Tex[t]-Mex Textual Politics
Less a people than a text, my prowlings, interrogations, and inquests suggest that peculiar and particular manifestations of the "Mexican" are to be found across the bucolic oases and sprawling wastelands of the United States. These droll mannequins appear in photographs, in movies, in newspapers and magazines, and on television.
And, arguably, they are all of a type: Chicanos, Latin Americans, Latinas, and "Hispanics"—call them what you will—in word and image, curious manifestations of Latino "subject-effect[s]" (to borrow from Michel Foucault) and "subject position[s]" (to borrow from my beloved mentor G. Spivak) have made their way to the U.S. public.
Why "Tex[t]-Mex"? Well, to begin with the obvious: I am from South Texas, Laredo, Texas, to be exact, and if Laredo is not the home, the autochthonous papi y mami of Tex-Mex, of Tex-Mex music, of Tex-Mex cuisine, in short, of the Tex-Mex Dasein, it must at least be damn close. So the word was always in the air—the music of Johnny Canales (RIP) and Flaco Jiménez; the food from my mother's kitchen; those crazy french fries from the Tumble Inn the size of fingers on a baseball glove, always served with jalapeños and a greasy burger; Cotulla's mariachis; engorged tacos the size of Whataburgers . . .
But I was not writing a book about Tex-Mex; I was writing a book about Tex[t]-Mex, so I turned to that annoying and cloying but necessary bracketed [t] in the neologism "Tex[t]-Mex," which is, I admit, a tad precious and so very 1980s, but I can make no apologies for that, as that was the time when I came of age as a cultural critic and a theorist, and the intrusion of the brackets foregrounds the constructedness of "Mexicans" in movies, advertising, photography, and everything else in a way I pray my reader won't forget.
Time will tell.
A somewhat anticipated note about the terms "Mexican," "Latina/o," "Chicana/o," and other "miscegenated" semantic oddities that parade throughout the corridors of this book: in present, everyday usage, the designations "Latino" and "Latina" refer as often to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and visitors of Latin American descent (Chicanas/os, Cuban Americans, puertorriqueñas/os, etc.) as to Latin American nationals (Mexicans, salvadoreños, nicaragüenses, etc.) living in the United States.
Most of the rogues' gallery of "Mexican" and "Latina/o" types that appear in these pages are animated mannequins of a decidedly Mexican persuasion.
But stereotypes are not usually too precise when it comes to nationality. The animatronic puppet "Freddy López," for instance, whom you will meet in the penultimate chapter below, might be Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Chicano, Cuban, "Gypsy," or even (and this may be the most telling coincidence) a Central European Jew—he may even be some odd fusion of them all.
Spanish-language surnames and accents type him as one from a Spanish-speaking land, and his swarthy physiognomy types him as evil and criminal. He and the clever retinue of "Mexicans" and "Latinos" that we will meet in the pages that follow are Latino; we know that much, or, for the moment, we can presume as much. Someway, somehow, we also know that this ethnocultural lineage testifies visually to said individual's criminal potentiality.
And this "someway, somehow" is, in the end, the subject of this illustrated tome, this bastard bestiary of entirely familiar, utterly seductive (because they are familiar), popular hallucinations of "Mexicans" in the cultural spaces of the Americas. Simple words and yet these quoted semantic Hefty Bags hide within their ample elastic recesses answers to the mystery of the profound virulence of what I am tagging as "Mexican" in U.S. popular culture.
More sculpted "subject-effect[s]" (chapeau Foucault) or "subject position[s]" (sombrero Spivak) than "subjects" (in most cases, even objects with the potential for subjectivity would be an improvement), Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent in U.S. popular culture have often resembled ugly marionettes in the service of mercenary puppeteers. One wonders, for instance, how the ubiquitous image of trashy "Mexican" types like this one spreads viruslike into the "political unconscious," or better put (since stereotypes affect the cultural body in ways that are palpably material), the cultural and political body politic.
And lest we, through some momentary brain lapse or some incipient flash of collective Alzheimer's, underestimate the capacity of pictures to "infect" the masses against particular ethnic groups, we might do well to pause here and go back a few decades to consider the successes of Adolf Hitler. At one point, this diminutive homicidal imagineer, one of the more important m/ad executives of the twentieth century, is recorded to have ordered his media industry to create a mass of common visionaries who will "obey a law they [do] not even know but which they [can] recite in their dreams."
When one thinks of the relative status of the term "Mexican," how it is manifest in the textual record available to us as a register of the collective American unconscious, one realizes that some latter-day inheritors of Hitler's visual ideological mandate are still hard at work. One need not be a devotee of the failed European artist/Nazi potentate to suspect that the rules of the semiotic m/adman game still hold true when it comes to the representation of Mexicans and Latinos in mass culture.
It goes without saying, but I highlight it for you anyway, that this book-length peripatetic sampling of defamatory "Mexican"/Latina/o portraitures has not been fashioned in a political or aesthetic vacuum. Like Native Americans, African Americans, and Irish Americans (just to name a few indicted ethnic "flavors" from this century alone), Latina/o Americans have represented a subject[ed] population—that is, until quite recently, they have not contributed to mainstream, mass cultural textual and cinematic representations of their own communities; even when they have contributed, said acts of art have not dominated gallery space at MOMA or rollicked box office tills from Tulsa to Portland to Texarkana.
One has only to remember how Tarzan films, Zulu Technicolor extravaganzas, and blaxploitation feature films (remarkably enjoying a renaissance in cinema art houses of late) like Mandingo (1975, directed by Richard Fleischer and produced by noted schlockmeister Dino De Laurentis) concretized notions of the African and the African American "savage" to sense that this is true. And not least interesting, with specific regard to Mandingo, is the way said film, a guilty pleasure of a screening if there ever was one, fuses violence and sexuality, a copulative combo that will become familiar to us in the pages of our Tex[t]-Mex odyssey.
Of course all this lurid nonsense did not begin with the advent of cinema; sample here, for instance, a couple of pages from my private collection of stereotyped artifacts. Both are pages torn from a nineteenth-century cultural history of Africa by J. W. Buel entitled Heroes of the Dark Continent, dating to 1890—I ran across the book in a thrift store in New York City in 1988. The first image treats us to a bestiary of African comic/mythological grotesques. The second image graces us with documentary evidence of commonplace genocides, such as "Arabs hunting unarmed Negroes."
What's interesting in this microgallery of curated "African" print artifacts is the way these scandalously attractive monstrosities would evolve as they moved from the medium of print to the manufactured excesses of motion pictures and television—in a way, O.J. Simpson's and Rodney King's scandals at the end of the twentieth century owed their popularity and their virulence to patterns of visual indoctrination that were ages old. And what's also interesting and patently dangerous about them is how uncanny they are, how funny they can be—funny, "odd," if you are more comfortable with that, or funny, "funny," if you want to be more honest.
Laughter will have always already been part of the symptomology of stereotypes—it is at the scene of the crime because, like the thief or murderer who is always drawn back near to the proscenium of the spectacle, it must needs give in to the logic of a determining narcissism.
Alongside these fading ocular-synapse teasers of the "African," we should place an infamous passage from Henri Bergson's legendary On Laughter that brings our interrogation into relief. In a passage both lucid and horrifying, Bergson writes:
Why do we laugh at a head of hair which has changed from dark to blond? What is there comic about a rubicund nose? And why does one laugh at a negro?
Bergson's amiable response, clear in its insight, cogent in its utter corruption, soon follows:
The question would appear to be an embarrassing one, for it has been asked by successive psychologists . . . And yet I rather fancy the correct answer was suggested to me one day in the street by an ordinary cabby [Is it only me, or does this setup by Bergson give you the willies?], who applied the expression "unwashed" to the negro fare he was driving. Unwashed! Does not this mean that a black face, in our imagination, is one daubed over with ink or soot? If so, then a red nose can only be one which has received a coating of vermilion. And so we see that the notion of disguise has passed on something of its comic quality to instances in which there is actually no disguise, though there might be . . .
But here we meet with a fresh crop of difficulties in the theory of the comic. Such a proposition as the following: "My usual dress forms part of my body" is absurd in the eyes of reason. Yet imagination looks upon it as true. "A red nose is a painted nose," "A negro is a white man in disguise," [!] are also absurd to the reason which rationalises; but they are gospel truths to pure imagination. So there is a logic of the imagination which is not the logic of reason, one which at times is even opposed to the latter, with which, however, philosophy must reckon, not only in the study of the comic, but in every other investigation of the same kind. It is something like the logic of dreams, though of dreams that have not been left to the whim of individual fancy, being the dreams dreamt by the whole of society. (86-87; emphasis added)
Leaving aside for other textual clinicians Bergson's meditations on Africans as sooty white men, let our eyes linger instead on the idea of a "logic of the imagination" that mimics (in blackface?) the "logic of dreams." Here we place our examining hands, our probing eyes, on the nexus of an enigma, the enigma that underwrites our love affair with stereotypes and that explains something even the Nazis, those mid-twentieth-century spin doctors, knew about having the masses blind to something they could see in their dreams (more on this below, with pictures, in the Speedy chapter).
"Mexicans," of course, suffered a fate similar to that of their "African" galle[r]y-mates and are no different in this regard. We will come to see that the dynamics of translation from print to moving image works equally well with our "Latina/o" friends in the Americas. Gary D. Keller's Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews, and Resources, chronicling this history with nuanced focus on "Mexican" and "Latina/o" bodies, concludes:
Hollywood has produced a huge number of films that depict Hispanic characters, mostly Chicano or Mexican . . . manufactured according to a formula that has overtly provided for the denigration of minorities and outgroups. . . . The Hollywood Celluloid Factory reflect[s] and reinforce[s] the pervasive racial antagonisms that have been the bane of American society from its origins. The initial Hollywood result was the cloning of greaser stereotype upon stereotype: incompetent bandidos, goodhearted simpletons, easy mujeres, perfidious criminals . . . and so on, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.
Keller's lucid findings present, for us, implicit questions and a nagging task. The questions?
Where did these stupid things come from? What can anyone, especially a cultural critic in the pages of a book from the University of Texas Press, do to stop these nasty beasts?!
Stop them in their tracks.
Had I a Steven Spielberg-like budget, I think I might stand a chance.
A few years ago, without anyone really noticing, Tejano wizard Roberto Rodriguez almost pulled it off single-handedly with his first Spy Kids movie—a raging revolt against the legacy of Mexican representation by Hollywood—and, all this, by a Hollywood-nestled Chicano.
But we know that we have no choice but to act, even if it is only in the pages of books like this one.
These fountains of creative, racially refracted, stereotyped representations bring with them pathological effects. It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the operation Génaro Padilla outlined with regard to nineteenth-century proto-Chicanas/os lives on and thrives here early in the twenty-first century: "An established way of life is disintegrating, being rubbed out, erased even at the moment the life was being narrated, transcribed, and textualized [by someone else]." For these reasons, among others, this inquest concerns itself with "Mexicans" and mass culture—it manifests my particular interest in the representation of "Mexicans" and Chicanas/os in the twentieth century and forms an archaeological project of sorts, trudging through visual "digs" while speculating about telling fragments of a violent, contentious past.
"Contentious past"—the words merit a brief exergue, a tasty supplement: it is worth mentioning here that it has not been so many years since the United States and Mexico were at war; vestigial elements of military engagements always color postwar relations between national entities. More, much more, on this appears in the chapters that follow, where the violence intrinsic to the DNA of stereotypes will be laid bare.
I will also add here that I am not interested in indicting these mass cultural ethnic stereotypes as nasty and oppressive manipulators of the domestic Latina/o Dasein, "existence"—though they are rather good at it, wouldn't you say?
As Edward Said testily reminds us in his introduction to Orientalism: "One never ought to assume that the structure of [cultural phenomena] is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away." Many ethnic-studies devotees might be staggered by such an utterance, their plaintive howls of self-righteous injury derailed by Said's gentlemanly slap upside our heads.
But he was right; and even if we are in the right when we author our tomes of deathless prose revealing the horrors of this oppression, the unthinkable nastiness of that expropriation, the living nightmare of our own personal suffering as people of color in a Wonder Bread world, our writing still won't change the ways of the world.
Our tour of the "Mexican" Tex[t]-Mex will hopefully leave us with a lived understanding that ethnic stereotypes are a cultural practice and a narratological category that make us aware of the potential and likely lie or ruse of humanistic discourse—that by describing or prescribing we somehow control the object before us, that by understanding we dominate.
Understanding ("Reason" with a capital R), in this context, reveals its other, often-unacknowledged function as a means to a denial.
Ironically, verbose analysis can become an accomplice of a complacent quiet that allows things to stay the same, allows stereotypes to prosper in the rich, dark confines of our collective indifference. For Marx, political economists were the "sycophants of capital," and intellectual cultural workers in ethnic studies must work to ensure that we are clever adversaries of the culture industry that produces both us and our students—we ought not to ape the moves of our political scientist and economics colleagues that Karlitos M. took to task—and to avoid becoming sycophants of stereotypes and stereotyped thought. Our teaching and writing, if lively enough, might just make a difference. Student by student, mind by mind, imagination by imagination—it is at that crossroads of the pedagogical and the scholarly, on the blackboards and in our handouts, syllabi, readings, and Web pages that the dynamics can be changed.
What obsesses me, what urges me to bring these words to your eyes, is the network of signs in the U.S. mass media that do yeoman's service representing the various peoples, cultures, institutions, and corporations usually totalized, homogenized, and smelted under the classification "Mexican" or "Latina/o."
But these signs (as semioticians, poststructuralists, and others within the cultural-studies mall have taught us) are not representations of anything approaching reality.
Reality is a Utopia, a dreamy conceptual substance favored by politicians, demagogues, and aesthetic-overdosed humanists. In analyses of Mexicans as well as "Mexicans," we are trafficking as much with mass culture as masked culture—here please call to mind speculations on Mexican subjectivity from the once-lucid Octavio Paz in his Labyrinth of Solitude.
So I want to guarantee that we will not spend the time we have here together trying to take off this mask, to resuscitate the essential figure of some "real Mexican." If that were possible, we could just change the channel or turn off the television every time someone like Freddy López or Speedy Gonzales (or "Manuel" from the BBC's Fawlty Towers) appears and, by doing so, halt the dissemination of these extraordinary ethnic tropes.
"Real Mexicans"? "True Latinas/os"?
We ought not to linger in that snake pit. And we have 1980s Euro-wunderkind Jean Baudrillard, among others, to thank for graciously saving us some ink. Baudrillard's critical "spankings" rate a second glance, especially those moments in "The Precession of Simulacra" where he surmises that "it is always the aim of ideological analysis to restore the objective process."
Good enough. Most of us want little more than to even the score, set things right, heal the rift, "restore" objectivity, and so on. But this will not do.
The germ of this book was a vendetta I had for an animated Mexican mouse by the name of Speedy Gonzales; but, in the end, I had to let the anger go. Baudrillard, holding forth again, says: "It is always a false problem to want to restore the truth beneath the simulacrum." Look behind Speedy or beneath Freddy López and one will not find Mexican-hating illustrators or Latino-loathing puppeteers (ok, maybe one or two; we are talking about animated "Mexicans" created in California). More often than not, one will find someone working sine dolo malo, "without fault, without an intent of evil," as the Romans used to say. But not always without fault—the autopsy of a rat that appears within the pages of this book features enough innocent villains and guilty angels to populate a Hollywood B film. And, to be frank, it is not just "Africans" or "Mexicans" that come off badly when it comes to mechanical reproduction of ethnic types—check out these cute gringo kids from my private collection of "ethnic" types (in particular, look closely at the boy on the right, who has been digitally processed so much that his "skin" takes on the texture of a Pixar-born(e) computer-generated-image offspring of a CGI wet dream by the in vitro-cloned hybrid child of Mengele, Geppetto, and John Lasseter).
So, I promise: we will not labor to discover the true "Mexican," nor will we seek to restore the essential and true Latina/o phenotype and rescue "our" representation from the clutches of a manipulative mass media; rather, I want to try something much more modest and not at all perfectly organized—my one genuflection to the niceties of organization was to order my chapters somewhat chronologically in the order that they were conceived. This may lead to some grumbling from the peanut gallery regarding the Lupe Vélez's entrance in the later galleries of this labyrinth of horrors, when chronology and history would place her first—but doing so would upset the gods that have ordained this critical effort, and it is to them I must pay obeisance even before the needs of you, my gentle, indulging reader.
In these pages, we, together, will sift through some telling historical artifacts (visual and linguistic, words and images) so as to understand the series of events (historical and aesthetic) that rendered our contemporary "Mexican" and Latino hallucinations meaningful. Where did these ghosts come from? What do they do to us while they hang around? What did they do to the people (Lupe Vélez, "Rita Hayworth") whose bodies literally served as transport vehicles for the ruling Latina/o stereotypes? Where are they going next? And, lastly, in my final chapter on Chicana/o sequential artists: Who's trying to forge for us the Mexican pharmakon, the cure, at once a poison, that will make things move and evolve in a different way? If it is the technologies of mass-produced imagery that have fucked things up so royally, is it possible that a means to salvation (ok, recall that your author is a recovering Catholic Tejano—idealism and the apocalypse lurk round every paragraph) might be found in images wrought by Chicana and Chicano bodies themselves?
The mission here is truly archival, seeking to track those entertainments that embody the "considerable material investment" in these stereotypes in the United States. How is it that laziness, the siesta, tequila, banditry, sensuality, and other odd sorts of attributes make their way into the U.S. lexicon of Mexican character traits? And how does what can be called the syntax of mass culture work to reimagine and restore (restock, really) these visually charged tropes on a day-to-day basis?
the cock of the gun thrills, and we watch silently, in the dark, mouth agape, blood pressure rising, eyes glued to the silver screen for the end of the story, the bang for the buck, the loving ritual of the telling of the tale.
the gun of the cock, the gunning of the cock thrills, and we watch silently in the dark, mouth agape, blood flowing south, eyes glued to the silver screen for the story of ends, bucks, and banging, the ritualized loving of tails telling tales.
amidst these two tellings is the story of an evil, an enchanting evil, an almost glamorous evil, and a decidedly sexual evil, evident in the history of the representation of "Mexicans" in America.
Postcards and War
The foundation for Hollywood-style Mexicans had been built up in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and it was to have a determinantal impact on the artistic conjuring of Speedy and his universe. Said foundation had been laid in the early and remarkably popular "greaser" film series—some titles of note include The Mexican's Revenge (1909), The Mexican's Jealousy (1910), Chiquita the Dancer (1912), The Girl and the Greaser (1913), The Greaser's Revenge (1914), and the especially sadistic The Cowboy's Baby (1910), in which a "greaser" tosses "the hero's child into a river." Do please note the production dates of these features—they are not without some intrigue of their own.
If motion picture houses from Maine to California were offering a particularly ruthless vision of the Mexican, picture postcards were doing no less. A technological and entrepreneurial hit in the second decade of the twentieth century, postcards became one of the most convenient and visually memorable ways for American servicemen to correspond with family and friends as they travailed at their trade miles away from the familiar climes of home. The e-mail of their day, picture postcards were all the more impressive because of the way they married at least two graphic modes, handwriting and photography. Postcards were a novelty, a marvel, a fad, a must-have technotextuo novelty analogous to the World Wide Web pages of our current day. Their role in the visual ideological development of the Americas has only begun to be elaborated.
Two representative examples are drawn from Paul J. Vanderwood and Frank N. Samponaro's Border Fury and give us a taste of what U.S. postmen were frying American citizen's minds with through the mails a tad after the beginning of the twentieth century. I have left their captions intact, as they assist us on our tour. The first image, with its "Greasers" titling helpfully included, allows us to cement the case for a living, almost sexual (incestual) sharing between media when it came to "Mexican" hallucinations in the minds of Americans.
The second, the work of Walter H. Horne, underscores the violence that was a staple of the genre. It was one of the best sellers of the time, something analogous to the Viagra spam e-mails we see daily in our cyber in-boxes.
Historians Vanderwood and Samponaro are no mere archive crawlers, no mere vigilant stacks rats; their prose is chillingly telling in its range and command: "The jingoistic patriotism of so many soldiers, frustrated by national policies which precluded their outright invasion of Mexico, also is apparent in the postcards. These men did not just disparage Mexicans as an enemy; they disdained them as human beings, and the popular literature of the times nourished this bias. Photo images of Germans during World War I, or even Spaniards during the Spanish-American War, were not nearly as sinister or degrading as those of Mexicans during the revolution" (ix; emphasis added).
The key to this tale is in that last word, "revolution," because why, you may ask, did these "sinister" and "degrading" cybermail ancestors, these grotesque yet seductive postcards, feature representations of "Mexicans"?
The answer can be found in a coincidence of coincidences: at the very moment that new image technologies are mesmerizing an ever-growing, novelty-seeking American consumerate, with motion picture houses displacing closing vaudeville showrooms and picture postcards clogging the nation's mails, at this very historical moment, south of the U.S. border, Mexico is convulsing its way through one of the more momentous revolutionary moments in the twentieth century—from at least 1910 to the early dawn of the 1920s Mexico was at war: with itself and with others.
Emiliano Zapata to the south and Francisco "Pancho" Villa to the north, near the U.S.-Mexico border, are engaged in popular political and military resistance movements that change the face of Mexico in this century. The United States is not indifferent to these activities, events that culminate with Villa's invasion of the United States at Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916. The U.S. Army's "Mexican Punitive Expedition" (1916-1917), led by the heralded General John J. Pershing, was the talk of the nation.
At the very second all this is going down some 150 miles north of the California-Mexico border, Hollywood and the movie industry are changing the face of the United States, and reinscribing the physiognomies of that nation's peoples. As image technology comes of age and the engines of our American culture industry move into overdrive, the United States finds itself at war with Mexico.
For Mexicans and Latinas/os and Chicanas/os, this is a licentious semiotic marriage—a conjunction/concurrence of events made in a visuo-political hell worthy of Pieter Breughel (Jr.).
Nothing will ever be the same.
The last postcard I sample contains within its body an allegory of the Tex[t]-Mex thesis. Vanderwood and Samponaro's caption is key, so I leave it intact again.
H. H. Stratton's savvy pirating of Horne's wily art allows for the propagation of dead Mexican bodies—the fruits, as it were, of violence south of the border proliferate within the borders of the United States, where odd and inerasable hallucinations of violent, revolutionary, savage "Mexican" subjectivities become de rigueur, and embed themselves in the collective synapses of Uncle Sam's semiotically retarded, scoptophiliac children.
Some of the Why of It
Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America was constructed in the attempt to make a meaningful contribution to at least four lively, sometimes interrelated, scholarly categories: ethnic studies, Chicana/o studies, film theory, and cultural studies. (It adds, as a subplot, various digressive instances of Chicano autobiography that you are free to ignore, as they are the province of my analyst and my progeny.)
A comparative and interdisciplinary speculation on manufactured Latina and Latino bodies in the imagination (and the marketplace) of the United States, Tex[t]-Mex assesses the impact of various image and narrative industries on Latinas/os in literature, art, and mass culture. It does so with illustrated chapters on icons of "Mexicanicity" from the twentieth century: greasers in Hollywood's silent films; "half-breeds" in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil; Rita Hayworth; Lupe Vélez, the sexy, cantankerous "Mexican Spitfire"; and would-be Latina and eugenics intrigues in Warner Bros.'s Speedy Gonzales animated shorts.
The chapters in Tex[t]-Mex suggest that "Mexicans," in the imagination of the Americas—North, Central, and South—are less a raza than a seductive ruse and maintain that the peculiar and particular apparitions of "Mexicans," "Mexican Americans," "Mexican-Americans," "Hispanics," "Chicanas/os," and "Latinas/os" in the U.S. marketplace are overdue for patient scrutiny. Only the masterly forensics of cultural studies can properly peruse this fuzzy brown mass of familiar and toxic detritus.
These "Latino-esque" hallucinations appear in movies, newspapers, and magazines and on television, among other forms of print and "telemedia." Tex[t]-Mex studies the "drift" of these image forms across various media—from photography into feature films, from advertising into the novel, from television into public policy. Like some ungodly, miscegenated fusion of the "visual unconscious" and the "political unconscious," these walking billboards act as almost-sentient and ambulatory prostheses. There is always more than meets the eye when it comes to Mexican bodies in the eyes of the Americas.
Tex[t]-Mex Rant: A Prayer For and Against, sit venia verbo, Pendejo Mannequins
The Tex[t]-Mex is a tattoo, a mark on the body of America it likes to look at—and it has a right to look at it, be entertained by it, laugh at it, and loathe it:
It made it; it put it there; it is the sum total of its demented vision. And this Tex[t]-Mex tattoo is clever, almost sentient, always salaciously seductive—moving with the dynamics of what Freud called "hysterical identification," it elicits "sympathy . . . intensified to the point of reproduction."
That demented vision haunts all, influenzes all (like an existential halitosis from "our" not-mouth)—leaving the taint of its stain here and there to haunt, perhaps most of all, the Mexican Americans, the Chicanas and Chicanos, the Latinos, who must wear it like a sandwich board scrawled with crude epithets for all to see and wonder at. Or better, like a disguise that won't come off—some aberrant child of Halloween—Latino stereotypes are the mask that can't be pried away, the fabric that becomes skin.
Allow me to suggest a counterpoint, un antítesis, a negative—recall that epic moment from Homer's momentous epic wherein Menelaus, wanderlustful Helen of Troy's "better half," addresses Telemachus, Odysseus's son and heir. Menelaus's words anoint Telemachus in this form:
Enjoy yourselves and eat. After supper
We will ask you who you are—your bloodlines
Have not been lost in you. You belong
To the race of men who are sceptered kings
Bred from Zeus. You're not just anybody.
"Mexicans" in the eyes of Americans, get a different kind of welcome, a very un-Menelausian salutation, the fabric that becomes skin, the text that becomes Mex, or, better put, proxies said Mex, is of a race of men sans scepter.
Tex[t]-Mex. Like we don't already have enough problems with skin—its color, its texture, its smell. Mexican Americans are born through the racist fury of a "Mexican" view of race that is both Spanish (think castes, Empire, Inquisition, slavery) and Mexica/Aztec (think castes, Empire, Inquisition [ask the Cholulans and the Tlaxcaltecans], slavery—oh yeah, and that little thing with the obsidian knives and victims' hearts; the Spanish merely roasted their victims' hearts over a fire.)
So the Mexican American, and the Mexican-American, and the Chicana/o (are they the same thing?) are already at a disadvantage when it comes to skin, and yet, in the context of the United States, it gets worse, because our own skin, our own brown-ness (as Richie Rich, er, Richard Rodriguez, weightily intones), brings with it a certain sheen that catches the eye of our other Americans (and our own eye as well).
The Tex[t]-Mex is the fabric made by others, worn by ourselves. Recall here the fabulous textile of Mexican emigrant from Spain Remedios Varo in Bordando el mante terrestre/ Embroidering Earth's Mantle, famously rewoven in the pages of Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, the most famous Chicano novel written by a recluse Anglo-American.
In it, a captive, knowing seamstress weaves a fabric that bounds out a tower's window, so much so that it makes up the world atop which the tower sits. Such an evocative metaphor, such a provocative conjuring through which to see the body of the Mexican American, the body politic of an ethnic half-breed in its odyssey across America.
Tex[t]-Mex; ironies abound: text-Mex, text minus Mex, as if the text of the Mexican stereotype in the American imagination was allowed to at once exile the bodies of "real" Mexicans. Tex[t]-Mex, the lure and the surrogate, author of an evolving elision of the mexicana subject. . . .