Navigating White Spaces: Latinos, Citizenship, and the Oscars

The Oscars were really White this year. However, there was an interesting disruption to the glamorous winter wonderland. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, one of my favorite directors, who directed Biutiful and created the masterpiece that is the “Death Trilogy” (including Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel), won the Oscar for Best Director AND Best Picture (for Birdman). For the second year in a row, a Mexican won Best Director (Alphonso Cuaron won for Gravity in 2014).  While the Oscars 2015 will be infamously known for being the Whitest since 1995, it is important to recognize that a Mexican director has taken both top honors. But alas, someone always has to ruin it.

Before he won, Sean Penn made a reckless joke, saying “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?” referring to the Mexican born Director. Lets talk about that first.

Aside from this not being funny, especially in the context (I wouldn’t have as much a problem with Penn saying this to Iñarritu in private as they are friends and peers), but what is so disturbing about what makes this a “joke” is our current sociopolitical reality. The joke only makes sense when said about Iñarritu because of his “otherness”, in this case him being Mexican, because it would pass over everyone’s heads if Penn or anyone else would have said this joke when a British or Australian Actor won an Oscar. As they are (mostly) white, why would anyone ever ask them for a green card? They are as foreign as Iñarritu right? But thats what Whiteness does – it lets you move into virtually any space without being questioned. Must feel good.

I won’t go on about the joke, but I do want to be critical about the position Iñarritu is in. He is Mexican, born and raised in Mexico, and then began to travel and work in Africa and Europe when he was 17. Upon his return he went to University in Mexico City. So, is he Latino? This is an interesting question, as per both academic discourse and social understandings of what constitutes a “Latino”, Iñarritu might not be (necessarily) read as Latino by every subject. He is essentially a foreigner, a Latin American one, but it is interesting that he does not occupy the same space as a Chicano Director would, or a first, second, third generation Latino as an Academy member, or even a Puerto Rican one, like Rita Moreno. Last year, Alphonso Cuaron who won best directer for Gravity. His national and ethnic narrative is similar to that of Iñarritu. He does not occupy the same space as the Latino in the US, but that of Iñarritu.

There is no question that both Iñarritu and Cuaron have been racialized as foreign brown bodies throughout their careers, as I doubt Hollywood was as welcoming to them as to their white (male) counterparts. Yet the space they had to navigate did not come with the same baggage or obstacles as other directors of color, more specifically, Black Directors such as Ana DuVarney . I think we too often forget that while POC’s cannot afford the privilege of being White, oppression is not experienced in the same way by all (though I want to be clear, I am not playing oppression Olympics right now). The challenges Iñarritu and Cuaron have faced, as Mexican MEN, are not the same that Duvarney has faced, or even White WOMEN directors must contend with. The difference between them is not only their gender, but also the substance of their films. Birdman’s protagonist is a White Cis Man. Gravity was a bit more progressive in that it had as its center a woman, but the stories were still white. Even when they are focused on people of color, they are often centered around suffering, oppression, and positions of subordination. 12 Years a Slave is the most recent example. And another characteristic of films that focus on non-white characters are having on the periphery, or better said, as close as you can get to the center without calling it center, white characters that act as saviors – think about The Help.  Iñarritu and Cuaron have built stories that did not center around people of color, though they themselves are (speaking about Birdman and Gravity). So is this the trade off? Does Duvarney or Spike Lee have to make a movie about a white character to win an Oscar for Best Director or Best Picture? Or does the film have to be focused in the distant past like 12 Years a Slave, and not something that is harder to ignore like Selma, where John Legend made the link that Selma is not 50 years ago, Selma is now.

But the very white-male dominated Academy did not leave unscathed by Iñarritu. In his speech, not only did he call for a Mexican Government the people deserved (referring to the current crisis in the country) but he told the Academy a truth it probably doesn’t want to hear. Iñarritu said,

Finally I just want to take one second. I just want to take the opportunity. I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans. The ones who live in Mexico, I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and build this incredible immigrant nation. Thank you very much.”

This is powerful and extremely relevant, for as Chris Rock stated a few months ago in an interview (the whole quote is worth reading),

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist — not racist like “F— you, nigger” racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I remember I was renting a house in Beverly Park while doing some movie, and you just see all of the Mexican people at 8 o’clock in the morning in a line driving into Beverly Park like it’s General Motors. It’s this weird town.

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot. And it’s not about being given a shot to greenlight a movie because nobody is going to give you that — you’ve got to take that. The shot is that a Mexican guy or a black guy is qualified to go and give his opinion about how loud the boings are in Dodgeball or whether it’s the right shit sound you hear when Jeff Daniels is on the toilet in Dumb and Dumber. It’s like, “We only let white people do that.” This is a system where only white people can chime in on that. There would be a little naivete to sitting around and going, “Oh, no black person has ever greenlighted a movie,” but those other jobs? You’re kidding me, right? They don’t even require education. When you’re on the lower levels, they’re just about taste, nothing else. And you don’t have to go to Harvard to have taste.

It makes you wonder how many Latinos/Mexicans were working behind the scenes at the Oscars, or how many were qualified but not there sitting among writers, actors, cinematographers, and artists.

Iñarritu perhaps understands his position more than I give him credit for. What he did was powerful. It was risky too. But while Iñarritu did contribute to disrupting and creating anxiety among the white space that is the Oscars as a person of color and someone who shares (in some ways) the same space as Latinos, the Oscars wasn’t all too nice to Latinos. Aside form the lack of diversity, Boyhood actress Patricia Arquette in her acceptance speech said,

To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.

This received justified backlash for her making invisible people of color, and claiming that now that other struggles have been fought for (and implying they are over) its time for People of Color and the LGBTQ community to care about women (read, white women). But something else she did, intentional or not, was to include “citizen of this nation” instead of including every person in this nation, she said “citizen”. Now. Lets be real. Whenever the issue of citizenship comes up in any discursive space in the US, be it political or social, the imposed binary we suddenly imagine is that of who counts as a citizen and who doesn’t. Latinos can’t possibly be citizens, because that is how we are interpolated through the media, policy, and historical oppression. I guess all those undocumented migrants in Los Angeles don’t deserve the rights she’s talking about. I guess Iñarritu, if it wasn’t for that Green Card he was given, wouldn’t be entitled to what Arquette is entitled to. Her call for equal rights for women excludes not only women of color and minorities, but women who are not citizens of the US. Because of their legal status, they do not deserve rights. And lets remember, the only ones who could possibly be “illegal” are Latinos.

I know I covered several important things that happened at the Oscars last night, but I wanted to make some important links. Just because A Mexican director won a couple of Oscars doesn’t mean there isn’t a diversity problem, or that Black film makers and actors don’t have to contend with the insitutional racism of the Academy or the internalized racism of its members. Lets celebrate and be proud of Iñarritu, but lets also be critical of how he got there and the space he occupies. And while we were quick to put Arquette in her place and call her out, let us not fall victim to the same type of exclusion, and ask who else might be excluded from these spaces that aren’t defined by gender and race, but also by citizenship.

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