00… or 6:00… or whenever everyone shows up. But my family always arrives, and we have a great time. Being late is difficult when nobody has bothered to set a time to meet in the first place, but we manage it.

I know other cultures claim that they have this affliction. I’ve heard of Arab time and Greek time. I’m sure they’re telling the truth. But honestly, I doubt they’re much competition when it comes to the utter lack of temporal awareness. Hispanic time is another animal altogether.

Still, if we must have some cultural issue with punctuality, we should try to make it more interesting. If we were exactly forty-three minutes and nineteen seconds late for everything, then we’d have something quirky. Instead, we’re just the tardy ones.

But again, why are we so perpetually behind schedule? What possible reason can there be for the fact that we Latinos take time so frivolously?

Well, I have the answer, and I plan to go ahead and tell you. But I’m running a little late right now. So just give me a minute or two… five tops.

Don’t worry, I’ll catch up to you.


Under the Bridge

One of the amazing things about living in a city like Los Angeles is its sheer scope. I lived here for five years in the 1990s, and yet there are whole neighborhoods that I’m only seeing now that I’ve moved back.

Recently, I was running errands and, as usual in this town, driving from one part of the city to the other. I drove beneath an underpass that’s part of a labyrinthine alcove of freeways and bridges. All the concrete and cars blotted out the very sun (ok, that’s a little hyperbole, but not too much).

I had never been to this part of LA before, and my attention was fixed on reading street signs and searching for landmarks. Still, I couldn’t miss the encampment as I drove past it – no one could have.

There most of been a hundred of them, there beneath the intersection of multiple bridges. They were trabajadores, the immigrant workers who gather in places like that to beg, cajole, and hustle jobs.

Some of them were gathered around a pickup, shouting or gesturing in what I presumed was an attempt to communicate to the driver (their day’s potential employer) that they were the strongest and hardest-working of the lot. Others were sitting on the gravel, talking among themselves or playing some card game that was hidden to me. Others lay spread out with cowboy hats over their eyes, trying to catch a nap. At least one small group was cooking something on a portable-stove type thing.

I saw all this while stopped at the light. And then traffic surged forward, and I continued on my task.

As I drove away, I realized that I had never witnessed that before. Despite seeing trabajadores hard at work myriad times, and writing about them at length, I had never viewed the genesis of the process: a swarming in their shanty town where they jostle one another for the chance to labor for a pittance.

For some reason, I abruptly remembered when I lived in New York City, and I saw my first drug deal take place on the street (for the record, I was neither buyer nor seller; just a passing bystander). I had seen plenty of college kids buy pot, but this was different. It was what people really did when they wanted heroin or crack or the mythologized “hard drugs.” The transaction was much sloppier and less dramatic than television makes it out to be. Still, it was an authentic moment – not a fictionalized reference point.

It was like that when I saw the trabajadores. This was an authentic part of our culture, officially underground yet instantly recognizable to just about everyone. But like the drug deal, few people had actually seen it in the real world. We adopt images from movies and news stories, and assume that this counts as experience. But no editor or voiceover or carefully studied camera angle got between me and the crowd in the immigrant camp.

It was real. But of course, for me, it’s fodder. For the trabajadores, it’s their lives.

August 2019
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