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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 1.24.08




Hostile Humor

A scholar ponders the irreverent Mexican

BY JIM LEARY

Gustavo Arellano joins a long parade of ethnic American humorists who have taken on, thus taken over, the broken tongues and bent images through which their people have been mocked by the mainstream.

Arellano's "¡Ask a Mexican!" echoes Finley Peter Dunne's blarney-spouting Chicago-Irish barkeep "Mr. Dooley," the pointed and poignant blackface antics of black comedian Bert Williams, Hjalmer Peterson's wandering Swedish bumpkin Olle i Skratthult (Ole from Laughtersville), the frumpy Jewish vaudevillians Weber and Fields, and many more who are rightly honored for their revelations of the many-splendored American experience.

So why all the fuss in enlightened Eugene?

Minorities in America have been wounded frequently by negative stereotypes, and many thoughtful people, whether in the minority or the majority, have opposed such stereotypes with good reason. Were a "white person" to have written "¡Ask a Mexican!", they might expect to be opposed as usurpers doing what they have no right to do. But it's different when a member of the group employs these stereotypes.

"¡Ask a Mexican!" uses a common comic strategy employed by various minorities in American life, going back to Irish, Jews, "Scandihoovians" and Italians in the 19th century and persisting, indeed thriving, in the present.?The contemporary Northern Cheyenne performance artist Bentley Spang, for example, enacts outrageous send-ups of stereotypical American Indian "rez rockets" and "commod bods" in exhibits and videos that align with the "¡Ask a Mexican!" approach.

Bentley Spang, Gustavo Arellano, and many artfully articulate members of minority groups, take "bad" out-group stereotypes head-on, poking fun at them, deflecting them, redefining them, turning them into a challenge to, or chance for dialogue with, the dominant culture.?By taking control of potentially hostile humor, by turning it into comedy of their own making, humorists like Arellano point out how silly rigidly held negatives stereotypes really are. As the visionary African-American writer Ralph Ellison put it, such artists "change the joke and slip the yoke." In other words, Ask a Mexican is a humorously conveyed but nonetheless serious way to take on the very same significant cross-cultural issues addressed by the syndicated columns of Mexican Americans Roberto Rodriguez and Patricia Gonzalez.

 

Mysteriously, more than a few excessively educated, PC majority liberals, some of whom might even have chuckled over Martin Mull's skewering of Wonder Bread-eating white suburbanites, can't handle the radical notion of a similarly cutting Mexican-American humorist. Perhaps they're being overly paternalistic in "protecting" minorities? Perhaps they (usually wrongly) figure that less educated majority folks or children will take the humor literally? At the same time, playing with their own stereotypes by minorities is done more often behind closed cultural doors. Hence some charge Arellano with making "private" matters "public," in the same way that Alice Walker was attacked for writing about black men who beat black women in The Color Purple.

Their modes may differ, yet Alice Walker and Gustavo Arellano each "tell the truth" in their own way. And we need to listen and learn. Just as no ethnic group anywhere is comprised entirely of people who are unfailingly advanced and noble, neither is any group dominated by people who are perpetually degenerate and ignoble (well, maybe right-wing Republicans). That's why humorists like Arellano say, yeah, some of us like fine clothes and cars, sex, stinky food (like kim chee or lutefisk or limburger); some of us are tight-fisted, or lazy, or feisty, or drunkards, or fools, or foul-mouthed. What's the big deal? What's so strange? Our styles may not be the same on the surface, but we're all human beings, we're all Americans, we're all in this together.

 

James P. Leary, Ph.D., directs the Folklore Program at the University of Wisconsin, where he teaches courses on humor and comparative ethnic studies. He has written several books on regional culture and humor. He visits family and friends in Eugene often.