A new book examines how the people of Chicanx had to fight to be represented in American pop culture
Popular culture often has the reputation of being a less serious form of cultural expression. Even if it’s true, others may say that doesn’t make it any less valuable. Indeed, one historian suggests that pop culture was one of the important avenues through which Latinos and Chicanos/Chicanas made their mark in American society.
These sometimes brief moments of Chicanx visibility on TV, in music, and in movies were signs of hope that America could be more equal, more inclusive, even if they didn’t last long. Luis Alvarez, a history professor at the University of California, San Diego, explored these moments in his book “Chicanx Utopias: pop culture and the politics of the possible“, and claims that they were a step in the right direction, not only for the people of Chicanx living in the United States, but also for other marginalized groups. Listen to the interview with Alvarez in the audio player below above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: Let’s start with this general idea of cultural utopias: what does it mean to you?
Luis Alvarez: Excellent question. Utopias – it’s in the title, after all – is really about the visions and impulses of utopia that weren’t just an integral part of chicanx pop culture, but were very much part of people’s everyday activity. When I say “utopia,” I’m not just talking about finite community plans or finished, finished projects, but really about those little deep moments when people might even for a second embrace or articulate the visions or impulses of a better world. These are moments of utopia that are truly still in progress, still unfinished.
And it’s really not a book about utopia like all world change and revolution with a capital R, but really more about the kind of many everyday moments that signal the possibility of a different world that might work more like a kind of series of revolutions, with a small r. That’s really what I mean by the kind of politics of the possible that’s in the subtitle of the book. And sometimes those pop-cultural policies sparked bigger changes, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they have been co-opted by mass culture, and sometimes not.
It reminds me of a recent conversation we had on our show about young people in San Anrtonio who had developed their own style of rock ‘n’ roll because they felt left out of the rock scene that had emerged nationally. in the late 1950s and early ’60s. They called it the “West Side Sound”. They didn’t even realize what they had created at the time, but they relied on the idea of inclusion. Would you describe this as a chicanx utopia?
Absolutely. And I think the West Side Sound in San Antonio reflected different sounds and soundscapes across the country, including the one I write about in chapter 2 of the book, which is really the Brown Eyed Soul scene in East Los Angeles that is was happening around the same time and at a location not too far from what was happening in San Antonio.
It’s really a book about what’s happening in these cultural worlds, not only arguing that they’re important, but sometimes [that] what happens in these cultural worlds – be it music or the visual arts or film or even television, which I write about in the various chapters of the book – what happens in these cultural spaces sometimes does not happen in other areas of life, whether it’s electoral politics or work organization or what have you.
In your chapter “Chico and the Man,” which was a comedy series on NBC in the 1970s, you write about what a kind of double-edged sword it was. Can you explain why?
“Chico and the Man”, as well as “Welcome Back, Kotter”, the old sitcoms of the mid-70s, are part of chapter 3. And really what I want to convey in this chapter is that sometimes utopias have been co-opted by the mass culture industry – in this case, the television industry.
“Chico and the Man” was a standout show, in part because it featured one of the only Latinx characters on TV at the time. Freddie Prinze was a Puerto Rican; in fact, he called himself “Hungarian”. And he started out as a young Chicano guy in this show that’s set in East Los Angeles. And that created controversy, didn’t it? There were many Chicano activists at the end of the Chicano movement who were upset that a Chicano didn’t portray a Chicano on television.
And there were all kinds of conversations about the possibilities of what it meant to have a main character on TV who connected to the Chicanx and Chicano/Chicana communities at a very important time in American history – a time when we were really trying to get a sense of what race relations would look like in the country after the end of the civil rights movement, and what that really meant for the communities of Chicanx. And to see that they didn’t really have the representation, they didn’t have the voice in the scripts and the way the storyline unfolded on TV, really talked about the limits of what could be represented, or what could be represented, in this particular cultural medium that is television.
What I’m really arguing about in this chapter, both in terms of “Chico and the Man” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” is that some kind of idea of multiracial harmony on these sitcoms really turned out to be only available to a few people, and the locals and communities of Chicanx weren’t always included in those conversations. And that’s one of the real limitations of cultural utopias is that sometimes they don’t work for the people who are most invested in them.
What did you hope people would take away from the book while you were writing it?
I am really writing this book for everyone. I think if there’s a take home message, it’s that Chicanx pop culture is full of great stories and dreams of a better world, that this stuff isn’t the property of the people of Chicanx. But I focus on their dreams and their stories; I see it in the movie “Salt of the Earth” from 1954, which is the first chapter of [my] book, and I think it works its way through the other chapters of the book.
I want us to really watch and listen to our television, our movies, and our music with an eye to the political possibilities, the times when people came together across racial lines to challenge segregation, which is a big part of the book. Connections to the past – to truly imagine a different future.
So I think if we listen and watch the artists and the singers, the actors, the producers who are in this book, they have the ability to teach us something about the power of culture to change the world, not just the how the people of Chicanx have long struggled against forces more powerful than themselves, but really, how those utopian visions and impulses that might have been obscured in history can spring from any place or time in life. daily activity of people.
Another point of follow-up is that much of this book is about people who are not of Mexican descent engaging, producing, creating, broadcasting, consuming what has been considered “Chicano”. Popular culture that happens in film, that happens in music, that happens in poster art, there’s African-Americans, Japanese and Japanese-Americans, Jews and all kinds others who are engaged in the creation and production, circulation of Chicano popular culture that truly make it a multiracial story. And that’s one of the arguments that I really want people to take away, that being Chicanx or Chicano/Chicana, I want us to think about extending the kind of ethnoracial logic of what that means, and the kind of logic territorial, this geographical logic, of what that means. And that really means writing for a bigger, wider audience.
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