Case in point: I finally saw the Broadway musical In The Heights last night. I enjoyed some of the music, and some of the performers were wonderful, but for a look at life in the barrio in Washington Heights, I thought I was going to be choked by a cloud of cotton candy from beginning to end. The wonderful set was the only realistic thing in the entire play. I don't expect every show or movie about Latinos in the US to be about nasty drug dealers and lazy loafers, and I am all for positive characterizations of Latinos, when they are multidimensional and true to life. But if I ever see a long-suffering sweet abuela again, I am going to punch her in the face. Don't people ever get tired of the stereotype? Are their freaking grandmothers really that cloying?
In Junot Diaz's novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar's mother, a Dominican immigrant who undeniably sacrifices herself for her children, is a monster of bitterness and rage. This is much more interesting than a character who is only missing a halo and two fluffy wings on her shoulders. In fact, what separates Junot Díaz's novel from the corny stuff that is produced by and about Latinos in this country is that Díaz portrays life with all its bittersweet and harsh complexity, and not as some wish it would be, a lifeless candyland of abnegation and cheap sentiment that benefits no one. Which is also why Oscar Wao was so successful and resonant in the world at large. It does not live in the ghetto of the mind that we're sometimes too eager to keep ourselves in.
Same thing with an independent movie that is coming out soon, Entre Nos, about the plight of a Colombian woman and her two children as she is abandoned by her no-good husband to fend for herself in Queens. You would think that this would be an intensely dramatic story, but instead it is totally drained of life. The characters are like stick figures covered in syrup and there is no dramatic contrast, no irony, no humor, no depth. Underwritten characters, impossibly boring, repetitive dialogue, not a shred of visceral honesty, Entre Nos manages to turn a pretty dramatic story (which at the end of the film we are surprised to learn was the actual story of the director) into a boring, flat, uninteresting mess. It is made with the most beautiful and pure intentions, and it has absolutely nothing interesting to say.
Either we oscillate between morbid, harrowing stuff (Sin Nombre, María Full of Grace) or absurdly sentimental cheese that has no relation to human reality. Are we incapable of irony? In our countries of origin it seems to be alive and well. Why do we lose it when we get here?
This is my beef: in the name of political correctness, inclusion, multiculti harmony or whatever you want to call it, we accept much lower standards for Latinos in the US, than for the general audience. This is pernicious. This movie would not pass muster had it been made by someone other than a minority. But this is not the only example of this phenomenon. You only need to take a look at the NY Latino Film Festival, which has extraordinarily low admission criteria and people managing it who can't even speak Spanish correctly. None other than HBO, a paragon of excellence in visual storytelling, sponsors it. But apparently they don't demand nearly the same standards of excellence from Latinos. Because we are Latinos, we get away with mediocrity. And not only is mediocrity tolerated, but in many cases, celebrated and applauded. Look at those sweet, exotic Latinos, living in a planet beset by good intentions. Let's give 'em a round of applause. A little pat on the head, and there you go.
We get away with sloppiness, cheesiness, corniness, and lower standards. If we think this is helping us, it isn't. Quite the contrary, it keeps us safely in the margins of culture, instead of at the forefront. And I'm not blaming the gringos. The gringos are only trying to feel better about themselves by being condescending to us. It's up to us to demand better of ourselves.
And can we please hold the melcocha?