"While you are experimenting, do not remain content with the surface of things. Don't become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin."
--Isabel Allende Llona


Toying with Latino Identity: Latinization in Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated films of this summer. The third installment of Disney/Pixar's toy-centered series offers family-friendly comedy that is not only beautifully crafted and witty (as the past two films have been), but now in visually-striking 3-D as well.

I was genuinely excited to see Toy Story 3, and so I saw it the day it came out, June 18. Let me begin my critique by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the film, as did the others in the audience (which consisted of not only parents and their children, but adolescents, teenagers, and adults too). I marveled at the animation and 3-D graphics, I appreciated the well thought-out and executed story line, I laughed at the smart quips,  I even teared up towards the end of the film.

However, there was one thing that I didn't feel quite comfortable laughing about (or at), although, admittedly, I did. By now, it's no surprise that Toy Story 3 includes a segment in Spanish (thanks to the widely-circulated trailer, I can discuss Buzz Lightyear's "Spanish mode" without spoiling anything for anyone). After having been switched to his original settings by a group of the film's villains, Buzz's companions (Andy's other toys) try to bring back their old friend by pressing the reset button, as per his instruction manual's directions. However, things go slightly wrong when the button is held for too long, setting Buzz to the Spanish language option instead. This Buzz acts just as any newly purchased Buzz Lightyear action figure would: he believes he is the one-and-only Buzz Lightyear, sent on a mission by Star Command; he is flabbergasted when his "laser" proves to be nothing more than a flashy light; etc, etc. It is comical to watch Buzz go back into his default setting, delivering the programmed spacey speech in fluent Spanish, relearning the reality of his situation in this new context.

But Buzz's "Spanish mode" isn't limited to his Spanish-speaking. And this is where I became uncomfortable. Before I elaborate, let me offer a bit of background: in Toy Story 2, Jessie the Talking Cowgirl Doll is introduced to the series, and the film hints at a possible romance between the cowgirl and the space cadet. The beginning of Toy Story 3 follows in this vane: Buzz is obviously smitten with Jessie but cannot bring himself to verbalize his emotions. The result is a sort of awkward tension typical of first love between the two characters. However, when Buzz becomes Spanish-speaking Buzz, he can do nothing but try to conquer his intended lover. Having no recollection of who he is, where he is, or who anyone else is, Buzz must get re-acquainted with his cohorts. He quickly rediscovers Jessie and openly makes it clear that he is interested in her. But when Jessie and Woody share an embrace, Buzz mistakes the friendly gesture as a romantic one; he becomes jealous and makes wooing Jessie his sole priority...

And this is where the problem of Latinization comes in. Let me first clarify between two homophonic yet distinct terms: Latinidad and Latinization. Latinidad implies a claiming of the Latino identity as a means of empowerment (whether social, political, personal). Although it groups Latinos together (generally disregarding their national origin), Latinidad is a positive phenomenon since it generates a sense of connection--almost a fabricated sense of a "Latino" nationality--among those who actively decide upon, accept, and claim their Latinidad. Latinization, on the other hand, is a negative process through which things are "Latinicized" from an Anglo perspective; that is, the object of Latinization is either hyper-ethnicized so that it is a farcical and almost minstrel-like representation, or intentionally repackaged and re-interpreted (by Anglos) with supposedly "Latino" signifiers. Whereas Latinidad is the result of an active claiming, Latinization is the result of a forceful branding.

...Spanish-speaking Buzz is clearly the product of Latinization in this film. As he tries to win Jessie's heart, he turns to tactics painfully stereotypical of the "Latin lover" type: Buzz serenades Jessie with romantic words; he flaunts his good looks, his masculinity, his machismo; he even courts Jessie with a pasa doble (much in the way an animal tries to attract its mate through a series of courting rituals). Spanish-speaking Buzz is a bit of a narcissist, a ladies' man who won't take no for an answer, a daredevil of sorts: a Latin lover. This portrayal is an intentional Anglo misunderstanding of what it means to be a Latino male. It is a (mis)understanding which equates Latinoness with a series of ritualistic actions, a primitive performativity of self. I won't say whether or not demo Buzz gets the girl, but I will say that he is eventually reset to his familiar, English-speaking self.

Buzz Lightyear in demo mode. Source: Disney/Pixar

But the problem of Latinization neither ends here nor is it fully manifested until the film's end, more specifically during the credits. It seems Jessie was taken by Spanish-speaking Buzz and wishes to have another fling with the Latin lover: She cues music with a heavy Latin rhythm and Buzz, who is no longer in his Spanish-speaking mode, is overcome by the need to dance. His hips sway to the beat, his feet tap, his arms fling about in the air. He has no idea what he is doing, yet his body instinctively leads him into a reprisal of the pasa doble. One of the key elements of the Latinization of peoples is the belief that the Latino identity is a performative one. Not only did Spanish-speaking Buzz go through a series of performances to show himself off in an attempt to woo Jessie, but now the Anglo Buzz--a character obviously ignorant of all things "Latino"--is fully capable of performing the role of the Latin lover, of being a Latino male.

As a result, the Latin lover demo Buzz can be interpreted as purely an "act" which can be performed by anyone. Demo Buzz is denied any claim to Latinidad; instead, he is the product of Latinization. His character is purely for entertainment--more specifically, a commodity to be consumed by Anglo audiences. Said director Lee Unkrich, "When trying to make funny movies, then you want the characters to be fun. 'Demo Buzz' just seemed ripe with comic potential." And that's just it: the Spanish-speaking demo Buzz was a type employed merely to get a laugh. In a way, demo Buzz is a minstrel of sorts, a hyper-ethnic caricature used as entertainment.

Although Toy Story 3 is most certainly an enjoyable film (and one which I highly recommend), I find it troubling--though not surprising--that Disney/Pixar indulged in stereotyping Latinos with their inclusion of the Latin lover that is demo Buzz. So go ahead, see the film and enjoy it--but be conscious of the product you are consuming, the racial dialogue that is being not only literally spoken but performed on the big screen!


Exciting News: My Summer Internship

Hola, readers!

I want to share some news with you: This summer I will be interning at Northwestern University through the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP). SROP is offered by the Graduate School and is designed to give undergraduate students the opportunity to design and conduct their own research project (under the guidance of a faculty mentor), introducing them to life as a graduate student.

My proposed research project is, of course, on Latino/a Theatre in the United States. I am very excited to say that I will be working with Dr. Ramón H. Rivera-Servera. His interests and experience both reflect and complement those of my own, and I am extremely grateful that he has agreed to be my mentor. He and I have been in communication over the past few weeks, which brings me to even more great news!

My stay at NU coincides with the Latino Theatre Festival at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Dr. Rivera-Servera is already involved in a book project with the festival's artistic director. As a result, my research will most likely bring me to the festival. What's more, my research may end up published!

The program begins June 21, 2010, and ends on August 12, 2010.

Needless to say, I am very excited about this internship! Over the summer, I'll be blogging about my research, experiences, etc., etc.
I can't wait to begin my work at Northwestern University as a Graduate School intern! I hope you are looking forward to reading what I'll have to share.

Gracias por leer.

Hasta luego,
tu dramaturgista fiel,