Two Sundays ago on the morning news show Face the Nation, Dick Cheney, in between his lies and half-truths, referred to embattled U.S. Attorney General (and closeted Mexican American) Alberto Gonzales as ‘Al,’ which is as gringoized a version you can make of the very Spanish, y muy elegante, “Alberto.” I mention this because, like Alberto, I’m from Texas, and know something about gringoizing Mexican names. My dad was named Santiago Alejandro, I’m Jimmy Alexander.
So far be it from me to throw the authenticity gauntlet down at General Gonzales. Besides, I take comfort in the fact that my dad really wanted to name me Cuahtemoc. I’m still on the fence about my mom vetoing his idea. I realize that while Cuahtemoc may have been a decided plus in college when chatting up certain Gloria Anzaldúa-quoting Chicana/o studies majors at Mecha parties, I also realize growing up in San Antonio among the other middle-class brown kids named Rudy (Rudolfo), Jerry (Gerardo), and Dicky (Ricardo), it may not have played so well. (Granted, my other friend Julio went by Julio, but since the dude stood 6’4” and weighed 250 pounds, the vato could go by any name he wanted. We mostly called him Sasquatch. Behind his back.)
But back to Alberto.
In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe tells the story of Chuck Yeager, the brash ‘50s-era test pilot, who was so admired among his flying peers for his death-defying antics that Yeager’s distinct Western drawl became the affected model for all pilots that wanted to be him. What followed, Wolfe explained, were TWA pilots from Ohio suddenly talking like good ol’ boys.
The same linguistic phenomenon happens in Texas. Only the mimicked accent is not that of a dashing fighter pilot, but the Lone Star equivalent, our own version of a brave and Gary Cooperish hero: the Texas High School Football Coach. There is a certain “aw shucks” accent common to these so-called leaders of men: endearing, boyish, but always with that hint of suggested menace, that tinge of redneck. It is a way of speaking first heard by impressionable youth in football locker rooms from Odessa to Falfurrias, honed in all-white frat houses at A&M and UT, and perfected in board rooms from Dallas to Houston. It is affected, fake, a disguise; and especially absurd when spoken by Mexican Americans. Any person who can properly roll their “r”s does not, or should not, talk like John Wayne.
But Alberto does. That’s why he was recruited by the prestigious Houston law firm Vinson and Elkins. That’s why he represented Enron. That’s why George Bush, when governor of Texas, appointed Gonzales his general counsel, enlisted Gonzales’s lawyerly skills to conceal Bush’s DWI conviction, and it’s why W. then elevated Gonzales to the Texas Supreme Court. Whether they admit it or not, there is a fast track set aside for ambitious Latinos when they join the Republican Party, never mind their meager CVs. Ask Henry Bonilla. And when they soon discover their unmerited rise accelerates when they can talk like Darrell Royal, their “y’alls” multiply.
Close your eyes when listening to Alberto speak — this Brown-man-who-looks-like-your-Tio Chuy — and you’ll swear you’re hearing Coach Erick Taylor giving one of his rousing half-time speeches on NBC’s Friday Night Lights. Albeit the noble and young Coach Taylor’s speeches aren’t generally referencing the “quaint” Geneva Convention, the sanctioning of waterboarding, the elimination of habeas corpus, or the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, and don’t include “To my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign.” But you get the idea.
Alberto Gonzales talks like them. Fluently. And in return Dick Cheney calls him “Al.”
Last Thursday, Alberto Gonzales, Hispanic Republican, the first Latino ever appointed to the upper tier of Cabinet posts, the son of Pablo and Maria Gonzales, grandson of Mexican immigrants, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on his role in the growing U.S. attorneys scandal. Some of the kinder reviews described Gonzales as “clueless” and “hapless.” The White House gave him rave reviews. As of publication it is still unclear whether or not Gonzales will resign.
Jim Mendiola is a San Antonio filmmaker living in Los Angeles (see our Best Of San Antonio filmmaker pick; he’s number three!). He writes a blog called Kenburnshatesmexicans.com.