Chalupas and Tropicalization

So I wanted to talk about a recent experience I had in light of the discussion on tropicalization we had in class a few weeks ago.  On Thursday night I went to the Portland Blazers game against the Knicks at the Rose Garden, and the Blazers ended the game with over 100 points (105-90).  Apparently the Blazers have a deal with Taco Bell where everyone in the audience gets a coupon for a free chalupa if the Blazers get more than 100 points in a game.  So when they were getting close to 100 points, the crowd began chanting “Cha-lu-pas!  Cha-lu-pas!” whenever we had the ball.  Here’s a video of the chant from a Blazers game (it’s a common occurrence):

Honestly, I thought it was pretty funny, since I’ve never had a reason to chant “chalupas” before.  But then what they showed on the jumbo screen in the center of the court after the “chalupa shot”, as the shot that gets the 100th point is called, was made, got me thinking about our discussion of the tropicalization of Hispanic cultures.

I know the video above just shows the word ‘chalupa’ on the screen after 100th point is scored, and some of the players are shown eating chalupas, but when I went on Thursday they showed a clip of Blaze the Trail Cat (Portland’s mascot), decked out in a Mexican poncho and sombrero while he danced around eating a chalupa.  Then there were short clips of some of the Blazers team members dancing around while eating chalupas.  I’m really sorry, but I have searched the internet high and low and I cannot find an image of Blaze the Trail Cat in his Mexican getup.  Maybe it’s new.

But the point is, the Taco Bell advertisers went out of their way to make the association between eating their chalupas and being Mexican, or at least having a ‘Mexican experience’.  They put the mascot in traditionally Mexican clothing and had him dancing around.  By showing this image, they were promoting the trope of the fat, happy Mexican who eats tacos all the time–or in this case, chalupas.  Basically, they were fetishizing the consumption of their chalupas as a uniquely Mexican experience, as if saying “Look!  Taco Bell’s chalupas are SO Mexican that Blaze the Trail Cat has to dress up in a poncho and sombrero in order to eat one!”  This is, of course, ridiculous.

Having the players on screen dancing around while eating their chalupas also got me thinking of the Chiquita banana commercial that we watched in class.  In that, the singing banana lady is dressed in what Americans think of as specifically Latina clothing, like the hat covered in fruit, and dances and sings while telling the audience how great it is to eat bananas.  The clip of the Blazers mascot was basically the same thing.  It showed the cat in what Americans think of as specifically Mexican clothing, and–instead of singing about how great chalupas are–showed Blaze and the other players dancing around, looking really happy to be eating them.  The same sort of tropicalization is taking place here.  Companies are promoting stereotypes in order to sell their products and give them a specific, exotic ‘brand’.

This got me curious about other Taco Bell marketing strategies.  Obviously everyone knows the “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” Chihuahua that they used for a long time.  The same sort of tropicalization took place around this dog, as he was often wearing a sombrero and whatnot.  Here’s an old Taco Bell advertisement from 1997 with the Chihuahua:

This addresses the same trope of Mexican culture, that eating tacos and other Mexican foods (specifically, Taco Bell’s foods), makes Mexicans happier than anything else in the world.  In this commercial, the dog ignores a pretty little lady dog who is making eyes at him, just so he can get some Taco Bell.  And the advertisers set the whole thing to very Hispanic-sounding music, so that the whole Taco Bell franchise is associated with Mexican culture.

Yet, despite Taco Bell’s numerous, ridiculous attempts to show Americans how Mexican their product is, they have failed twice to set up companies in Mexico, once in 1992 and again in 2007.  The second time, they even attempted to advertise themselves to Mexico as serving authentic American food.  Talk about changing your message to suit your audience.  But this pretty much proves that the tropical, happy Mexican person who they always depict eating their food is nothing but fiction.

This just goes to show how incredibly wrong tropicalization can be.  Obviously people in Mexico don’t actually dance around wearing ponchos and sombreros while eating chalupas–but people in Mexico don’t even LIKE Taco Bell!  They can’t keep their franchises open there!  Clearly their food is not considered by Mexicans to be the epitome of Mexican cuisine, as the company would like to make Americans think, if they actually attempted to market the food as American dining in Mexico.  So Taco Bell’s blatant association of their food and what Americans think of as stereotypical “Mexican-ness” is obviously extremely purposeful, and misrepresentative.  They tropicalize and they know it.


Undocumented and Unafraid; Queer and Unashamed

I found an article this week that tells the story of Jorge Gutierrez, who has been working to establish communication between undocumented immigrants and the LGBTQ community (a link to the article is at the bottom.  There’s also a great video interview with Gutierrez in the link).  His interest in the matter arose when he was told by other undocumented activists that his identity as a homosexual was completely separate from his identity as an undocumented citizen, and had nothing to do with seeking undocumented rights.  He noticed that when he protested or met with other activists, his “identity as being queer took a back seat.”  He says that he would have to think, “Today I’m wearing my undocumented hat only, not my queer hat.”

This got me interested in the idea of a person being able to take their identity and separate it so every piece can be examined individually.  Is it valid to look only at only one part of a person’s identity, or even possible?  Could Gutierrez’s identity as a homosexual actually have no impact on his identity as undocumented?

Gutierrez faced this same question, and he found his homosexual and undocumented identities to be inextricably linked.  After attempting to separate his homosexuality from his undocumented status, he says he realized, “that couldn’t happen.  That I could not negotiate, that I had to be both every time, in front of everyone, at every rally, at every press conference, at every meeting.”

In her book, Queer Latinidad, Juana Maria Rodriguez discusses how the same problem arises in the discursive space of US law (and how it creates just as many problems for people there)–only the portion of a person’s identity that is relevant to the case on trial is needed or wanted in the courtroom.  Rodriguez uses the example of Marcelo Tenorio, a black man who sought political asylum in the United States because of the homosexual persecution he faced in Brazil.  The US court refused to consider Tenorio’s race, class, or any other facet of his identity when judging his need of asylum.  But Rodriguez points out the impossibility of separating one aspect of identity, such as homosexuality, from the others: “The dictates of the law require an erasure of the way Tenorio’s life is impacted by the enmeshed particularities of nationality, color, class, age, voice, and positionality, or what the legal critic Kimberle Crenshaw terms ‘multiple intersectionality.’ [….] viewing Tenorio’s petition solely based on sexual persecution may fit the court’s desire for a singular claim for asylum, but it does not reflect Tenorio’s reality in Rio de Janeiro” (pg. 95).

Much as Tenorio’s race and class influenced his persecution, Gutierrez’s experiences as undocumented definitely influenced his experiences as a homosexual.  In fact, it was supporting the undocumented community that gave him the courage to support the gay community.  Gutierrez says he was originally in awe of undocumented people who publicly embraced their undocumented identity, and it was their bravery that encouraged him to also become active in the undocumented community.  This is a community of people who are unaccepted by large portions of the American public, but who decide to publicly embrace their taboo identity anyway.  The gay community can be described in much the same way.  The article explains: “But for Jorge and others who are also gay, the experience of working in an organization fighting for the DREAM Act and which openly challenges current laws may have opened the path to express themselves.  For many, this has been a liberating experience because they see it as one struggle: Undocumented and Unafraid; Queer and Unashamed.”

I think it’s a lot easier to think about extracting part of your identity than it is to do it in practice.  For instance, you can think about your national identity without thinking of how it influences other parts of your life, but could you live for a week without once exercising that part of yourself?  Or would you find that it, mixed with everything else about you, is a necessary component of who you are?  I think this is the problem that Gutierrez and the legal system faced when they tried to break people down into separate pieces of identity.  Rather than building blocks of identity that fit nicely together and can be removed, Jenga-style, when needed, there are webs of identity all tangled up together.

So I think it makes sense that Gutierrez and others like him connect their homosexual and undocumented identities, as both are countercultural and both are fighting to be accepted in the dominant culture.  In effect, they are fighting for only one thing–the right to express their whole identity in public.  The joining of these two communities can make a stronger, louder community.  That is why Gutierrez has established and taken part in multiple movements to ally the LGBTQ and Immigrant Rights communities, particularly for youths who may be feeling alone.

After thinking about this article for a while, I feel like discourse around identity could be facilitated by having better identity-centered vocabulary.  Specifically, I’m thinking that there should be a word that means one facet of a person’s identity–a single component of a whole identity.  For Gutierrez, for instance, being homosexual would be one of these identity-components, being undocumented another, being Mexican another, being duolingual another.  Together, these and many other identity-components would create his identity.  It seems to me that referring to a person’s “homosexual identity” disincludes the rest of their identity just as much as the proceedings of a courtroom do.  It makes it sounds as though that person’s identity can be boiled down to one word–homosexual.  Referring to a homosexual identity-component, however, makes plain that homosexuality is only one facet of that person’s whole, larger identity.  A proper term for this probably already exists in some field of study, and I just don’t know what it is.  But if not, I’ve come to the conclusion that it should be created.