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No Laughing Matter: Anti-Latino Humor Has Entered the Mainstream

11/28/2007 12:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Late night funny man Conan O'Brien recently tickled his studio
audience as he touched on immigration, a hot button topic heard with
growing frequency on late night talk shows: "A man in Mexico weighing
1,200 pounds has lost almost half that weight and might enter the
Guinness Book of World Records for most weight lost. The Mexican man
lost the weight when the family inside him moved to America." Then at
the Emmys on September 16, O'Brien, who won an award, provided a clip of his writing team depicted as Latino day-laborers.

During a "New Rules" segment of his show broadcast in late August,
liberal late nighter Bill Maher went to the well of immigrant humor: "New Rule: No more produce-scented shampoo: avocado, cucumber, watermelon. Gee, your hair smells like a migrant worker."

Jay Leno, who has gone out of his way to tell people, "I'm not a
conservative," has also joined in. During a show in mid-September, he
joked, "Well, police across the country now say they're arresting more
and more illegals who are prostitutes. But proponents say, 'No, no.
They're just doing guys American hookers will not do.'"

And during a recent sketch making light of Latino criticisms of Ken
Burns for his exclusion of the more than 500,000 Latino veterans in the
filmmaker's epic War documentary, Jimmy Kimmel deployed images of
sombrero-wearing Speedy Gonzalez-a cartoon long considered racist by
Chicano activists-yelling "Arriba. Arriba." Kimmel's shtick includes
placing parking lot attendant Guillermo in compromising positions as
when the heavily accented Latino immigrant participates in spelling bee
contests with young champions. In another humiliating sketch, Kimmel
begs him, "Please do not resort to violence."

While the immigration debate in Congress ended months ago, the
immigrant jokes haven't. This is not so much because the late night
hosts are at the tail end of a political trend, but because they are,
in fact, at the front end of a major cultural trend: the mainstreaming
of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Immigrant rights activists have concentrated much energy on
challenging rightwing radio as well as blatantly racist, formerly
fringe video games like "Border Patrol" in which players shoot immigrants for points. But little attention is paid to the more mainstream fare: Top-selling video games in which white good guys kill immigrant bad guys and black and Latino zombies;
popular television shows like NBC's The Office, in which immigrant
characters are ridiculed for their accents, nationality, and other
traits; movies like the supernatural thriller Constantine or last
year's comic hit Nacho Libre, in which immigrant characters embody evil
and stupidity.

The proliferation of anti-immigrant messages in pop culture moved
UCLA linguist Otto Santa Ana to study what he calls an "explosion" of
anti-immigrant representations in pop culture.

"There've always been racist, anti-Latino stereotypes in the media,
but things are getting quite bad now," says Santa Ana, who started
documenting anti-immigrant language and imagery he found in California
newspapers in 1993, the year that launched the political battles around
that state's Proposition 187, which sought to deny education and social
services to the undocumented and their children.

Since then, says Santa Ana, anti-immigrant themes have become more intense.

In his efforts to document these trends, Santa Ana, author of Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public

Discourse,
and several of his students have gathered more than 100 YouTube clips
that he says represent only a small portion of a growing number of
"extraordinarily racist, anti-immigrant jokes and other content in
sitcoms, film, standup comedy, and other mediums." Santa Ana's
collection includes a wide spectrum of mainstream programming and
movies.

"Some of the clips will make you laugh," he says. "But once you see
the stream of those clips, you stop laughing. You see ten, twenty,
thirty, forty, and then you recognize that they're actually laughing at
you."

In an episode on Fox's popular Family Guy animated comedy, for
example, a couple of bandanad, knife-wielding, Chicano-accented
gangster cockroaches in a dirty motel threaten intruders by saying,
"Hey, you're on our turf, man," and, "Hey, man, I gonna cut you up so
bad, you gonna wish I no cut you up so bad." One of the white
characters responds, "I blame the schools."

In a different episode, after Peter Griffin, the family guy,
complains about another character, "He's a bigger mooch than the
Mexican Super-friends," the scene moves to a tall, crowded building
called the "Mexican Hall of Justice" that is packed with people. A
white landlord walks up to Mexican Superman and says, "Hey, Mexican
Superman, when you signed the lease, you said there were only going to
be five of you here."

Or take the Academy Award-winning hit Happy Feet. Santa Ana explains
how the protagonist, Mumble, a blue-eyed emperor penguin, leads a group
of bungling, Spanish-accented, smaller, weaker penguins known in the
film as the Amigos. Mumble is exiled from his land and scapegoated by
elders for allegedly causing a fish famine. Mumble then vows to find
the "aliens" that, he says, are the true cause of the famine. Along the
way, Mumble, says Santa Ana, has to "teach" what is right and wrong to
the Amigos. "It's striking to see these penguins speaking in Mexican
accents, walking funny, and being subservient," he says.

Santa Ana worries about the effects on his students, most of whom
said at the beginning of the class that they enjoyed and even bought
the Happy Feet DVD. He also worries about the effect of the $384
million blockbuster on children worldwide, many of whom will also play
the Happy Feet game that is part of the gigantic and expansive world of
video, a more interactive world that may portend the future of funny
and not-so-funny depictions of immigrants.

Depictions of Latino immigrants do not all fall into the negative category, however. The Emmy award-winning Ugly Betty sitcom
treats immigrant and immigration in a funny yet respectful manner. It's
no accident that the show is produced by immigrant Salma Hayek. A new
video game, "ICED! I Can End Deportation,"
developed by the New York-based nonprofit Breakthrough, turns players
into undocumented immigrants as they flee from cruel border patrol
agents. The same Spanish-language radio jocks who played definitive
roles in last year's immigrant mobilizations are continuing citizenship
and voter registration campaigns. Comedians such as George Lopez draw
attention to racial issues in much the same way African American
comedians have done for decades. Columnists such as Gustavo Arellano,
who writes the popular "Ask a Mexican," similarly use judo-like methods to deflect and draw attention to an anti-immigrant streak that grows.

For his part, Santa Ana, who lives in Los Angeles, takes the long
view: "In twenty or thirty years we will be absolutely astonished that
people could consume these racist depictions."

Roberto Lovato is a contributing associate editor with New
America Media. He is also a frequent contributor to The Nation. His
email is robvato@gmail.com.