The year 1967 seems to have been a big one for my encounters with racism. At nine years-old, my mom remarried and we moved out of my grandparents’ house and into a small, single-level ranch home on a cul-de-sac at the corner of Green Acres Street and Robin Hill Drive. It was a 12-minute walk to Colonial Hills Elementary School. The layers of meaning in that school’s name only now occur to me: Colonial Hills = colonialism = white folks. Was the school board, or whoever named the school, conscious of all those layers? No matter. In only three generations, my previously non-white Italian family had made it, happily ensconced in an upper-middle-class, white neighborhood.
San Antonio’s residents of Mexican decent have always been the majority. The latest numbers show “Hispanics” (excluding black and Asian Hispanics) at about 63% of the total population, with about 90% of that number claiming Mexican descent (the rest are Puerto Rican, Cuban, or South American). White (non-Hispanic) residents make up only 25%. In spite of being a clear numerical minority, whites live in more affluent neighborhoods and, because schools in most parts of Texas are financed by property taxes, their kids go to better schools. My family lived on the north side, and I attended Colonial Hills in the very well-funded Northeast Independent School District. I most definitely did not attend school on the south side, which was poorer and (in my mother’s mind) overrun by gangs.
The city of San Antonio grew up around the site of the Spanish mission of San Antonio de Valero. Franciscan friars named the mission for their patron, Saint Anthony of Padua, a thirteenth-century friar whom my grandfather claimed was Italian, though he was really Portuguese and only died in Padua. My grandfather was just like Michael Constantine’s character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who thought that every great person in history had been Greek, except that for my grandfather it was Italian. Saint Anthony of Padua was Italian, which you knew from the Venetian city in his name. Anthony Quinn—who was Mexican—was Italian because he had been in a Fellini movie. Alexander Graham Bell was Italian because he was played in the movie by Don Ameche, who was Italian, which, according to my grandfather is why people used to say, “I’ll call you up on the Ameche.” But Don Ameche was actually only half Italian, the other half being a combination of Scottish and German, just like me. I hope to God my grandfather was kidding about Alexander Graham Bell, but I never got to ask him.
The mission of San Antonio de Valero is also known as the Alamo, as in “Remember the—,” etc. I think I must have been ten when grandpa and my two brothers went downtown to watch the filming of a comedy called Viva Max!, which was released in 1969. It’s the story of a contemporary Mexican General who marches his men into modern-day San Antonio to retake the Alamo for Mexico. Hilarious premise! We looked all around the Alamo but we didn’t spot any film crews. Later we learned that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) had protested the film and did not want to allow it to be shot in or around the Alamo.
The DRT were descendants of those who “rendered loyal service for Texas” prior to February 19, 1846, when the Republic of Texas ceded its power to the state of Texas, now the 28th state in the Union. They were also the caretakers of the Alamo, saving it from certain decline by managing the narrative of Texans fighting to win independence from Mexico. When I was growing up in Texas, every eighth-grader was required to study Texas history, which in my case was taught by the basketball coach. The Battle of the Alamo was likened to the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, in which Leonidas and “the 300” defended Greece from the massive Persian army for days, but were ultimately wiped out. The DRT opposed the film because they found it to be “a mockery and a desecration of our heroes who died for our liberty there.” To my knowledge, no Chicano/Latino activists protested the film’s portrayal of Mexicans.
Lead actors Peter Ustinov and John Astin (who are not Mexican) adopted comical accents and portrayed stereotypes of bumbling Mexicans. Since the 1990s, critics have referred to this kind of casting and portrayal as “whitewashing.” In the late 1960s, the Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (MAADF) did not protest the portrayals in Viva Max, even though they were very busy at the time protesting comedian Bill Dana’s character of “José Jiménez”—a hapless Mexican who failed at every job he tried, including NASA astronaut. Dana, the descendant of Hungarian Jews, retired the character after learning that Mexicans found it offensive. Around the same time, the MAADF also protested the “Frito Bandito,” a cartoon advertising mascot based on the stereotypical Mexican bandits found in every Western: big sombrero, gold tooth and stubble, pistolas packed into his belt.
The premise was simple. The “Frito Bandito” went around robbing people of their Fritos corn chips, a snack food invented in San Antonio, as every kid growing up in the Alamo city knows. (The original recipe for Fritos was created by a Mexican-American named Gustavo Olguin, then bought for $100—stolen!?—by Charles Elmer Doolin, a gringo confectioner in San Antonio during the Great Depression who later made millions off the recipe.) The “Bandito” was voiced by Mel Blanc, of Bugs Bunny fame, with roughly the same accent he used for the cartoon mouse “Speedy Gonzales.” Following protests, Frito-Lay did clean-up the “Bandito” character, removing his gold-tooth and stubble. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the “Frito Bandito” no longer wielded a gun. Frito-Lay retired the character in 1971. Nowadays, if you happen to find “Frito Bandito” commercials posted to YouTube, they come with trigger warnings: “Politically Incorrect Ad from the 70s. This was when stereotypes were okay and children’s cartoon characters shot guns at each other.”
All of this, but no protest from people of Mexican descent about the Mexican caricatures in Viva Max! The Daughters of the Republic of Texas were outraged, but no one else seemed to be.
San Antonio’s city council allowed filming in front of the Alamo, since that was city property. But the DRT refused access inside the mission or its courtyard. Film crews constructed a fake Alamo set in nearby Bracketville, Texas, where most of the interior scenes were shot. I’m sorry to have to say this, but the movie is pretty funny. For example, Ustinov and Astin use codenames to gain entry to the mission, based on the stars of the 1960 film The Alamo.
“I’m John Wayne,” Ustinov’s character says, referencing the actor who had played Davy Crockett.
“I’m Richard Widmark,” Astin’s character replies, referencing the actor who had played Jim Bowie.
Maybe this stuff was only funny to people who had done some of their growing up in San Antonio, as was the case for Jim Lehrer. The distinguished PBS newscaster went to Jefferson High School in San Antonio, the same school my dad attended. Lehrer wrote the 1966 novel Viva Max!, upon which the film is based. Part of the comedy came from the ridiculous notion that Mexico could ever win back any of its former territory in Texas. It was the myth of the Alamo turned on its head. This wasn’t 1836! It was 1969, and it was the Mexicans who were outnumbered this time by the overwhelming power of the United States military.
It was funny, but was it racist? Was Jim Lehrer, respected PBS journalist, a racist? At one point in the movie, we learn that Max has invaded the Alamo in order to impress his girlfriend back home, who told him that “his men wouldn’t follow him into a brothel.” This makes the lead character seem pathetic rather than heroic. Where was the post-colonial rhetoric that might have linked Max to Che Guevara? There is one moment of nobility for the character. At the end of the movie, Max is shot while attempting to surrender by an armed militia of crazy Texans who think Max is leading a communist invasion. Max orders his men, who are unarmed, to attack the armed militia. His leadership has finally inspired them. Max’s men attack and the militia flees. Max uses the age-old military tactic of “advancing in retrograde,” as opposed to retreat. He mounts his white horse one last time and rides out of the Alamo and downtown San Antonio to the cheers of his soldiers, “Viva Max!”
It’s a cute movie. Maybe. I spend so much time on it here because it had such a huge impact on my understanding of Mexican-Americans and their culture—as did “José Jiménez” and the “Frito Bandito.” Even though I was surrounded by it, most of my knowledge of Mexican-Americans and their culture came from television and the movies.
The worst thing you could call someone when I was a kid growing up in my mostly white suburb, was a “Mexican.” This seems like an odd racial slur. Why not say “wetback” or “spic” or “greaser”? That’s because my mother taught us that those were bad words. That last one, “greaser,” was also used to describe Italian Americans in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe that’s what tipped mom off to the others. Either way, she would have washed our mouths out with soap if my brothers or I had used any one of them. “Mexican” was just the name of someone from Mexico. Completely innocent, right? But to us, “Mexican” meant lazy, stupid, illegal, possibly criminal. It was the perfect term to hide our elementary-school racism.
“You’re just a Mexican!” I would yell at my brother.
“I am not!” he would yell back. “Mom, Phil called me a Mexican!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother would say. “You’re Italian.”
Man, was she tone deaf. And man, were we racist, in the way that only stupid, mean nine-year-old boys can be. To this day, I still have trouble using the word Mexican. I am able to say “For lunch, I had Mexican food,” without batting an eye. But if I call a person a Mexican, even if they come from Mexico, it brings up the horrible intent with which I used that word as a kid.