Sometimes I joke that Mexicans can make their way anywhere. One punchline goes: “We can start an entire family in the back of a ’72 Chevy … and raise kids there, too.”
As I grew up, I slowly began to realize that the puns were made at my own expense – and that of my kin and culture. They were survival tools that I developed to consciously and subconsciously go along to get along. This aided me greatly in life, particularly as a budding journalist trying to make his way in a world dominated by white men. Many of those men were comfortable and put at ease when confronted with humor reliant on tired tropes of lazy Mexicans, criminal Mexicans and baby-making Mexicans.
I killed in any room with humor that portrayed Latinos in such low lights.
But my little joke about the persistence and perseverance of my people had a lot of legs should anyone take the time to consider it carefully. Mexicans work hard to survive. Here. There. Anywhere.
My grandparents and parents and siblings built beautiful lives in California. My grandparents owned restaurants, bars and pool halls in Los Angeles and Gilroy and San Jose at one time or another. Did it on their own. All of it was lost, due to the Depression, bad deals and bad luck.
At young ages, both of my parents (who did not know each other at the time) worked in the of fields of Gilroy and Modesto and elsewhere, picking fruits and vegetables. Later, my mother, then known as Louise Tinoco Vasquez, worked as an employee of a Del Monte cannery in San Jose. At 17, my father, Carlos Vasquez, joined the Army/Air Force during World War II, served four years and returned home to begin a life as a unionized construction worker. He poured the concrete for the foundation of Highway 87 in San Jose among other big jobs.
I love the stories of my family. And of my people.
That’s why I was so ecstatic to learn that Hollywood actor Michael Peña will portray the life and times of José M. Hernández.
Hernández was born in Stockton, CA, in the 1960s, the son of migrants who hailed from Ticuitaco, Michoacán. He too toiled in the farmworker fields of California, where he picked strawberries, peaches and grapes that make California famous. Reportedly, he didn’t learn English until he was 12 but somehow made his way through school and graduated from the University of the Pacific with a degree in electrical engineering.
This norm-breaking Latino nerd got hired at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he helped develop the first full-field digital mammography imaging system, one capable of detecting early breast cancer. For reasons unknown, his face never made it on a box of Wheaties.
But Hernández nonetheless got picked up by NASA and became a bonafide astronaut. My favorite part was that he was turned down for astronaut training 11 times before he got the green light. And you thought Mexicans only earned green cards, right? (Sorry. It’s a habit.)
In 2009, this living Latino legend earned his wings by going to space, where his outsized dreams lived, as a space flight engineer on the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Amazon Prime picked up the rights to the film when Netflix decided to shelve the project. It’s an inspiring move that comes at a critical time in Hollywood, when Latino representation on screen has taken a series of setbacks just in the last month.
On July 29, barely a month following the premiere of the coming-of-age comedy series “Gordita Chronicles,” HBO Max announced that it was canceling the show based on creator Claudia Forestieri’s life despite positive reviews and strong social media buzz.
Then last week, Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns HBO Max, dropped the bomb that it would not release “Batgirl,” despite the DC film having completed shooting and prepped for a release on HBO Max in the coming months. The film’s Dominican American lead star, Leslie Grace (“In the Heights”), called her part a role of a lifetime. In an interview with Variety magazine, Grace put it this way: “I’m just really excited about every young girl who is going to see a Dominican Batichica and say, ‘I can do that,’” she said. “I can’t wait.”
The trifecta of recent bad news for Latino representation came just a few days ago, when it was announced James Franco would play Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the upcoming film “Alina of Cuba.”
Actor John Leguizamo, who is Colombian American and most recently known for his Broadway production “Latin History for Morons,” blasted the producers of the independent film for the casting choice for what will clearly need to be a nuanced performance to avoid “aggrandizement” of Castro and his violent henchmen.
“How is Hollywood excluding us but stealing our narratives as well?” Leguizamo posted on Instagram. “I don’t got a prob with Franco but he ain’t Latino!”
A UCLA study published last year found that while Latinos make up 18.5% of the nation’s population, they only make up only about 6% of roles across digital, cable and broadcast shows. Our representation in film is just as poor.
Looking back, I wish I had shared jokes about how that construction job left my father with both knees crushed following a single workplace accident. Or how my mom never made it to high school because she had to work to help her family. Or how my father left school at sixth grade for similar reasons.
I just can’t figure out the punch-lines for those ones. I will, eventually. I am of Mexican descent, after all, and I will find my way.