Thursday, December 28, 2006

From Lucy To Reba: A Look at Cuban and Hollywood Relations

From Lucy To Reba: A Look at Cuban and Hollywood Relations
December 28, 2006
By Gabe Rodriguez

"To survive in Hollywood, you need the ambition of a Latin-American revolutionary." —Billie Burke

Most everyone knows Desi Arnaz. That is to say, everyone knows he was the star and executive producer of "I Love Lucy." And anyone who has ever watched the show knows that he was Cuban and a talented musician. But something that not many people know is that Arnaz played a vital part in the set up of the show at a time when the television sitcom was still being molded. Arnaz conceptualized the multi-cam setup used for filming the set, a format that would be used on virtually every sitcom from "Happy Days" to "Full House" to "Friends." Now folks, let's pause, take a breath and consider this fact: A Cuban is responsible for how American sitcoms have been filmed for more than 50 years!

We all know that the United States is forever called a "melting pot" of cultures, and so it should follow that its entertainment industry would reflect this. After all, everyone loves to list with pride the accomplishments that their ethnic group has achieved. But while it's wonderful that Cubans have left their mark in the business, what have they had to give up? How does the media in turn choose to depict Hispanics? And how does skin color come into play?

These are complex issues, and in the next few pages, we will do nothing more than scratch a surface. Certainly, many essays have been written on the Cuban experience and the journey of the exile. And the strange politics of the industry are reflected upon and scrutinized every day on the rough pages of Variety. But this piece will attempt to follow the exiles that have landed in the Emerald City of Hollywood, and look at the perils they have encountered on the yellow-brick road from Cuba. In an industry that has changed both drastically and faintly over the years, there is a Spanish side not often mentioned, and that is one of its many success stories: an American dream lived by Latin Americans.

Let us begin by revisiting this heavily documented experience of the Cuban; indeed, so much has been written about the diaspora that the familiar lamentations have grown stale. Edward Said referred to exile as a "discontinued state of being;" it is not merely a matter of living outside of Cuba, but living after Cuba. Cuba is like a womb in the ocean; a distant but nurturing visceral memory. And to the new generation that has "inherited exile," it is not even a memory but a theory, a pre-established religion. The Old Cuba is dead and lost forever. The island may change and the environment may thrive once more, but it can never be exactly the same, just as children can never regress to the womb. So now Cuba has been turned into a martyr and the children have grown up.

Fortunately, the United States has been good to Cubans, and by absorbing so many immigrant groups over the years, we see the heavily used metaphor of the melting pot in motion. The problem is that so many immigrants do not want their cultures to "melt." Mexico has such a different culture from Puerto Rico, and likewise from Cuba; these groups do not want to be meshed together as one single culture that is viewed by others as "Hispanic" or "brown." In fact, that right there is the origin of the problems that have followed: "being Hispanic" is not a culture; it is many cultures, and now it has become a surrogate culture that stands in for all the others. Americans will differentiate between a European and a Hungarian, but not between a Hispanic and a Mexican.

American entertainment has reflected its Spanish-speaking citizens; as stated before, "I Love Lucy" has become a classic program, along with the more contemporary "The George Lopez Show."

International stars like Gael Garcia Bernal have American fan bases, and Univision and Telemundo have become or are part of major corporations. Occasionally, the American industry will fund a film such as "Spanglish" or "Real Women Have Curves," but there is still an image associated with people of Spanish-speaking origin and how they should look. Neither actress Cameron Diaz nor director George A. Romero meet this stereotype, and as a result, that both are half-Cuban is almost never brought up.

Another example is television star JoAnna Garcia. What is interesting about Ms. Garcia is that not only does she resemble the image of the all-American girl, but her roles, such as the teenaged mother or the cheerleader with coprolalia, play off and then satirize this image. Ms. Garcia was willing to speak with me on this issue. When asked about how being Cuban affects her own identity, she responded: "Looking the way I look, having blonde hair and green eyes, has obviously affected the roles I've been offered. I could easily have changed my name altogether, but I just never considered that, because it's my name and who I am."

This alone is a sign of good progress. Hollywood once seemed to only accept "vanilla Americans," but today more flavors are allowed to mix in the batter, resulting in a taste that's not quite the same vanilla. The new show "Ugly Betty" has been a good ideal of this fusion: an American remake of a Colombian show, featuring characters of various skin-colors, and aimed at everyone. The end result has proven a success. But a price has been paid for this success: "Ugly Betty" is no longer derivative specifically of Colombian culture, or Mexican or any other, but of the Surrogate Hispanic culture serving for all.

Now because Spanish-speaking Americans are made up of various cultures that are regarded as a single background, their various races are seen as a single color. Perhaps the heart of the matter is that what the media defines as "white" is periodically changing, sometimes referring to Caucasian, then American, then pure- blood American. What is politically correct is always irritating some person or another. So, if one speaks Spanish, then the color of his skin becomes "Hispanic" or "Latino," apparently a new color. And even these terms are tricky. A person living in France is literally a "Latino."

The problem is this: A significant percentage of Americans view "Hispanic" as a skin-color, an alternate to being "white." And a significant percentage of Hispanic Americans actually agree with this, referring to their own skin-color as 'Hispanic.' But since the majority of Cuban Americans have been Caucasian, thus enabling more opportunities for them here, they are sometimes thought of as "Uncle Toms." Look at the humor on an episode of "George Lopez:" The little Mexican boy believes his father is Santa Claus. Mr. Lopez responds: "Son, let me fill you in on a secret: Santa is a white man. If a Mexican was driving around with a bunch of packages, the cops would be after him in no time." This joke, in addition to making an effective point about American racism, drives home what it is like to be a minority in the U.S., perpetually seen as an outsider, and of color. Cubans may not know what this is like because, if you are Caucasian, many Americans cannot understand that you are Hispanic, even if you are speaking Spanish!

JoAnna Garcia's own IMDb message boards contain a thread where American fans debate: "Is she white or Hispanic?" – apparently unable to reconcile these two. However, rather than become frustrated, Ms. Garcia met the issue of skin color with a good-hearted laugh: "If you think about it, what is really 'white' anymore? No one is pure blood and things have been created from Cuban culture. I really believe in the melting pot of this country." We are truly living in homogenous times. Martin Sheen is half Spanish, yet played the American president! Ang Lee, a Taiwanese filmmaker, first became known to Americans for directing a Jane Austen novel! Alfonso Cuaron, a Mexican filmmaker, has directed a Harry Potter film (and it is often considered the best one)! And the next time you're singing the words to "Flashdance" in this world made of steel, think of how you are singing a song by Irene Cara, who is part Cuban – as well as French and African!

Yet amid all this mixing to create a homogenous whole, for Garcia, Cuba is more than just a womb. "I definitely am proud to be from a Cuban family and have this in my roots. I'm very close to my abuela, and Christmas at my family's house is always in Cuban style." No matter what role one plays during the day, or what identity others project on him or her, Cuba is always at home. Professionally, many may not wish to admit this.

In his essay "A New Latino Face In Hollywood," filmmaker Moctesuma Esparaza writes: "What is unrecognized is that since the film industry was born and nurtured in Hollywood, Latinos have always been the backbone of providing support services. Not particularly the glamour jobs. But Latinos laid the bricks; they poured the concrete for the industry."

Unrecognized, yes, but why? Not because it's some sort of hidden secret. It's there for anyone to discover if they do some research. The truth is that Americans do not feel a reason to recognize this contribution; the Hispanic presence is something skipped over, and there is political baggage behind this. Dominican cinematographer Victor Garcia said: "Fidel Castro didn't just close the door between the United States and Cuba, but between the United States and all of Latin America. Before the revolution there was a greater exchange of interests with these cultures. Now no one is interested. Instead people are asking me if I speak 'Mexican.'"

Ms. Garcia stars on the sitcom "Reba," where she plays a member of a Texan family. Texas, of course, used to be part of Mexico, and is sometimes stereotyped as a symbol of American imperialism and oppression against Hispanics. That a network program would allow a Cuban to play a daughter to a Texan can be seen a positive union for the times; these two groups have linked to play a "family" in the name of entertainment for others. Now I began this paper by discussing how a Cuban is responsible for how sitcoms are filmed, yet we are now at a time when the multi-cam format is on its way out and being replaced by single-cam sitcoms, as seen in shows such as "My Name Is Earl." With this change, we can say that one era of television is ending, and furthermore we can appreciate this era by putting "I Love Lucy" and "Reba" as bookends on each edge.

That Cubans should come to have been involved on both shows is strangely telling. In the vast period between "Lucy" and "Reba," the art of the sitcom can claim a large body of work, chronicling the changes on one of many American landscapes. And at the dawn of a successful medium of the industry, and again at one of its renaissance periods, there was a Latin presence. In fact, it never left.

So, what of the next era? While "My Name Is Earl" is serving as one of the heralds of the new sitcom, ironically this show has been criticized for stereotyping Hispanics. Is this a bad omen for the new age? Perhaps the best way to prepare for an uncertain future is to consider everything that has helped Cubans in the past. Andy Garcia concludes his film "The Lost City" by reciting one of the many verses of Cuban hero Jose Marti. A rough translation:

I grow a white rose
In June as well as in January,
For the sincere friend
Who shakes my hand frankly
And for the cruel person
Who would want to break my heart
I grow, not thistles or thorns,
I grow a white rose

This may have to be the song of the immigrant: accepting all encounters, friend or foe, to make it in one place because the Native Country is always with you at home. And ultimately, if you can make money, Americans will come to love you, even if you have purple skin. Of course leaving one's country will always be a traumatic experience, but for many, coming to the United States is the beginning of the new success story. Ms. Garcia shared this positive view of the possibilities of the American system: "These are all my opinions and not everyone agrees with me, but that's a good thing. It's good for everyone to have an opinion. That's what's great about this country!"

The United States is a mixed bag. It is a difficult place to succeed, and there will always be forms of racism and ignorance, as well as what many would call "a history of imperialism in Latin America." But the sheer number of opportunities and individual forms of freedom that each citizen ultimately has is staggering. Forget the American dream: The values of this country are the human dream. It is absolutely true that despite all the flaws of the United States, Cuban Americans have been one of the most fortunate groups. It is amazing what immigrants and their children have been able to achieve in this system. Yes, they are doctors and attorneys, but perhaps most impressive of all, elected officials of the U.S. And they are certainly no longer strangers to Hollywood.

What is the future? For this new era in entertainment, we grow a white rose.

Source: (c) 2006. All rights reserved.

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