'Taco Bell had that Chihuahua talking on the TV, and people would always ask me, 'Hey, doesn't that little dog piss you off?' and I'd say, 'No,'" says San Diego State English professor William A. Nericcio. "Chihuahuas are indigenous animals to Mexico, the Aztecs had Chihuahuas, and yes, he had an accent, but accents by default are not derogatory. When the person speaking with the accent is a caricature who's a moron, then you get into the terrain of the hurtful stereotype." On Saturday, March 24, Nericcio will discuss his new book Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla.
Nericcio seeks to understand how and why certain generalizations become popular beliefs. "One of the most universal figures of 'Mexicanicity' in American mass culture would be Speedy Gonzales," he says. Nericcio recalls that the "cultural tapestries" in which the animated shorts were set included poor, thieving characters with strong Mexican accents living amongst trash, drinking liquor, and chasing ladies. Not even the clothing was accurate, Nericcio explains. Speedy is dressed not like a Mexican but like a working-class man from the city of Veracruz.
"If you look into history, the Marines invaded Veracruz three times after 1880." Those servicemen sent postcards to their families containing photos of the local workingmen wearing white outfits, big hats, and bandannas.
"You don't turn to Hollywood animators for provocative and challenging representations of other cultures," says Nericcio. "They're not anthropologists -- they want to give you something you've seen before and you'll want to see again. Even in the film A Bug's Life, the criminals, the grasshoppers, where do they hang out? In a giant thrown-away sombrero, and the sombrero is a cantina, and the music is Mexican, and they're getting drunk. I love Pixar, but when push comes to shove, the bad guys are going to be shown in an ethnic context."
The most "bizarre" stereotype Nericcio has analyzed is that of Mexican laziness. "If any people are busting their asses right now, digging ditches and building things, it's Mexicanos. The stereotype of the lazy Mexican sleeping on his cactus is a hangover of English attitudes toward the Spanish because in Spain, they took siestas. It's a hotter climate, and it makes sense to take a nap those two hottest hours of the day. It's cold in England; you've got to keep moving, and you can't take a nap because you'll freeze to death. English attitudes towards the Spanish became the watered-down and morphed views Americans have of Mexicans."
Nericcio, a Chicano from Laredo, Texas, has himself been on the receiving end of some of the stereotypes he has studied. "I used to shoot pool at Club Kensington with my friend, Jack Webb. One time Jack and I were there late shooting pool and there were a few bikers at the bar. One guy looked at Jack and said, 'You better be careful, you're shooting pool with a Mexican.' The first thing I did was laugh and look behind me for the scary Mexican. I didn't know I was the thing they were talking about."
On a recent flight, Nericcio intervened when he saw a flight attendant being rude to a Spanish-speaking woman. "The stewardess got all frustrated and told her partner, 'Attend to that lady, I don't know what she's saying or what she wants.' It was as if the language itself carried with it the odor of a sewer to this stewardess. I chewed her out and told her she should learn some Spanish if she's going to work on an airplane in this country."
Nericcio sees stereotypes as the articulation of the human need to express hate. Though he admits there are positive examples out there (e.g., anyone with a British accent is distinguished and intelligent), he believes that Mexican stereotypes tend to be "pejorative, negative, and derogatory." The stereotypes that hurt Nericcio the most are those that deal with hygiene. "The idea that Mexicans are dirty, that we are filthy, is one that you'll most often encounter in bars with drunk gringos."
Nericcio includes in his book New Yorker ads for the Four Seasons Hotel that were published in the early 1990s. "They say, 'Jose will press your slacks just the way you like them' and 'Maria will fluff your pillows the way you like them.' The one thing that I see all the time in Hollywood is the idea that we're all maids. The only time you'll see a Mexican on TV other than George Lopez, even on Friends, they're servants." -- Barbarella
Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America
Book discussion with author
William A. Nericcio
Saturday, March 24
D.G. Wills Books
7461 Girard Avenue
Info: 858-456-1800 or www.dgwillsbooks.com