Living on the Day of the Dead

In this week's fantastic Alt Latino show on NPR, the first song they play is La Bruja/The Witch, in which the signer cries, "Oh, how beautiful it is to fly/At two in the morning/ At two in the morning, how beautiful it is to fly, ay, mama".

He's flying with a witch.

A hot witch.

The beautiful thing about Day of the Dead is its sex appeal - the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, is about celebrating the duality of life. It's about creation, and also about destruction. It embraces the two sides of existence, and in it, the poetry of existence itself. The Day of the Dead is about staring life down to the end of the road, and smiling.

The holiday is a glorious whirl of marigolds and miel; but this year, with as much death as there is in the Americas, and particularly in Mexico and Central America (where it is celebrated the strongest), it has a different tone. The drug wars in Mexico have turned it into a pais de lloronas, in the literal sense.

It might be easy to let death have the final word; to just give in, and fly with it. Let it slowly lessen the value of life, and overshadow its glow.

That's the lazy option, and it's the wrong one.

The harder one is to get on with the business of living. We know we respect the dead, and that the dead respect us. But let's also have a little more respect for the living, - and live it like we mean it.

Let's make policies and communities that are life-affirming. Start by signing this Washington Office on Latin America petition to stop the arms smuggling that's driving so much death in Mexico by clicking here. Solo faltan 300 - they only need 300 more.

As the famous Los Fabulosos Cadillacs song Skeletons and Devils/Calaveras y Diablitos, reminds us:

Las tumbas son para los muertos...
Graves are for the dead
La vida es para gozarla
Life is about living well
La vida es para vivirla mejor.
Life is about living it better and better all the time.

Castizo Closets

It's confirmed: Arnold Schwarzenegger's "love child" is half Mexican. Given that he slept with a member of his domestic household staff, I figured that the woman was Latina, and turns out she is. Mildred Patricia Baena, to be exact. Somewhere in Southern California a certain Chicano kid has been smirking on the couch while his friends unknowingly joked, "I'll be back!".
While it's disappointing, a high-level politician cheating on his wife is too normal to really be newsworthy. (After all, nearly all high-level politicos from DC to CA - Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa - have checked that box.) What is newsworthy is how old-school this is.
Schwarzenegger having a love-child with his Mexican maid is straight 19th century. It's casta California, a color-based caste and power system in which European landowners often had children with indigenous women who worked in or around their homes. That's the mission system every California 3rd grader has to re-create with styrofoam as a class project. While Anglo settlers rejected this loose, Latin American social system that allowed for racial mixing, it's a deeply ingrained idea in California's subconscious.
And is perhaps even more so now, because NAFTA has turned the best intentions of both the Minute Men and the reconquista (reconquest) activists on their heads: American corporations have rendered Mexico economically uninhabitable, pushing hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals back into what was Northern Mexico just 150 years ago.
Who knew that of all people, Republicans would make the reconquista real. California is half Mexican now, and its "centrist" governor has sealed the deal.
In californio California, people wouldn't have blinked if a blond governor had a dark-haired son in the figurative closets of his large estate. Maybe Arnold's most famous line is really the voice of casta California: I'll be back!

Jessica and George

Earlier last month, George Lopez interviewed Jessica Alba on his new TLC show, during which he made public the results of a DNA test he ran on her to find out her "real ethnicity".

The footage is painful to watch, as is the remedial effect it’ll have on understandings of race and ethnicity in Hollywood and beyond.

Apparently we're going backwards here; maybe Ellis Island-type head measurings are next. This is not 21st century 'post-racial' America, but rather plain, old-fashioned, institutionalized racism.

Perhaps what’s most disappointing is to hear this from a Chicano hard-liner  bent on the politics of inclusion. Latino culture is built on mixture, and for Lopez to do this is to shoot that legacy in the foot.

Lopez looks all but ecstatic to tell her, "Jessica Alba: You're whiter than Larry David." (The same - rather questionable? - DNA tests that revealed that Alba is 13% Native American while prominent Jewish director Larry David is 37% Native American.)

Jessica Alba is not whiter than Larry David, and that's because she doesn’t look it.

People are treated based on how they look, and Jessica Alba was put in ESL as a child because she was brown. (Her teachers assumed she only spoke Spanish.)

I doubt Larry David had a similar experience.

Let’s face it: genes do not always equal phenotype. And a lot of people know this. Growing up in and around mixed white/Latino families, kids like me thought it a funny little secret that we could all play together – some with blond hair, some with black hair – and have the rest of the world not know that we were actually all of the same “racial” mix.

If Lopez is going to do DNA tests, he needs to at least acknowledge that they don’t mean what he thinks they do. Whatever it is he sought to prove, the only thing he will end up proving is that this type of “only if” Latino belonging is exactly what made Jessica Alba reluctant to identify as Latina in the first place.

The sort of “only if” litmus tests - the only if you’re Latino ‘all day, every day’, the only if you speak Spanish, tests - is what disqualified Jessica Alba from Hispanicity in Southern California but made her Latina to everyone outside of it. In the greater U.S., to be half Mexican is to be Mexican, but in many places in Southern California to be half-white, half-Mexican is to be white.

Big difference.

How do people expect her to accept something she is constantly rejected from? (And okay, maybe I’m partial to her because she has a castiza baby. But she can never seem to win Hollywood’s race game, and I don’t think she needs to.)

And why does someone have their own show if their favorite thing to say is, “You can’t play in my sandbox!” on network late night?

Please. In “GLo” terms, that is so MP: más puto.

I mean, where can he go from here? Run a DNA test on former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and announce to everyone that this Latin American man is not Latino because he's East Asian? Or better yet, run a DNA test on himself? What would Lopez do if his results said he was part European - or, as he put it to Jessica Alba, part 'Oh My God'? Say...oh, my God!?!

The Politics of Culture in Southern Cali

The first place I ever really talked about politics was on the swing set of my elementary school playground. It was 1992, and Perot, Clinton, and George W. H. Bush were competing for the presidency. Recess was the time for discussing things – things like the paucity of the snack selection at school, or things like the future of the country. My best friend Grace and I both assumed that the other had watched the presidential debates on TV with our parents the night prior, and we proceeded to conduct a frank discussion about the valor of the candidates’ claims under the glare of the strong Southern California sun.

The element in question was whether George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton was the one who started his speech with the seemingly idiotic phrase, “My fellow Americans.” The person that would actually say something like that in all seriousness was automatically discounted from our primary-school caucus. Our fourth-grade selves had reached a small, pixie quorum that men with big ears (like Ross Perot), or men who were uninventive enough to use that tired terminology, were clearly unfit for office. Inside, we both knew that Clinton was the one who had said it, but I liked Clinton, so I kept quiet and tried to fool her into thinking it was Perot. Grace had by now climbed up to the top of the monkey bars, and from the top of her world, laughed out loud at the pedantic dorkiness of the man who was to become the Commander-in-Chief of the decade that gave birth to welfare reform, the personal computer, and hip-hop as the new definitive music of American life.

There in the small, neglected, lower middle-class desert towns east of the Los Angeles film industry, we became “multi-culti” young politicos by accident. Immigration from East Asia and Latin America in the 90’s meant that it was normal to be Taiwanese, and everyone bragged about their vida loca, if it really wasn’t all that loca.

In junior high, the sounds of TuPac, Pearl Jam, and Selena all got equal turns on our CD players, and while we might of disagreed about taxes or abortion, at least we had an abundance of hair gel to glue us all together. Equipped with burritos, Boba milk tea and barbeque, we were the coincidental characters in Obama’s “next great chapter in the American story.”

Now in my mid-twenties, I live in Washington, D.C., a town full of people trying to actively script the next great chapter in the American story. However, like with most stories, the turns and twists – the variations on the plot – are the most exciting parts.

For professional political operatives, the politics of culture have come to mean more than previously thought. A progressive campaign speaking to the needs of those dis-serviced by Washington’s insiders actually won this time. Come to think of it, Obama might have even have gotten ahead by using the phrase “my fellow Americans”…but that doesn’t much matter now.

What does matter is that our candidates pay attention to the politics that matter most – the politics of every day life.

Back home in California, people have problems with home foreclosures, with environmental racism, with a failing economy. California is the fifth largest economy in the world, yet the state can’t balance its budget. In L.A., many young people don’t vote because they think it won’t make a difference; here in D.C., the most politicized, intellectually potent state of the union, people are very passionate about voting, but feel like they haven’t actually seen it make a difference yet.

It will make a difference, though. Our generation might lack consensus, but we’ll never lack a good soundtrack. We can help each other along the way, much like Lila Downs can maybe help our legislature do a little Capitol Hill cumbia in the direction of fairness, justice, and equality.

I’m from generation of dreams and downbeats – and that’s why I’m voting this November 4th.