Consider the conquest of the Américas. Spanish conquistadors arriving on this continent in the early 16th century not only killed or enslaved thousands of indigenous peoples, but they also sought to obliterate the entirety of the indigenous life world. Subjugation depended upon usurping self-made likenesses. Chief on the conquistadors "to do" list of cultural genocide was to burn the vast Aztec, Mayan, and Incan libraries of hieroglyphic picture books: the codices which chronicled native peoples' everyday lives, histories, and spirituality.
Five hundred years later, descendants of these conquered peoples, myself included, are still trying to assemble the burnt ashes of our representations. We still engage with power - including the media - and we wrestle anxiously with the Latino representations presented in NBC's new "Hispanic" serial Kingpin.
The overall venture dresses itself in good intentions: Increase the visibility of Latino actors (representations) on TV and offer compelling story lines that will "grab" viewers - a shady catchphrase for sponsors' advertising dollars. Such intentions fall into cadence with the not-so-startling revelations of the 2000 U.S. Census: Latino numbers are rising, and these numbers inspire new opportunities of conquest.
In effect, I am NBC's target market.
Or am I?
When I watched Kingpin's premiere episodes, I didn't see much that resonated with the trials of my Latino family. Instead, I witnessed a sub-world as unrecognizable to me as Tony Soprano's New Jersey rancho. So, if NBC aims to draw in me and mi gente (and our hard-earned dollars), what, I wonder, is supposed to be the lure? If I - a Tejana-Chicana - couldn't find familiarity in Kingpin's pseudo-Mexicana/o and narrowly construed mis-en-scene of drugs, illicit activity, and corruption, what were Puertorriqueña/os, Nuyoricans, and Dominicana/os in the East thinking about this rendering of Latino life? Because we're all the supposed target market, clumsily funneled into one "emerging" brown faced (mostly güera) prime-time moment of Latinidad.
Representation is not reality. Yet, in our visually oriented culture that is fixated on TV images, the American media and Hollywood determine what "humanity" looks and feels like, and help shape the contours and content of the American cultural imaginary. This means you have to consider the work of Kingpin in the living rooms of a still majority white America, and therein lies the series' tragic flaw: Its corrosive depictions of Latinos are left to circulate uncontested. T o hear series creator David Mills - who is not Latino - tell it on NBC's Today show, we (Latinos? Or all underrepresented nonwhites?) should just plain forget that the series riffs on Latino lives: "I don't think you should sit down and view these characters as representatives of Mexican culture or Latino culture. I set out to write a story about human beings and big human themes like ambition and greed ... They are our vessels for exploring human nature ..." Mills' thesis tilts dangerously towards representation's ugly twin: stereotype.
Reducing any people of color into mere "vessels" for ideas is a dangerous use of all people of color in the gambit of representation. Strategies such as this have conjured up a hoard of "exotic" stand-ins that have an all-too-determined history in this country's racial hierarchy: blackness for spirituality; everything Asian for Eastern transcendentalism; and Latinos for hot-blooded pasión (think J. Lo) and, as Kingpin purports, cold-blooded barbarity. All of these constructions circle back onto the central question: vessels for whom? More often than not, dominant culture constructs these shallow "vessels" for the spectatorship of an uninterrogated gaze of whiteness.
Despite Mills' stewardship, neither he nor NBC execs can procure and deliver to a Latino audience. The reason: Latinos want control of their representations. And our self-made likenesses will try to depict the totality of our lives: the hard-won triumphs, the despicable poverty, and, yes, even our slowly rising middle class. Moreover, it will take a flowering of effort and an army of Latino writers, actors, and producers who will not subscribe to the needs of a dominant culture's imagination. The effort will divulge a Latino poetics of TV storytelling, and only some of it will begin to recover the lost libraries of cuentos and historias destroyed so long ago. •