Born In East L.A. (Marin, 1998) was not only a box office success, it is one of the most popular and most critiqued Latino films (Barrera, 175). The fact that this film appealed to a mainstream audience shows the “effectiveness of Cheech Marin’s narrative strategies” because “ordinarily we would not expect that given the recent political climate,” with respect undocumented border crossers, that “one could get a mainstream audience to root for someone leading a mass invasion across the U.S.-Mexico boarder” (Barrera, 190). Cheech Marin uses his characters to represent many of the stereotypes, jokes and issues that come up for Chicanos and immigrants in the U.S. today.
Audiences and critics alike have a fixation with regard to realism in films, “they are invested in realism because they are invested in the idea of truth, and reserve the right to confront a film with their own personal and cultural knowledge” (Shohat, 178). However we live in a world of representations, and these representations do have effects in the real world. Hollywood often shows stereotypes of minorities which effect not only how the minority group is perceived by the major groups, but also the minorities views of their own group as a whole. It is obvious that realism has a big effect because “entire communities passionately protest the representations that are made of them in the name of their own experiential sense of truth” (Shohat, 181). However, Audiences must keep in mind that since Born In East L.A. is a comedy it’s contents cannot be taken literally. Marin goes over the top in many scenes in order to contest certain stereotypes and to insure that audiences will recognize the stereotypes and see how ridiculous they are.
Stereotypes are created to make something the other, to keep some one or something separate. However, “these images never remain abstractions: we understand them as real-world entities” (Gilman, 15). Stereotypes cause problems on screen and in the real world because cultures often internalize stereotypes even if they have negative effects of the culture itself (Shohat, 198). Marin does do some deconstruction of stereotypes, but he also uses a tactic of over doing stereotypes in order to point out the stupidity in believing them. An example of a stereotype that is deconstructed is that of the barrio. In the opening scenes Marin depicts the “dignity with a shot of a neatly kept ‘house,’ in sharp contrast to the images of Chicano neighborhoods in dominant commercial films (i.e. graffiti-ridden walls, unkempt gardens, and dilapidated homes, replete with violent urban gangs” (Fregoso, 55). Marin goes against Hollywood’s dominant stereotype because it is in contrast with the life that he knows in the barrio and he wants the audience to know that the images of the barrio that they see in popular media are only stereotypes and they do not apply to all Chicano’s lives.
An example of a stereotype that Marin over does in order to ridicule is the “Chicano sexual desire for a white woman” with the French woman who frames the film, appearing in the beginning and at the end of the film (Fregoso, 51). Many immigrants who come to the United States desire to be with a white American woman because they think that that is part of the whole ‘American dream’ or because they want to have the whole American experience. Also immigrants feel that if they can make something of themselves and have a typical American family then they will be assimilated. Humor is used in the scene where Rudy is chasing the French woman through East L.A., and Marin makes a mockery of the chase to pursue the American dream and how ridiculous the need for assimilation has become.
The French woman, although she is comical, does not fit into the narrative action of the film at all; she is a disruption to the plot and to the cinematic realism. However, Marin does use her to symbolize various aspects of Chicano issues in the U.S. The French woman is an undeveloped character, but through her iconography she has many different meanings through out the film. Her body is made symbolic of the Mexican flag with “her red hair, white body, and green dress” and she repeatedly stops all action including a Cinco de Mayo parade (Fregoso, 49). The first time that she is shown she is being “obsessively stalked throughout the barrio by the main character of the film, Rudy” (Fregoso, 49). The French woman is objectified and “eroticized” with the close up shots that break her character down into purely body parts (Fregoso, 49). The shots of the French women are put together in a shot reverse shot formation which is a cue to the viewers that Rudy is the one looking at her, and the look on his face shows his “pleasure in looking” and the shot reverse shot pattern enforces the dominant ideal of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look” (Mulvey, 59). The audience also does not see the French woman as an entire image; they are forced to break her down into tramping legs, lively breasts or a bouncing butt. The close ups along with the music, which accentuates her movements, address and ridicule the voyeurism that takes place in not only in Chicano society but also in the United States as a whole.
The French woman is also a symbol of the border itself. This is made evident in the scene where she walks toward the camera with a mural of the Mexican and American flag behind her. The French woman is directly in between the two flags and “as she approaches, her body increasingly occupies the space between the two flags, acting as the boarder” (Noriega, 114). Her French accent, her use of the Mexican flags colors and her “reappearance during the Cinco de Mayo parade, link her to the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s” (Noriega, 114) Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the battle that began the overthrow of the French occupiers by Mexico.
In addition to occupying Mexico, “The French also presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States as a gift of freedom to the world,” and the color of the French woman’s dress also links her to the Statue of Liberty (Noriega, 115). There is history between both Mexico and France and the United States and France and Marin ichnographically depicts all of that history through one very underdeveloped character. The French woman serves both as a border figure and also as an “allegory for the Statue of Liberty” (Fregoso, 51). The Statue of Liberty stands for freedom and as the French woman seductively strides throughout East L.A. she reminds the immigrants why they came to the United States and what they still must continue to fight for, liberty.
The French woman, in conjunction with Dolores, Rudy’s Salvadorian girlfriend, represents the complex of the whore and the Madonna that is often present in popular media. This complex is seen when examining the first scene with the French woman where Rudy is chasing after her in his car and “issuing catcalls” in contrast to the last scene at the parade where the French woman enters and everyone stops and stares at her “except for Rudy and Dolores, who embrace upon the church float” (Noriega, 114). This shows that Rudy has chosen the Madonna, and everything that goes with her image, in this case that includes home, family and church. Dolores allows Rudy’s character to be the Chicano that he is, where as the French woman pushes him towards assimilation and the false American dream.
Cheech Marin also uses humor not only to point out stereotypes but also to restore one of the “most popular prose narrative genre among Chicanos,” the joke (Reyna, 203). “When ethnic humor is used by a more powerful group in society… the function of that humor is usually to rationalize various discriminatory practices by the privileged group” (List, 37). These types of jokes are what José R. Reyna and María Herrera-Sobek describe in their article on Jokelore as “out-group joking” which is often viewed as racist and un-politically correct (204). However Cheech Marin participates in “in-group joking” which are jokes told about a particular race by a member of that race (Reyna, 204). These jokes are rarely viewed as racist because they are within the group and there intention is to be funny, not hurtful to the group.
Cheech Marin’s jokes fall into most of the categories as described in Reyna and Herrera-Sobek’s article. The most prominent jokes fall under the category of “initial contacts,” which are jokes made about Mexican’s encounters with “American laws, custom, and language” once they cross the border (Reyna 214). An example of this is shown through Rudy’s cousin, Javier (Paul Rodriguez). The answering machine plays a message, but Rudy’s mother has put a picture of Jesus in front of the phone and Javier comically responds to the picture as if God is talking to him through the picture. This joke goes even further over the top later in the film when Javier thinks that God is asking him for a beer and so he carries a beer over his head and puts it, like an offering, in front of the picture. These types of jokes are rooted in the narrative of Chicano culture and they can also be aimed at the American initial encounter when in Mexico.
Verbal play between Spanish and English is another category of jokes that is played with a lot in Born in East L.A. One example of this type of joke that is also shown through Rudy’s cousin Javier takes place when Javier gets to his aunt’s house in L.A. His aunt is not there but the Chicano priest from across the street comes out to let him into the house. The priest tells Javier to “wait” right there and he’ll let him in, Javier hears “wait” and thinks the priest is calling him “Buey”.This is funny because the joke relies on “phonetic or sound confusion,” the words sound alike but have completely different meanings (Reyna, 217). These verbal play jokes are very funny for the bilingual viewer, however the words and their connotations are often not translated well and so the single language speaker often misses out on some parts of the joke.
“The Crossing” is another category of traditional Chicano jokelore that is also portrayed by Marin. These jokes illustrate the many different ways that people cross the border. In Born in East L.A. the crossing jokes are shown with the many different ways that Rudy tries to get across the border, hiding in a bush, and making football plays. This is all acted out to the Mexican Hat Dance song. These types of jokes depict the problems for Mexicans that do want to come to the United States, it is very difficult to get a visa or passport and so most people are left with few options. The cheapest option is to attempt to sneak across the border, which people try to do in many different ways.
Reyna and Herrera-Sobek also discuss jokes that have to do with immigrants and the border patrol officers, or as they are more commonly called, La Migra. Marin addresses this particular topic in both a humorous and a tragic light. There is a tragic feel of injustice in the first scene that we see the INS officers. The officers rush into a stuffed animal warehouse and raid it of undocumented workers. As the officers rush in a domino effect occurs and in a long shot from above all of the workers scatter and run, some escape out the back door and others get caught and are herded like sheep by La Migra onto busses headed for the border. This empty warehouse scene is interrupted by Rudy’s cries for help as the bear that he is stuffed in goes into the steaming machine. This comic trapped in the bear moment is followed by powerful social critique when the INS officer asks Rudy to verify his citizenship by identifying the president of the United States. Rudy answers with a double-sided answer, “That’s easy. That guy who used to be on Death Valley. John Wayne” (Marin). The INS officer views this as a wrong answer, but Rudy’s wrong answer was a right one. “In voting for Ronald Regan, Americans were voting for John Wayne and for everything these two icons of mainstream culture represent” (Fregoso, 58). Rudy is an American citizen and his social critique was above the heads of both of the INS officers.
Marin also uses La Migra to deconstruct dominant stereotype that elderly people are harmless and innocent. The elderly white couple is headed back to the U.S. side of the boarder and everything seems to be going fine. However the “drug-sniffing dogs discover the elderly couple is smuggling a van full of marijuana back into the United States,” and Rudy has harmlessly, and humorously, stuffed himself in the freezer in the RV, attempting to return home (Fregoso, 59). This is also interesting because according to popular media the stereotypical drug smugglers are of Latin descent. The fact that Rudy, the Chicano, is a stow-away in the RV of an elderly white drug smuggling couple forces the audience to reevaluate their stereotypical views on race.
La Migra is an important topic for immigrants and Chicano’s alike as we see in Rudy’s case as he is stuck in Tijuana pleading his case to an unsympathetic INS officer. The INS is a problem for immigrants because they are afraid of being deported and they are a problem for Chicanos because the racist INS officers assume that all Mexicans are undocumented and so they often harass them. The INS officers are often depicted as being racist and also most have a “southern drawl” (Fregoso, 59).
Another terribly racist perspective in the film is given from the white businessman that hires Rudy to Americanize the people that he calls the “Chinese Indians” (Marin). The films non-diegetic sound clues the audience in that these characters are of Asian descent. “Rudy proceeds to teach them the style, mannerisms, talk, and dress of a Chicano from East Los Angeles” (Fregoso, 59). This points out a racist idea that was created by Anglo-Americans, that used to be more widely believed than it is today (hopefully), that all people with darker pigment to their skin look the same. Rudy even reiterates this point in his dialogue; he comments, “All you gotta do to blend in East L.A. is look brown” (Marin). Rudy teaches the Asian men how to look and act like Chicanos, and later in the film when they all walk by the cop in the U.S. the point is proven that Anglo Americans are ridiculous to not be able to tell an Asian from a Mexican person.
Cheech Marin also depicts the racist views of many Americans through his use of Bruce Springsteeen’s song, “Born in the USA.” Springsteen’s song has been “disarticulated from its signifying elements of working-class discourse and rearticulated as an expression of racist and patriotic discourse” (Fregoso, 57). The song has been used as propaganda to say America for Anglo-Americans, however Marin’s parody exemplifies that the Mexican population is native to the U.S.A. and has the same, if not more right to be on the land (Fregoso, 56). This same point has been illustrated through many different forms of boarder art and immigrant art. One example is Yolanda M. Lopez’s lithograph “Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?” which is discussed in Victor Alijandro Sorell’s article “Telling Images Bracket The ‘Broken-Promise(d) Land” (104). The image is engaging because, like the Springsteen’s song, it is a parody of the World War 1 and World War 2 recruitment posters with Uncle Sam pointing his finger out at the American people.
Mestizaje (hybridity) is another important topic that Cheech Marin addresses in Born in East L.AMestizaje is “the intersubjective and collective experience of intercultural negotiations” (Arrizón, 27). Mestizaje is also described by Chon A. Noriega in his book Cine Chicano, as a “cultural mixture” (113). The first time that we are introduced to this topic in the film is in the opening scenes of Rudy inside his mother’s house. The camera pans across the living room there is a small alter on top of a bookshelf filled with encyclopedias. “Below the encyclopedias represent the immigrant’s rite of purchase into the objective knowledge of American society; while above, the alter with velas (candles) is an active and personal engagement of spiritual belief” (Noriega. 113). Marin shows the importance for immigrants and Chicanos of keeping culture and language throughout the film. He also point out the fact that since he didn’t keep any of his culture he was considered a pocho by the Mexican people and he was still not considered an American by the Anglo American population. This is depicted through the Immigrants on the bus with “their clever sarcasm and sense of superiority towards Rudy, who they regard as pocho (a denigrating term for an Americanized Mexican)” (List, 115).Also through the INS officer who deported him based on skin color. Chicanos and Chicanas are by nature a hybridity between two conflicting societies, and they don’t retain everything from either one and therefore they have trouble fitting into either one.
The film ends with “hundreds of undocumented immigrants led by the protagonist overrunning the Boarder Patrol and crossing into the United States with the popular song ‘Coming to America’ as background music” (Maciel, 189). This scene is very idyllic because they make it seem so easy; they all basically just mass together and walk across the boarder, but it is never that easy for immigrants. One example of the actual hardships that do take place can be seen in Gregory Nava’s 1984 film El Norte. In this film two Guatamalans successfully sneak across the boarder through a sewage pipe, but they are bitten by rats in the pipe and one of them dies from a disease once she is in the United States. Nava’s film brings up a lot of important issues, but it has a much more serious tone as opposed to the humorous tone of Marin’s film. However there is one sequence in Born in East L.A. that resembles the serious tone of Nava’s film. This is when Rudy finally earns enough money to cross the boarder with a coyote and has to leave Dolores behind. Once Rudy is on the bus a woman, who’s husband has enough money to go with the coyote, begins to cry and explain that her family and her children are on the other side of the boarder and now her husband is leaving her. Rudy recognizes the extreme loss and disparity of the families that must split up when they cross the boarder and he gives his place to the woman so that she can cross with her husband. This is not as realistic as Nava’s film but it uses seriousness, which stands out in the comedy, to show a real tragedy that goes on when families must separate in order to perssue their dreams.
The film Born in East L.A. is a Chicano film that uses the jokes and stereotypes that are common in Chicano and immigrant life, not only to appeal to a mainstream audience, but also to educate a mainstream audience. People of all different races with watch the film and laugh at the jokes, but there is always an underlying message that sinks in during a film. Many artists educate through their own despair and pain, like Gregory Nava and Yolanda M. Lopez, but Cheech Marin chooses to educate through humor. Marin uses his humor to bring up very important issues in the Chicano, immigrant, and boarder cultures; he uses this tactic in order to soften the edges and make his film less jarring.
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