The Super Bowl has come and gone and with it the build-up and anticipation over the commercials. Lauded by some as fun and creative and critiqued by others as disappointing and tired, there seems little argument over the fact that almost all of them, bad or good, were successful. On Monday morning, and for days to follow, we read about them, re-watched them on youtube and discussed them on social media.
As a Latino I have, for years now, looked upon Taco Bell's characterization of Mexicans and Mexican cuisine with well-deserved skepticism. I'm old enough to remember the Taco Bell Chihuahua and, more recently, the 2008 "Taco Bell Fiesta Platter" campaign featuring the predictable assemblage of overdone Latino stereotypes. So one could readily argue that my reception of TB's latest ad, "Viva Young" was already skewed towards seeing it in negative terms. This one, however, was a bit of a puzzler. For me, at least, there wasn't the usual knee-jerk reaction to another racist TB advertisement using damaging and well-worn stereotypes of Mexicans/Latinos to sell bad, cheap fast food. This commercial seemed to steer clear of racist representations focusing instead on a car-full of enthusiastic, elderly friends enjoying a kick-ass night on the town. The ad, however, felt "wrong" for reasons that I'll lay out below.
The ad, which features a group of elderly nursing home residents sneaking out for a night of partying and debauchery, is funny in a silly, intentionally juvenile way. It shows the old folks goofing around, dancing, making out at a club, and getting tattooed (in an admittedly entertaining nod to the "how 'bout them apples!?" scene in Good Will Hunting, one of the old men in the group lifts up his shirt to reveal his nipple to the stunned diners of an upscale restaurant). It's not, of course, the most original concept for a commercial: Nike released an ad almost a year ago that featured old men sneaking out to relive their glory days on the soccer pitch, and the web site sbnation.com has argued that the commercial is a blatant rip-off of a 2009 Sigur Rós music video.
There is a way, however, in which representations of the elderly springing back to life in a burst of youthful exuberance offer us a kind of emotional satisfaction. In a society like ours, one marked by a deep obsession with youth and beauty and that consistently constructs the elderly as "past their prime, "or worse, as leeches on the social welfare state, representations of the elderly enjoying their bodies, and reveling in a spirit of youthfulness can be endearing and, to a degree, moving [Go check out, as I did, the Veteran's Cup Soccer Tournament and watch men and women in their 50s, 60s and even 70s battle it out on the soccer field. It's both remarkable and inspiring].
The problem with the TB ad, then, isn't really its narrative or even its central message about capping off a night of "youthful" excess with some low cost, high calorie "Mexican" food. The problem is in their use of music. The commercial features the song "We Are Young" by the band fun. By the time it was used for the Super Bowl ad, fun.'s song was already a ubiquitous, commercial hit with an enviably catchy chorus. The band's recent success at this year's Grammys further ensures that the song will likely be even more widely heard in the coming months.
Taco Bell's take on the song is to have translated the highly recognizable chorus into Spanish and in this way, obliquely, placed Spanish at the very center of the ad's message. And here's where the problems begin in earnest. The translation is awful, on a number of levels. It's essentially a literal, word for word translation of the chorus that was then forced into the pre-established rhythm of the song. The result is a mumbled, garbled mess. As a native Spanish speaker, who also happens to be familiar with the lyrics of the chorus, I found the Spanish barely comprehensible but also, and more significantly, absurd in its incomprehensibility. The Spanish, jammed as it is into the preexisting rhythm, doesn't make any sense, and instead sounds like a bunch of drunken friends from a high school Spanish II class belting out an impromptu translation of their favorite song into Spanish. And that may be precisely the point.
By utilizing the Spanish in such a controlled way, TB emphasizes youthful exuberance while lending an indirect legitimacy to their efforts to pass off American fast-food as authentically Mexican. Their accomplishment, however, is to have done so in a nonthreatening way, for this is Spanish spoken by white high school kids and as such doesn't risk bringing up the usual associations of native Spanish speakers engaged in a hostile cultural "reconquest" of the U.S. via their insidious use of Spanish.
Although successful from a commercial perspective -- we watch and are entertained by the elderly folks cavorting to a "hilarious" translation of a popular song -- Taco Bell's use of Spanish foregrounds two very subtle and problematic ways of thinking about Spanish and, more broadly, about Latinidad. It suggests that Spanish is easy, frivolously easy, and in doing so reduces a complex, heterogeneous, globally important language into a farce, something that requires no thought: "translating" or "understanding" Spanish is simply a matter of knowing the words and plugging them in. Further, because language is such an intimate marker of social and cultural identity, it serves to mark Latino cultures and Latino peoples as equally reducible, as frivolous individuals whose ethnic culture is marked by that same lack of importance.
I can only assume that some of those who take the time to read this will dismiss it as another cranky Latino being "oversensitive." But cultural representations matter, particularly ones that are witnessed by 108 million viewers (and counting). While positive representations of Latinos are hard to find, frivolous, disrespectful and damaging representations are everywhere. Because of this even those like TB's -- that are puzzling if not blatantly or overtly racist -- merit attention. They matter because, in the end, we are what we eat, and what we watch.