Born in East LA
At the end of Cheech Marin’s Born in East L. A. (1987), a pair of undocumented Chinese immigrants who have been trained by Rudy (Marin) in the art of walking, talking, and gesturing like Mexican-Americans successfully act Mexican-American in front of a police officer to convince and assure him that they indeed are “natives.
” Of concern to both Lowe and Oboler is the unequal status of minorities as members of the United States national community and citizenry. Basically, the U. S. citizen has been defined as a white male.
This subsequently has meant that especially persons of color have been “conceived in the popular mind as outside of the ‘boundaries’ of the ‘American’ community” (Oboler 19). Thus, persons of color are denied “the extension of full citizenship rights” (Oboler 28); they are denied protection of their “privileges and. . . local body” (Berlant 113). Fregoso indicates that with Born in East L. A. Cheech Marin parodies the second level of meaning at which “‘Born in the USA’ had been disarticulated from its signifying elements of working-class discourse and rearticulated as an expression of racist and patriotic discourse” (56).
Marin basically uses to his advantage the nativist logic which results in “Born in the USA” being taken to signify “foreigners (or non-whites) go home” (Fregoso 56). His objective is to intervene into the definition of “Americans” as whites. Underpinning white nativists’ appropriation of “Born in the USA” is the extremely narrow reasoning that America belongs to whites because whites are born here. Marin intervenes by indicating that Mexican-Americans also are born in the USA. Thus, “brown people are natives too” (Fregoso 56) .
When caught up in an Immigration raid, Rudy declares, “I was born in East L. A. ,” to the INS officer to announce his right to be in the United States unharassed. Rudy is also implicitly telling the officer that by birthright he (Rudy) is an equal citizen to the officer and entitled to the same freedoms that the officer and any other (white) citizen enjoy. Of course, despite the fact that Rudy declares that he was born in East L. A. , and thus a citizen by his nativeness, he is deported.
In fact, when he attempts to align himself with INS officers as their fellow American citizen, Rudy is soundly rejected. To the officer at the toy factory, Rudy is merely another “bean in a bean bag. ” As he is escorted to the INS van, Rudy’s appeals to the officers that “I am an American citizen” are for naught, for he is briskly ushered into the van with the “rest” of the non-citizen Mexicans. In the INS office in Tijuana, Rudy tells the white officer, “It’s good to talk to a American” but the officer does not accept Rudy as his equal, and ultimately condemns him to “Mexico– where you belong. Highly symbolic of the repudiation of Mexican-Americans’ claims to citizenship equal to that of white Americans is the scene in the INS van when Rudy, banging on the door which separates the deportees from the INS driver, screams, “I’m an American. I went to Belmont High, you idiot. ” Although Rudy is creating quite an uproar, he is not heard by the driver simply because the driver has on a set of headphones. Literally his assertions (shouts) of his membership in the U. S. national community are tuned out.
This non-reception of Rudy’s shouts reflects the refusal of white America to heed persons’ of color justified demands for equal status as citizens. “Rudy [just] cannot convince U. S. border officials that he is an American and therefore has the right to return to the United States” (Cortes 47); they simply will not hear his claims. All of Rudy’s encounters with INS officers thus dramatize the exclusion of persons of color from the national community which Lowe and Oboler discuss.
Moreover, the negation of Rudy’s citizenship makes visible the contradictions inherent in white-American nativist logic. With his wallet at home, Rudy finds himself without identification. Thus, he is without any documentation which can substantiate his claims to citizenship. Without such documentation, his body is all that can be read by the INS officers, whose job it is to regulate who is inside the nation and who should be kept out. Ultimately, Rudy is deported because he is deemed not-American by virtue of his brown body.
His English, Dodgers hat, and knowledge of U. S. popular culture (as demonstrated by his knowledge of Death Valley Days and John Wayne) are completely ignored as signifiers of his Americanness. Instead, his brown body is taken as a more important signifier. Rudy, on the other hand, is literally excluded from the U. S. citizenry because of of his brown body. Once in Mexico Rudy feels himself to be in “a foreign land. ” The foreignness of Mexico and Mexicans to Rudy is played out to represent Rudy’s Americanness.
For instance, in the INS van headed to Tijuana, Rudy is an outsider amongst the Mexicans. Unable to speak Spanish, he is ultimately called by one of the Mexicans a “pocho pendejo,” a pejorative reference usually intended to refer to Mexican-Americans who cannot speak Spanish and who, subsequently, are deemed less Mexican. In fact, as he is captured by Border Patrol officers on one of his attempts to cross the border, Rudy proclaims, “I’m an American citizen. I don’t even speak Spanish. Whereas “the Spanish language is commonly used as an identifier of Hispanics” (Oboler 12), Marin presents a pocho Rudy to make more obvious Rudy’s “American” identity. Basically, to present Mexican-Americans as brown Americans, Born on East L. A. plays on Rudy’s/Mexican-Americans’ cultural “distance” from Mexico and Mexicans. Edward Simmen posits that Mexicans-Americans’ physical and cultural distance from Mexico accounts for the uniqueness, if not unrelatablity, of Mexican-Americans when compared to Mexicans in Mexico. He states:
After all, it is difficult to deny the fact that the contemporary Mexican-American, while he may have firm cultural roots in Mexico, is actually only a distant cousin to the Mexicano living in present-day Mexico– a distance that is rapidly increasing with each new generation, with each new educational opportunity offered to and taken by the Mexican-American, and certainly with each mile the Mexican-American moves north from the border. (17) “I don’t belong here in downtown TJ ’cause I was born in East L. A. ” Although of Mexican descent, Rudy is not exactly “Mexican. Within Mexico and amongst Mexicans, Rudy is an outsider, rendered so by his different socio-cultural experiences and subsequent sense of self. Rudy does not, however, come across as a whited Mexican. When he aligns himself with white Americans, it is as a fellow American citizen, and not as a fellow white. This distinction is crucial for understanding the cultural identity politics of the film. Rudy’s forced journey to Mexico, however, does not facilitate some personal reconciliation with a lost or repressed dimension to his identity.
Instead, he wants to go home, This type of nationalism is effective in its contestation of white-American nativism as well in its depiction of a securely distinct identity. Fregoso says, though, that by the end of the film, when Rudy crosses back with a mass of immigrants, he “crosses back as a collective subject” instead of as an individual (68). She says: [Rudy’s] forced residence in Tijuana effects a transformation in [his] subject position. By living like an immigrant, experiencing the difficulties of trying to make it across, Rudy gains a new awareness. His transformation has a symbolic resonance at the level of political consciousness. 68) Carlos Cortes says that when Rudy and the immigrants rush the border, “At least for the moment, ‘the people’ have caused the border to disappear” (47). One can take Cortes’s reading to refer to the dissipation of the borders/differences between Rudy, the Mexican immigrants, the Salvadorena Dolores, the Chinese/Indians, and whatever other groups might be present. Thus, under duress, differences give way (at least for the moment) to group consciousness. But the final sequence of the film turns on the differences between Rudy and the noncitizen others and reinscribes these differences.
First of all, in the abovementioned scene in which the undocumented Chinese immigrants “pass” as native Mexican-Americans, the fact of their non-citizenship contributes to Rudy’s perceived citizenship. And, as they are performing for the officer, Rudy is marrying the Salvadorena Dolores so she does not get arrested by the INS officers, who are in hot pursuit of her. These two scenes really sum up the way in which the film asserts Mexican-American citizenship, for Rudy’s citizenship consistently emerges in relation to others’ noncitizenship.
The “narrative truth” which the spectator is always let in on (Fregoso 60) is that Rudy is an American citizen, albeit one whose privileges are denied, and various others are not. It thus seems that Rudy’s American citizenship comes into focus through the same process by which white Americans’ Americanness and citizenship become apparent: both depend on others’ lack of citizenship. Oboler indicates that “the nation’s [white] identity was forged in the nineteenth century partially through the creation of racialized perceptions that homogenized Latin America’s population” (18).
Likewise, Rudy’s identity as an American citizen is foregrounded in contrast to Mexican, Salvadorena, and Chinese others. Christine List says that “Chicano features provide a public forum for Chicano cultural expression and articulate issues of Chicano identity on a national and international scale” (13). Born in East L. A. “sets up as its central conflict Rudy’s dilemma of proving his identity” (List 151), specifically as an American citizen. As the film asserts his/Mexican-Americans’ American citizenship, it effectively intervenes into the construction of the American citizen as white.
However, Mexican-American citizenship is established through others’ noncitizenship. Such a method for the recuperation of Mexican-American citizenship is troubling because it still others noncitizens. With regard to definitions of nation, Cortes states, “As context or character, as goal or protection, borders have served a key role in Hollywood’s exploration of the formation and reformation of our nation” (42). Born in East L. A. ‘s reformation of the nation ultimately asserts Mexican-Americans’ citizenship by foregrounding others’ noncitizenship, which is to say, others’ fundamental outsiderness in relation to the U. S. national community.