Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Prinze and the Pauper

We are in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15. To fufill their PSA obligations, this usually sends networks scrambling to try and come up with Latino historical figures important to this nation. In reality, there are lots to choose from, of course. Given that most Americans never really learned about any Latinos in school, however, networks end up choosing some pretty dubious figures. Inevitably we are stuck being associated with Latinos whom we would rather not claim.

One of the perennial favorites tends to be Fray Junípero Serra. Popular culture often credits Serra with “founding” [Alta] California. Of course, such an interpretation presumes that Native Americans who already resided in Alta California were unfounded.

Without doubt, Serra had energy and did establish an astounding string of Indian Enslavement Camps Catholic Missions. The truth is, though, that even in the eighteenth century most people considered Serra kinda nuts.

Serra had an obsession for Franciscan friars who ventured into places like New Mexico in the previous century. Seventeenth-century missionaries who found themselves whacked martyred in pursuit of religious conversion really got Serra’s blood pumping.

Times had changed, though, by the time Serra came on the scene. The eighteenth-century had that pesky title of the “Age of Enlightenment.” Throughout Spain and its colonies (including New Mexico), people shunned the excesses of the previous century. Not good ol’ Junípero, though. One could imagine a typical conversation at the annual Missionary Convention, probably held in Las Vegas. “Oh, Junípero,” one of his colleagues would say, “You aren’t really wanting to get your body filled with arrows like Saint Sebastian, are you? That is so 1680. Oh.My.God. Is that a hair shirt? Where did you even get that? You crazy.”

What did the Catholic Church do with a clergy man known to be a bit out of his head? Of course, they kept transferring him. Eventually, he ended up in Alta California, much to the chagrin of the Pomo.

Yeah, that’s who we get for Hispanic Heritage Month: Looney, itchy, Indian-enslaving Junípero Serra. He did not even come from Latin America, by the way. He was born in Spain. Of course, American High Schoolers’ knowledge of geography leaves them unable to tell the difference between Spain and Mexico on a globe – so it really doesn't make a difference I suppose.

Don’t mistake my writing this with surprise that the mass media has yet to come to terms with Latinos in the U.S. Almost every night at the gym I am subjected to Lou Dobbs’ hysterical paranoia over Mexican immigration. I have had an ambivalent relationship with the media almost literally since I was born.

Just a few months after my glorious entrance into this world (the day the earth shook with goodness), NBC debuted the television program Chico and the Man. Not since Ricky Ricardo had a Latino had a major role on a televison show. This time, the network promised that the show would be “different.” Chico and the Man, network executives claimed, acknowledged the Chicano movement. NBC said they listened to demands of young Mexican Americans everywhere for more representation. It would offer a show that spoofed racist assumptions about Mexican Americans in the same spirit as All in the Family.

NBC might have listened to the angry voices in the Chicano movement, but clearly they were tone deaf. The resulting show really just gave us another “good minority” who happily enjoys his own oppression. Even the title character, “Chico,” was another way of naming all Latino men “Boy.”

By the time I had any memories of Chico and the Man, it had already gone to syndication. My parents, though, had this notion of “supporting” anything that had prominent Latino figures in it. Supporting, in this case, meant watching. Besides Chico and the Man was basically the only thing with a prominent Latino figure on television, at least until Lynda Carter appeared in Wonder Woman – Yep, she’s one of us. Surprised? We weren’t.

For those who never saw Chico and the Man, the premise went like this: Chico, played by the stand-up comic Freddie Prinze, doesn’t believe that “the man,” played by Jack Albertson, is really as miserable as the entire barrio claims. Sure, Ed (the man) constantly berates Mexicans/Mexican Americans, uses derogatory terms like “beaner,” and generally shows himself to be hateful to all Latinos. Ed says that back in his day, “Mexicans knew their place: Mexico.”

Chico, though, is a Chicano with a heart of gold (and a Silver Star from his duty in Vietnam!). No matter how many times Ed (the man) tells Chico to shove off, he just keeps coming back for more. Ed could be spiteful and hideous, but Chico never got fed up or even annoyed. Chico just kept smiling and cracking jokes. He is glad, glad, GLAD to be helping Ed (the man).

Chico’s only ambition in life was to work in Ed’s garage. In fact, he liked it so much that he worked for free! Like all good Chicanos should, Chico makes it his life mission to help the man. He starts by breaking into Ed’s garage in the middle of the night so that he can clean it. He even put flowers out in honor of Ed’s deceased wife.

Not earning a direct paycheck from Ed makes it tough for Chico to, you know, eat and stuff. Not to be dissuaded by pesky poverty, though, the selfless Chico more than happily takes up residence in an abandoned van. He cheerfully takes baths with a hose in the men’s room sink. No, I am not making this up – That is literally the pilot episode.

Chico, of course, was the “exceptional” Mexican American figure in the show. All of the other Latinos who surrounded Chico lived up to the usual stereotypes. His father deserted Chico when he was a youngster (though he later shows up in the third season and turns out to be Cesar Romero and a wealthy business man (in that order)). Chico’s best friend, Mando, always has a scheme at play. None of the other Latinos who appear in the show ever seem to have jobs. Only Chico – and he, as we already established, works for free!

Even the theme song, belted out by none other than José Feliciano, calls for Chico to “not be discouraged because the man ain’t so hard to understand.” Yeah, you pesky Chicano radicals wanting equality and stuff. What’s your problem? The man has it tough too! It ain’t easy out here for the man. The song also explicitly tells Chico that “you can lend a helping hand” to the man.

Chico told young Latinos everywhere to not rock the boat. Keep quiet, be a doormat for the man, and, though deferred, gratification will come your way. And we thought Serra was a flagellant!

Because of Chico and the Man, and maybe Chico’s extremely tight jeans, I have always had a peculiar interest in Freddie Prinze. It became even greater when I found out that Prinze was of mixed ancestry (Just like me!). Prinze was half Euro-American and half Puerto Rican (Not like me -- Mexican/Irish Ameican). Contrary to popular belief, Prinze was not Chicano – He just played one on t.v. Apparently the producers of the show figured that all Latinos were interchangeable. Puerto Rican? Mexican American? Whatever.

Before Chico, Prinze had been an extremely popular comic. His routines focused on the foibles of racism and being of mixed ancestry. Imagine a 1970s Puerto-Rican version of Dave Chappell. Prinze gained tremendous fame and even landed stints guest-hosting the Tonight Show for Johnny Carson.

He also became embroiled in drugs sometime during the filiming of Chico and the Man. Many people suggest that the drugs led to his suicide. I, on the other hand, tend to point to playing Chico as the potential cause for the suicide. Interestingly, in the last episode that Prinze filmed the day he shot himself, Chico finally tells Ed (the Man) that he has had enough of being mistreated. Of course, later in the episode, Chico sort of forgot about it and throws Ed (the Man) a big party.

Perhaps as a good bookmark, Prinze’s son, Freddie Prinze, Jr. tried to launch his own sitcom this past year. After Prinze’s death, his ex-wife took their young son the only place in the U.S. that many Latinos considered a safe zone: New Mexico. Freddie Prinze, Jr. grew up in Albuquerque (Just Like Me!). He, though, went to the "rich" high school (La Cueva). I did not.

Prinze, Sr. built a career on playing with his Latino identity. Prinze, Jr, however, frequently shunned being identified as “Latino.” At least he avoided it until it seemingly became marketable. Then he was more than happy to try to cash in on his father’s name and heritage with his own television program. Mercifully this show only lasted one season.

I thought by 2006 that network television would give us a better and more diverse vision of Latinos. Instead, we are left with the same sparse and recycled images that I had when I was three years old.


The Persian said...

I heart Della Reese. :)

Anonymous said...

Oooh oooh! Mr Gay Prof! Madison Avenue are Australian! But they're almost a one-hit-wonder (I think there were two)...

I can't really comment on the major content of your blog except to say that as an Australian visiting the US (mainly CA) I was continually amazed and the latin presence (signs in spanish, food etc)- something that is not represented at all in the 'culture' I had seen represented by pop culture so I was unprepared for.

I'm guessing it's a bit like if you came to Sydney, you'd probably be surprised at the number or asians here (please don't think that's a problem for me, it's just not something that is well represented in our popular culture).

I would add that a lot of subtext in film (particularly from Hollywood) reinforce or enforce the idea that it's all well and good to strive to join another class, but realistically, it's best if you don't try, you're better off staying where you are... Even as much as I LOVED 'Devil wears Prada' - there was an element of that there too...

I think I'm getting too deep, time for me to look at pretty things and stop thinking.

Love your blog and when I saw that superman/Wonder woman interaction whilst watching Family Guy (like on TV, like last week) I literally fell off my chair I was laughing so hard, thanks for reminding me by posting it...

Anonymous said...

Recently I saw an interview with Rita Moreno, another talented Puerto Rican.
As you know, she has a Grammy, Tony and an Oscar.
She did not work for several years after "Westside Story" because all the scripts offered to her were variations on Anita,her character in that film.
What a waste of a special talent.
On another note, what was Della's role on "Chico"? If the man was hateful to Chico, we can only imagine how he must have been to her!

Roger Owen Green said...

Scatman Crothers was also on "Chico and the Man", playing Louie the garbageman. As for Della Resse, "Della Rogers [her character] was to thr cast in the fall of 1976 [the third sason] as the civic-minded owner of the diner across the street from Ed's Garage, who also happened to be the new owner of the property on which the garage was located. She was more than capable of dishing out as much as she took from Ed."

So, of COURSE, I watched it. One, then TWO black people. I mean...

What I had forgotten until I read it, after Freddie Prinze committed suicide in 1977 [Chico left the garage to work with his father - played bt Cesar Romero], that Ed & Louie find Raul [Gabriel Melgar] stowed away in their car trunk.

You'll love this sensitive dialogue at the end of the first episode, when the two of them were preparing to go to sleeped.
Ed (apparently indvertently): Good night, Chico.
Raul: [corrects Ed]
Ed [apparently without irony]: You're all Chicos to me.

At which point, I stopped watching.

Ed adopts Raul and has to contend with his aunt Charo [played by Charo!] "an entertainer who recently arrived from Spain." THAT must have been...interesting.

tornwordo said...

How depressing. I remember watching that show as a kid. Now I feel all dirty about it.

Earl Cootie said...

Don't forget Vikki Carr (who was not in "Chico and the Man").

GayProf said...

Persian: Enough to watch Touched by an Angel?

Chukki: I did not know that Madison Avenue came from Australia. Your nation has mastered pop music.

Brian: Yeah, it took until Oz before she really got a solid role.

ROG: I knew that they brought in a young boy to replace Prinze. To be honest, though, I have no actual memories of shows with him in it. I couldn’t even pick him out of a line-up. Go figure.

Torn: We all watched it and we all feel dirty.

Earl: My father had all of Vikki Carr’s music on Eight-Tracks. I am just sayin’.

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking, as usual, GayProf. What do you think of the George Lopez show?

I sorta remember watching Chico and the Man when I was a kid. It made me uncomfortable, just as All in the Family did. I was too young to recognize the reasons why.

The only good thing about that show coming out when it did, for me anyway, is it coincided with the first year I was not subjected to "US History to 1865" for the umpteenth time. We got "World History", which included half a term on pre-Columbian history and half a term on Canadian history. Huge eye-opener and it led to my love of all history.

The show led me to explore the Chicano movement and then the inter-related histories of the Americas because a face had been put to the names.

Will said...

My parents sent me to all 12 years of Catholic school. Their take on Serra and his ilk was close to idolization. Indians? heathens who had to have the word and "light" of god brought to them and shoved down their throats if necessary. Heretics or those who resisited? butn them alive--possibly unpleasant but justified (being burned would save their souls, after all) as being "God's Work."

Fortunately I read history extensively and was far ahead of the very managed history we were being given. I was reading real, documantable history so I knew all the lies we were being told. It was when anti-semitism was actually taught in the fifth grade classroom that I broke with the Catholics in terms of believing in the religion, eventually in believing in god, and began to rebuild my whole belief system.

Conor Karrel said...

The only latino characters I've seen over the last few years on TV are on 'The George Lopez Show' which I find insulting, degrading and worse just not funny.

But Ugly Betty is hopefully changing that, it's hysterical and witty, it shows the passion and intelligence of latino's, I hope they can keep it up, and her papa is damn cute, so I'm hooked!

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting to read a Latino interpretation of the subtext of Chico and the Man. I loved that show (OK, I loved Freddie's tight pants, too), and my family watched it regularly. The show was wildly popular among my classmates in my all-white grade school in the all-white suburb in which I grew up. (OK, there was one African-American/Puerto Rican family in town.) Freddie Prinze was the only Latino man we knew, and he was almost the coolest guy around. I mean, come on, the guy was funny, goodlooking, AND he could speak a whole 'nother language!
The coolest guy around was Jimmy Walker on Good Times, which was by far the most popular show among my peers. I'm pretty sure that everything you said about Chico and the Man could equally apply to a contemporary African-american critique of Good Times, or Sanford and Son for that matter. However, J.J. and Freddie were the only black and latino guys that we knew, so they were our impression of black and latino men. And, we all wanted to be friends with them. So, maybe the shows weren't aimed at your demographic, but mine. And didn't they have the right effect?
In fact, writing this has changed my opinion of Will & Grace. I have always hated that show, because I don't think it depicts the queer world that I live in. I think it depicts the worst stereotypes. But suddenly, I think that if straight folks and kids love those characters, maybe the show does more good than harm today.
As for Jose Feliciano's theme song- First of all, it's a toss up with the Mary Tyler Moore Show (Sonny Curtis) and Welcome Back, Kotter (John Sebastian) for the best TV theme song ever. More importantly, interpreting Chico as everyman, and The Man as everyboss, the song is an exhortation to consider one's boss' motivations and pressures when one is being mistreated by their boss. I listen to that song everytime my boss asks me to do something unreasonable. (OK, I wore out an ipod listening to that song.) Then, I delete the email draft that would surely get me fired, and I find a way to make my boss' ridiculous desires align with my own career development.
Thanks, GP, for giving me the insider's view!

r said...


I watched that show all the time as a kid. Like torn, I feel dirty now.

Frank said...

*Puts on my contrarian, slightly tongue-in-cheek hat* Now, GayProf, as a historian you know you have to take the good history with the bad history. Serra was nuttier than a jar of peanut butter, but he can't just be shunted offstage when he becomes "inconvenient" to the image.

Unless Prinze Sr. had something REALLY going on in those tight jeans, I can't even imagine finding him remotely attractive. He's just so... 70s, in a really skeevy way. And he gave the world Prinze Jr. and that's just unforgivable.

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with the PBS (WPBT) 1979 series "Que Pasa U.S.A?" Did this air anywhere outside of Miami?

Oso Raro said...

Girlfriend, Digging Chiquo et L'Homme out of the memory hole is like unleashing the scary monsters in Hellraiser. Ew. And that José Feliciano theme song is enough to make you regret ever hearing it once, much less preserved for posterity chez YouTube. The East LA in the 70s shots are interesting though.

Anonymous said...

While heartily agreeing with all of your arguments as usual, I have just one quibble: Serra and his colleagues did "found" Alta California, which was/is a concept, not a physical feature like the Sierra Nevada. It didn't exist until some Spanish mapmakers invented it because they read a fantasy novel about some Amazons (California=Themiscyra, kind of) and thought the place exotic enough to give it the name.

Before their meddling, the various peoples just lived here, and I imagine they would've found the idea of a land comprising all of their tribal lands, and with boundaries as out-of-kilter with physical geography's as California's, as pretty silly. One doesn't found people; one founds institutions. If one can't restrain oneself.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I just misused "comprising" just then. You know what I mean.

GayProf said...

Laura Elizabeth: Sadly, I am not sure students are learning much about North American history any longer. Actually, the U.S. seems poorly informed about current world events. In almost every class that I teach, I ask students to name the current Prime Minister of Canada (our neighbor to the north). At BEST, only one or two students can come up with a name. More often, though, nobody knows.

Will: Pope John Paul II beatified Serra. He is on the track to becoming a saint, according to the Catholic Church.

MEK: I have only seen one episode of Ugly Betty, but am intrigued. Occasionally, I used to see the telenovela it was based on when I worked out at the gym in Texas. One problem with altering it for U.S. contexts, though, is that Betty is no longer one of an entire cast of Latinos. Therefore, it becomes a bit more problematic that she is “Ugly Betty.”

Kermit: I appreciate that Chico and the Man did do some good and bring visibility previously lacking. Still, I am not convinced that there could not have been another means to accomplish these goals.

Rebekah: Let’s all meet at the pop-culture shower room.

Frank: I don’t think that I am arguing that we should forget about Serra. Rather, I am just saying that he is not a [quasi]Latino figure to valorize.

Words83: I have no memory of this show.

Chris: The Academy was private. La Cueva was the rich, but still public, school. It replaced Sandia in that regard.

Oso: They later ditched those shots of East LA.

Huntington: Fair enough – Serra imposed a politically-derived geographic organization onto the local lands. My problem being, of course, that his imposition has become the “starting” point for the history of those lands and people.

WM said...

Hey you,
I was wondering what you had been up to, and I wanted to tell that in this case at least, cancer didn't win. I'm back. But Gosh, don't you think Canada needs a makeover??
I hope everything is splendind with you--it is important that it should be.
Salaam aleikum!
And indeed, let someone try to question my right to that. I've Islam dripping out of my pores....
So...what's up with you? I would have written this to your email, but found I didn't have it.
(It's like claiming one's Amish ancestors) Yes, My Family Were Muslims At Some Point!!!!!!