|A Latin Last-Laugh|
Summer's airwaves are filled with reality shows and competitions, buffering television's time against its ramp up to fall's new season of scripted sitcoms and dramas. The last winner of "Last Comic Standing" was Felipe Esparza. Having worked in L.A. with this long-haired hipster, I feel a sense of pride only a cohort who's fought alongside another in the trenches can know.
My moment in Hollywood came complete with a casting agent saying right to my brown-eyed, beige face, "Where are all the Latinos?" All I could answer is, "Right in front of you! Maybe if I had one of your children on my hip and my ‘boyfriend' or father was outside leaf-blowing butts from the drive you could see me?"
The same industry insider later remarked about my headshot, "Well, no one's going to mistake you for white," to which I replied, "Do you think they'd mistake me for employable?"
The light-skinned, dark-skinned debate rages on within the many communities of color and it's always a win whenever I channel surf and see actors on Spanish soap operas who are dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-skinned. There are plenty of white, Caucasian Latinos - even in my own Cuban family. One cousin named Pee-wee has blue-eyes, can't tan and looks as all-American as Jeb Bush.
This is one of the minefields Latinos navigate in embracing our moment of Pride in our designated "month."
It's Hispanic Heritage Month, or Months since it's celebrated from September 15 through October 15. The largest minority population in the United States is recognized annually by President Lyndon B. Johnson's original 1968 authorization of National Hispanic Heritage Week. It was expanded to a "full" month in 1988.
As a Latina comedian, I've long marveled at the irony that our month has to straddle a border between the lands of two separate months in autumn.
The decision was based on five Latin American countries that celebrate the anniversary of their independence on September 15: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively.
So that's why it starts mid-month. And expanding it to a full month simply tracks with similar governmental citations.
I'm ready for some real recognition of the contribution of Latino-surnamed American citizens. And I want something more dignified than another fiesta day marked by drinking. Cinco de Mayo marks a day Mexico defeated the French in a battle. I'm sure Mexican-Americans are as proud of its commercialized American celebration as Irish-Americans are of green-dyed beer and teeth on St. Patrick's Day.
At least Cinco de Mayo puts three more Spanish words into the national vocabulary, along with "yo quiero" and "habla ingles!" Step by step, Latinos are making our way forward into the national psyche. Despite our centuries-long mark made on this New World.
Starting with our "month" always including Columbus Day. Columbus was an Italian employed by a Spanish queen to invade and conquer under the diplomatic spin of exploring and discovery. The older I get, the more I learn to embrace the bad with the good. And my psychic high-wire act of gratitude for being born in this country often threatens to topple me off at my shock and awe at how ancestors with my Spanish-surname took it.
The same ancestors who brought horses to this continent witnessed the emergence of a rugged American stereotype of cowboys. How many of them know that cowboys are another gift from Latinos? "Cowboy" is the English word for vaquero, invented by Mexicans long before the way "west" was opened. Horses and horse-power come riding across the generations and show up now in tricked-out cars that would make a horse itself blush.
Hydraulics on each bumper? A car that can dance? A pickup truck so low to the ground that its bed is only useful for speakers? Leave it to Latinos to turn a horse into a boom-box mule lighting up the neighborhood with tunes to throw a fiesta too. And here's where my Detroit-reared, Latina soul starts to puff in pride.
Despite the obvious setbacks and struggles the Latino community faces, we are finally beginning to emerge as a unified voice. This is a major accomplishment considering the twenty-three different dialects of Spanish spoken by citizens of each of those nations - the fifth being the United States - which means ALL of the variations are spoken here.
Unless like me, the language you speak is English with a smattering of Spanish I've picked up by virtue of living in the United States. Bilingual signs have helped me learn the language of my last name. Pero, <<Cuidado! Piso mojado!>> (But, Caution! Floor wet!) only comes in handy on very specific occasions.
Thankfully, the language and the "look" of a Latino are the two major identifiers that bring so many different cultures together. To see Felipe Esparza on the national stage, representing a Mexican-American on top, brings his comedy ancestor all the way up from history.
Cantinflas was the first Mexican character created by a Latino comic/actor to break into the national psyche. Charlie Chaplin called him the best comedian alive. His peasant character blurred boundaries between nations, classes and genders.
Felipe Esparza, with his accent and act in English, seasoned with dashes of Spanish, gives this Latina comic one more reason to be proud of my heritage and what binds him to me: our last names. And that we're both comedians who recognize that laughter has no accent.