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!?!

Rudo Y Cursi give Diaspora a new name

Hispanic Heritage Month is coming to an end, and Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (might) have given us something to celebrate.

Or something to cry about.

The two teamed up to executive produce the Focus Features film Sin Nombre, a powerful drama about Central Americans emigrating to the U.S. via Mexico. And according to Sin Nombre, the name of the Diaspora is called miseria: misery.

For those of us concerned with cultural memory, what does this mean for what the word “Latino” means in the U.S.?

In Sin Nombre, to be Latino is to be displaced; an identity of never quite getting it right; of an identity of struggle. But there is a swagger in attempt; a glamour in trying. Sin Nombre narrates a land where Kool Aid, caló, and cochinita pibil mix under a relentless sun. Sin Nombre (which means ‘nameless’) is a chronicle to the millions of people that leave the lands where NAFTA has destroyed the remnants of what global capitalism called an economy, and come risk their lives on the top of trains bound for Texas, Arizona, and California. This journey is plagued by gangs – Mara Salvatrucha, specifically - from start to finish.

In real life, Gael and Diego - the stars of Rudo y Cursi - are neither rude, nor cheesy. They are urban intellectuals. Their fan base is, as well; their fans are folks that spend their days devising solutions to immigration as a transnational policy problem, not a personal one. Dressing up as poor rancheros and actually being poor rancheros are two different things entirely; so what does solidarity mean, both on and off film?


Gang life as a Latino cultural legacy is a tricky one indeed. ‘Mi Vida Loca’ has been made into a cottage industry of Homey dolls and maroon-colored tee-shirts for Hispanic America. And while ‘homey’ is a cute term of endearment and white tank tops are good ways to show off nice biceps, gangs themselves are uh …not good things.

In my family, self-identifying as a Latino was to self-associate with gangs. In the cusp creole land that is east Los Angeles County (Whittier), the dividing line between white and Latino had to do with gangs. My mother, Maria Delsoccorro, with her almond eyes and long black hair, didn’t want to call herself Latina. She liked books, not fights.

“Why would I want to do that?,” she asked. “The Latinas carried knives in their hair.”

Caló (Chicano Spanglish) even carried itself into the land where carne asada is called steak. “Oh yeah, the huisa girls,” my Irish-American father remembers. Huisa, which means girl, was thought to mean chola, or the word for female gangster. Chicanas were huisas, and huisas were cholas. Semantics = sociology= Chicana girls were gangbangers.

Times change; after age 20 or so, I decided that I, as a bookish woman, would self-integrate into Latino circles. The Latino world I rotate in out here on the East Coast is filled with talk of community mobilization, and security studies, and cluster development. The guero (light) Latinos, the ones I fit in around, talk about getting a Masters vs. a Ph.D; we listen to Jorge Drexler. Sometimes people throw up a “w” hand sign for West Coast, but it is, at the end of the day, a joke.


History aside, Sin Nombre reminds us that that la vida loca really is loca – and moreover, is horrifying.

Filled with brutal murders and a stomach-churning feeling that wherever you go, you won’t be wanted, Sin Nombre reminds us just how frightening, and confounding, the dividing really line is.

The subjects of this film feel that they don’t belong anywhere – and not like postmodern, Cultural Studies whining – but economically and socially feel homeless in their own Hemisphere. It is the fear that the world has locked you out, completely.

After surviving an attempted rape at the hands of the MS-13 gang lord with the letters ‘m’ and ‘s’ tattooed on either side of his face, the co-star’s greatest joy is to take a cold shower with her clothes on.

Pride aside, name-calling aside, these films make you wonder, does to be Latino mean to be always not-quite-there-yet? Is this what we are? And if so, why does it have to be like this? 

Why is misery such an everyday part of (inter) American life?

Los Angeles Times writer Sonia Nazario stumbled upon the subject of Honduran immigration through Mexico by finding her Honduran maid crying in her kitchen one day, mumbling about trains. Sin Nombre is written in impeccable Spanish by hapa director Cary Fukunaga from the East Bay. More people need to create work about this subject, and give Latino life a wider range of names.

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.

On Los Angeles and place...

What do you do when you’re not Jewish in Beverly Hills
When you’re not Mexican in Huntington Park
When you’re not white in Santa Monica
When you’re black in Boyle Heights
When you’re Chinese in Baldwin Hills
When you’re Muslim in the Fairfax District
When you’re Catholic on Crenshaw
When you’re WASP in Alhambra
When you’re Ethiopian in the Valley

You return to your people in the Backbend Turnover March otherwise known as Rush Hour.
Returning to real estate, phone cards, and clothing that matches your kin.

Rush hour in Los Angeles is called North, South, East, West, this-is-how-we-do-unrest.

Q & A with Ethiopian community radio host

Off the Air with Abebe Belew of Addis Dimts Radio, D.C.

D.C. resident Abebe Belew is the host of the Addis Dimts radio show, a weekly Amharic talk show broadcast in D.C. via 1120 WUST AM/New World Radio and received in Ethiopia via 17845 kwh 17 mb. Emily Goulding caught him offline for a few minutes to ask him about radio, politics and power suits here in the Capitol region…

1. How did you decide to become a DJ? Were you a DJ in Ethiopia?
Well, actually I was a comedian in Ethiopia. And I was a traditional dancer, I used to work for a famous theater called the Ras Theater. Later, I became a host for an Ethiopian TV show called Variety Show. When I came here, I went back to my old job, entertaining Ethiopians at university campuses and stuff like that. Now, I have my own radio talk show here in Washington. I’m broadcasting on Sundays from 1pm to 2pm from D.C. all the way to Ethiopia.

2. How do you decide what your show topic is for the week?
It’s all about Ethiopians. It can be about sports, comedy, politics- any kind of topic.

3. What’s your favorite thing about being on the radio?
The main reason I decided to have a radio show is freedom of speech. Here, my show can one day be about restaurants, the next day about comedy. There is no such thing as private or free media in Ethiopia, so I’m living my dream by running free media.

4. When you call your family back home and tell them what it’s like to be Ethiopian in Washington, what do you say?
I tell them to come here to see it, it’s a very big difference. I grew up in a very strong culture, our culture was everything. The rule of law has no place in Ethiopia, so if it wasn’t for our culture, we wouldn’t be able to live in there. Our culture helps us live. Like for poor people, it doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong, they just don’t have freedom. In that aspect, the United States is a dream that I wish all Ethiopians could see. Freedom is a great thing for all humanity.

5. Do you feel that you have a certain social responsibility as a radio host?
Yes, yes, I have a big responsibility both here and back home to represent all sides. Whatever people think, I give them a chance to explain. I feel a great responsibility to stand up for what I believe, for free media, for giving a chance to every point of view.

6. Do you know who Piolín de la Mañana is? Sí venimos a triunfar?
I haven’t heard of him, but I don’t think he’s a journalist, he might be an activist. If he believes a rule is wrong and wants people to go out and fight, I don’t think that’s wrong, but if he’s a journalist, he can’t just take one side.

7. What’s the most difficult topic that’s ever come up during an interview?
Religion is the most difficult topic to discuss. In Ethiopia, we are mostly Orthodox, but we’re also Muslim, so whenever those two religions have things going on, it’s very difficult to host that program. Also, as a radio host, I can’t know the outcome of my program. You never know who is listening or what they’re going to do.

8. What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you while at WUST-AM?
The weirdest thing that happened to me is that people think I’m not good enough to be a journalist. They think that just because I was a comedian and a dancer, I can’t be a journalist. That’s weird to me, because I believe anyone can be anything they want to be.

9. Who wears nicer suits, Zenawi or Afewerki?
Zenawi (laughing). No, he’s actually a really funny-looking guy. In Ethiopia, people draw pictures to see who can make something that looks the closest to Zenawi… when you draw a goat and you take off the horns, you’ll see that it looks a lot like Zenawi.

10. And between Clinton and Obama?
Hillary looks better in a suit. Obama’s head is too little, so it looks kind of silly. Obama would look good in a runner’s outfit, or in a basketball uniform.

11. So who should I vote for?
If you don’t vote for Hillary, you should vote for me. (Laughs again.) Hillary has lots of experience, but I’ve never done anything in politics before, so if you don’t want experience, you should vote for me.