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Have You Hugged Your Latino Today?

2003-09-16 - 8:17 a.m.

As I'm sure all of you know, today kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month. Yes, I am indeed aware that this is not the first of the month, and no, it is not because Latinos tend to be late in all their endeavors. It is in fact because September 16th is one of two Mexican Independence Days (we get two because we're extra special), as well as independence day for a number of other Latin American nations. The fact that we were supposed to have our revolution on September 8th is ENTIRELY BESIDE THE POINT.

Just kidding!

Now, I'm sure all of you turned to this page today with one thought in your minds: "I certainly hope that Rudy will tell me how best to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month." Well, my darlings, you are not going to be disappointed today! Oh no!

I remember when I first found out about Hispanic Heritage Month. I was in 6th grade, at a tiny Episcopal school in Washington, DC. After growing up surrounded by Latinos in Texas, It had been disheartening to find out that I was one of only two Hispanics in my grade. Now, you'd think the only two Hispanics in the grade--for a while, I think, in the entire school--would be friends. Well, you don't know the whole story. You see, the only other Hispanic in the grade was ALSO NAMED RUDY! WE HAD THE SAME NAME. After years of guaranteed uniqueness in school, we each became one of those kids that had to sign our papers with our first name AND OUR LAST INITIAL in order to keep the teachers from getting confused. It deeply affected our once unassailable feelings of individuality.

So we were BEST friends.

Anyways, I was sitting in chapel and we were speaking, I believe, about plans for Black History Month in February. I raised my hand and asked why we didn't celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. The chaplain, who might be the only chaplain in the history of parochial schools that was actually ENTERTAINING and LOVED (this guy, during religion class, would break a ruler on a desk every time he talked about Moses striking the rock, much to the delight of the students), said that if I wanted there to be a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, I should do it.

That was a challenge. I think you know what happens when people challenge me.

So it was up to the 2 Rudys and a 4th grader who had just moved from Peru and barely spoke English to plan this thing in one week. It was, I think, pretty good for a couple of 11 years olds and a 9 year old. We talked about the Hispanic Civil Rights movement (thank you Mom) and we taught Spanish songs. We didn't have much time for visual aides, but our handouts were in "fiesta colors."

Ever since, I've found that the best way to celebrate this month is to improvise, to do things your own way, preferrably at the last minute. That sort of thing feels right. This one Chicana comedienne talked about how Mexicans don't send out wedding invitations. Instead, we pull up to a street corner in our cars and say, "Hey Chuy! My brother's getting married! Follow me!"

Truth be told, everyone in my family sends out wedding invitations, but they are usually more like announcements. We are ready, willing, and able to accomodate anyone whom our guests see on the way and bring along. We are decidedly a the more, the merrier sort of a culture. Which brings me to my first suggestion to make this an enjoyable Hispanic Heritage Month:

1. Eat a Lot of Fattening Latin Food

Nothing, and I mean nothing, unites the Latin American people like our food. My family lives and loves in the kitchen. On Christmas Eve, you can see more posturing and politics than on any five episodes of The West Wing. Who's dish will get oven time first? What are people sneaking bites of? Who has access to the utensils? Everything is a carefully choreographed struggle between matriarchs, and matiarchs in training. When dishes are served, it is absolutely necessary to gush, to rave, to orgasm over every bite. Everything is delicious. The tamales? Best they've ever been! The enchiladas? We've never tasted enchiladas like these! Did you do something new to the mole? Well, you must have done something because it is so good this year! If the food doesn't get an "Ay! Que rico!" asses will be kicked.

We connect to our forebears with food. Last year, I took part in making the Christmas tamales. I took a huge mound of cornmeal dough and rubbed hot bacon grease into it for the masa. I laid it our flat and used the side of my hand to fold it over. It seemed to be the best way to do it. My mom looked over and started crying. She said, "That's exactly how your grandfather would do it." She then told me stories about my grandmother and the other women of San Felipe, the Mexican town outside Del Rio, where they all lived, and how they made and sold tamales by the hundreds to raise money for the school. The local school board may not have felt it worthwhile to give money for band uniforms to the children of greasy cotton-pickers and housekeepers, but they would have the best band uniforms in the state if a dozen madres in a kitchen had anything to say about it.

Thank god that sort of thing doesn't have to happen anymore. Yeah, right.

Of course, food is not only the foundation of the Latino family. It is also the foundation of the Latino romance. Just check out one of the most successful novels (and films) to come out of Mexico: Like Water for Chocolate. Or read Isabel Allende's meditations on food and sex in her book, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. Latinos get turned on by good food. Not for nothing is mole made with chiles, which warm the blood and set the tongue on fire, and chocolate, the only guaranteed natural aphrodisiac. Whether it's poblanos stuffed with meat and fruit and covered in walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds, quails prepared in a rose petal marinade, fried plantains with cinnamon and sugar, or simply pasta served with chipotle cream sauce, we Latinos can make a meal that will have everybody looking for convenient bedrooms and closets.

The bad news is that, with the exception of ceviche, a fish dish whose preparation is best explained after it's eaten, Latino food is always served on a platter of grease. So if Cuban empanadas or Chilean beef stew leave you with your buttons bursting, you can alleviate the assault on your vanity with the following suggestion:

2. Rent a Movie, Preferrably Real Women Have Curves

I was about to say that there are a number of great movies about Latinos and Latino culture, but as I started writing I realized that this wasn't as true as I wanted it to be. There are a lot of great Spanish movies, including the incomparable All About My Mother and the delightful Belle Epoque, both of which starred Penelope Cruz before she became, not to put too fine a point on it, the Box Office Kiss of Death. There are a number of good movies from Latin America. I highly recommend Y Tu Mama Tambien, Strawberry and Chocolate, Mecaniques Celeste (set in Paris, but covering the lives of Latino immigrants), and the film adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate.

But after a long time searching on the IMDB, I have been hard pressed to find good movies about Latinos that I've seen. For one thing, it is so disheartening to go through actors' filmographies and find "gunmen, drug dealer, pimp, junkie, drug dealer," or worse, "maid, maid, maid, maid, maid, cleaning woman, maid, maid, whore #2." Granted, I have never seen Selena or My Family. However, I have seen Frida and thought Salma Hayek was mediocre at best (and thoroughly upstaged by Valeria Golino at every turn), and as awesome as Javier Bardem was in Before Night Falls, that movie inevitably puts me to sleep.

There, are however, a few movies I can recommend. First of all, if you can find any of John Leguizamo's performance pieces (Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, Freak, and Sexaholix) at the video store, watch them. The man is a genius, and I still quote some of these shows in everyday conversation (from Spic-O-Rama: "Do you see the way she dances? Do you see the way she moves? It's obscene! It's disgusting! It's perverse! God, I wish I were her!). I also recommend I Like It Like That, notable for being the first major studio picture to be directed by an African American woman. Lauren Velez is incredible in the lead role, and it features a classic Latina drag queen named Alexis, who is another hero of mine.

More than any of these, though, I recommend the glorious Real Women Have Curves. Like the characters, the movie has some flaws. There are a lot of little plot points that never get resolved, and others that are beyond the suspension of disbelief (Sorry about this, but no Ivy League school would ever offer a full scholarship to a student applying six months after the deadline for the application). Some of the acting isn't that great. A lot of lines, particularly those in Spanglish, sound a little off. However, all of this is outweighed by the movie's exuberance and complexity.

It's hard to pick a favorite part about this movie. First, I have to give a shout out to the OUTSTANDING performance by Lupe Ontiveros as the over-bearing, over-critical, madre of all madres that makes the lead character, Ana, absolutely crazy. She reminds me of at least a half-dozen of my aunts, those that I love and those that I can't stand. Her acting is subtle and realistic. She won a prize for acting at Sundance. She should have been up for an Oscar. America Ferrera, who played Ana herself, was also very strong and made sure that Ana was as 3D as possible. She was always a little too smart for her own good, but she was also touching and inspiring.

I also loved Ana's boyfriend, Jimmy. Jimmy is a skinny white nerd who loves Ana's intelligence, her humor, and her boobs. And Ana has excellent boobs. He never lets her put herself down, and he's always there for her. He never acts like an ass, at any point. All I could think of was "WHERE THE HELL WAS MY JIMMY IN HIGH SCHOOL???"

However, the best moment in this movie has to be when the women working in the dress-making factory owned by Ana's sister--starting with Ana herself--remove their clothes in order to cool off and to compare cellulite and stretch marks. Ana, her sister, and the other women revel in their rolls and in their control top panties, even as Ana's mother gasps in horror. It's true what Ana's mother says; these women are "sin verguenzas." It means "without shame."

These women, like so many other Latina women, are gorgeous. They move with grace. They laugh big and loud. They are larger than life women. Latin women have suffered in an age where J-Lo is both objectified and criticized for a big ass, when her ass couldn't hold a candle to most Latina asses. Too many women--too many people--people like me--have left the table without touching the tamales or the pastel de tres leches. When we do so, we deprive ourselves of our culture. We thin our blood. And I, for one, have vowed never to do that again.

As Real Women Have Curves teaches, to eat and be fat can be part of a culture, and to eat and be fat without shame is a big ol' fuck you to anyone who says you have to literally reshape yourself to someone else's mold. We Latinos are notorious revolutionaries, and this movie makes me hope that we will be the ones leading a revolution of the body, a revolution that asks that neither blood nor pounds be shed. I recommend this movie to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their body, whether it's because of their size or their skin color. You're welcome to sit at the Latino table. We've got good food and a hell of a lot of moral support. And don't worry about getting full--we'll send you home with extras in tupperware.

That, queridos y queridas, is my heritage.

Of course, it's not enough to stay home and eat and watch movies. One must go out to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. But as this entry is already one of my longest, I'll make it a two-parter. So come back tomorrow for some mambo, some tango, some salsa, and some Antonio Banderas, who is perhaps the most edible Latin treat of them all.

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