Choking back tears, she declared:
"This award is so much than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes."
Unlike everyone on my Twitter feed, I cringed at Rodriguez's statement because she missed an opportunity to educate her viewers on the long string of vibrant heroes, as well as a rich cultural and artistic history that has contributed to the Great Works of literature, film, music, and art. Rodriguez and Latinos not only belong to it. They must claim it.
Click here to watch the video of Rodriguez's acceptance speech.
I remember the resentment I felt when the Yale Spanish department forced me to study medieval and Siglo de Oro or Spanish Renaissance literature as part of my doctoral studies. I deemed it a waste of time for someone who planned to specialize in modern Latin American literature. However, in those classes I learned how fundamentally Hispanic culture innovated the humanities and the way in which art represents and interprets our world which in turn impacts areas that affect us such as economic and social policy as well as diplomacy. The partial list includes but is not limited to:
- Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática de la lengua castellana--the first published grammar of a Western European language
- Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quijote, considered the first modern novel and Don Quijote, the world's first modern literary hero
- Diego Velázquez who modernized painting by experimenting with light and daring to show his royal subjects in personal settings
- El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega whose Comentarios reales de los Inca is a foundational text of the literary genre testimonio--a vehicle to present a counter-narrative disputing the supremacy of the "official story"
As I moved into modern Latin American literature, I learned about more contributions, with a partial list including:
- Luis de Buñuel's seminal avante-garde surrealist films
- Frida Kahlo's daring, brutal, and personal art
- José Martí, whose poems and nationalism continue to inspire revolutionaries and students today
- Carlos Santana, great guitarist who pioneered Latino rhythms in rock decades before Pitbull
Like politics, the issue with Hollywood is less about history than it is about power. Those who wield it are almost exclusively white and male. The distinction between, on one hand, a history of talent and contributions to art and specific media and on the other hand, a power structure that keeps out Latinos at the highest levels is crucial. With few exceptions such as TV series mega hit creator Shonda Rhimes, the executive level--producers, studio heads, and agents--doesn't include diversity. This fact determines an industry's world vision with a lasting trickle down effect: which shows are green lighted, actors cast, and writers hired.
The absence of diversity is behind the thinking that an actor from a diverse background "can't bring in an audience." Now, we've moved into the realm of economics. This "bottom line" calculation and its assumptions explain why the film "12 Years a Slave" with a black director and actor at its helm is an exception or why it took 50 years to make the film "Selma"--a feature film with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its central character.
Hollywood's politics and its effects are real. But I challenge Rodriguez and Latino artists to not just insert themselves into the American narrative and claim what's theirs. It requires changing the frame away from what I call a "cabizbajo, sí patrón" or subservient position to one of pride rooted in an understanding of where she stands in the continuum of a rich, complex, and foundational tradition.
Gina Rodriguez is absolutely right. This award is much more than her which leads me to my favorite quote from Don Quijote in chapter five of part one. Faced with doubt from an incredulous neighbor on his knight roving ways, our hero declares:
"Yo sé quién soy" or I know who I am and from where I come.
I hope Rodriguez, the deserving actors, and the young people who look up to them learn about their history and make it part of their and ultimately, our American story. I hope this knowledge nurtures a point of view that clearly states, "of course I earned this respect because I've put in the work, because I come from a long line of talent, and in the case of politics, because my demographic and spending power might combined with my civic participation makes me a force to be reckoned with."
That's not just arriving. It's owning your success.