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Tucson Weekly Cultural Crossroads

Today's multicultural studies demand fewer politics and more movies.

By James DiGiovanna

MAY 4, 1998: 

Culture Across Borders, edited by David R. Maciel and María Herrera-Sobek (University of Arizona Press). Paper, $16.95.

MULTICULTURALISM AS AN academic force has focused on the politics and folk cultures that contribute to the mixed societies of the world. Unfortunately, little has been said about popular multiculturalism, perhaps because the academy is embarrassed by the Milli Vanillis of the world, or perhaps because most professors of English, Comparative Literature, and Area Studies have their heads so far up the canonical and neo-canonical laundry chutes that they're largely unaware of what's on the jukeboxes and cable channels across the country.

Recently, some effort has been made to change that, with books like Eastern Standard Time focusing on the glitzier and more shallow aspects of cultural exchange. While Asian pop is widely appreciated by techno-teens and bi-level hipsters in America's larger urban centers, down here in the Old Pueblo we're more in tune to the dusty sounds and sights that slip across the U.S.-Mexican border late at night.

Cataloging these effects and influences is Culture Across Borders, edited by David R. Maciel and María Herrera-Sobek. While politically engaged, Across Borders is nevertheless unafraid of fun and offense, especially in the section on "jokelore," which translates and explains jokes told by immigrants about the U.S., about newer immigrants, and about themselves. Whoever said a joke isn't funny when it's explained hasn't read a good, scholarly study of humor...there's no bigger laugh than the one to be had watching a professor bend over backwards to find the political intent in a knock-knock joke.

There's also a strong history of the role of Mexican labor in the U.S., several explorations of cinematic depictions of the immigrant experience, and a look at the paintings, posters and imagery that have inspired artists and illustrators and served as religious and political iconography.

The sections on film are perhaps the most interesting, as the roles of Mexican actors are morphing over time, becoming more and less sensitive as Mexican voices are respected and diminished by the changing political tides in California.

There's a fine, Viktor Propp-style morphology of "immigrant films"; and even if you've only seen a few of the movies they use for analytical fodder, their list of necessary elements immediately rings true. This sort of insight is what makes cultural criticism rewarding, and it's good to see that this close attention to the texts and images of the immigrant experience take precedence over the political goals of the writers.

Perhaps most enlightening for the non-Mexican reader is the section on filmmaking south of the border. The use of corridos, a form of ballad popular in Northern Mexico, as basis for a number of films makes interesting reading, and provides insight into how the Mexican film industry views immigrants. The counterpoint to films like The Border and Born in East L.A. is eye-opening, both in the heroic depiction of Mexican nationals and in the use of romantic themes that are more than familiar to American movie-goers.

On the whole, Culture Across Borders presents an important first assay into the realm of influence that links Mexico and the U.S. in their popular productions. While notably incomplete, one hopes that this will open further exploration that may vindicate both the political force of popular culture, and the fecundity of Mexican songwriters, filmmakers, actors and artists in their effect upon what is rapidly becoming a global arena for the commodities of culture.

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