As the mariachis began to play a song, Larry Merchant, one of the announcers for the televised Oscar De La Hoya/Pernell Whitaker boxing match, couldn't have expressed his disgust more vehemently. You'd think cockroaches had just crawled onto his feast.
While another announcer reminded the audience that De La Hoya was indeed an American, Merchant bitterly complained that having mariachis play before the fight was a marketing ploy to get "Mexican fans--not Mexican Americans--but Mexican fans to support De La Hoya."
"This sucks!," Merchant exclaimed, with an unadulterated hatred rarely heard on a nationally broadcast sporting event.
The announcers talked during the entire song. Then, after Merchant's outburst, an eerie silence prevailed.
We wondered what gave Merchant, TVKO boxing analyst, the right to insult millions of fans in public? We wondered whether his anger had something to do with the mariachis singing in Spanish or the fact that he couldn't sing along? Was it somehow related to his feelings about the English-Only movement--or did he object to the celebration of De La Hoya's culture? Or was he was voicing his opinion that Mexicans don't belong in this country?
Of course, de la Hoya was born in the United States and mariachis are as American as pizza. Perhaps this is an indication that the cultural wars that conservatives speak of have taken root, even in the field of sports. Of course, just because the nation is celebrating Jackie Robinson and the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of baseball, and Tiger Woods' recent victory in the Masters Golf Tournament, that doesn't mean that bigotry in sports has taken a vacation. How else to explain golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's dismissive reference to the golf phenom as "that little boy"? And how else to account for the small number of African American coaches in sports?
But what do mariachis have to do with any of these cultural wars? Maybe Mariachis have become the new subversives. In El Paso, Texas, of all places, last year, many unenlightened, and perhaps tone-deaf, people complained because a mariachi festival was being held here, in this country. What is it about mariachis that raise the ire of bigots? Their UFO-looking hats? They appear to have become a symbol of all that is alien in these United States.
If Merchant were to be forced out of his profession as a result of this brouhaha, perhaps he could start a new career as a spokesman for the "migra," which has recently been going around the barrios of the Southwest, principally El Paso, rounding up illegal mariachis.
This recent anti-mariachi incident reminded us of the "We hate beaners" hate mail we regularly receive: "We hate you beaners. Go back to where you came from . . ." Or perhaps, Merchant was simply mimicking politicians and the mood of the country.
In similar situations, people who commit these types of miscues usually retort that they were quoted out of context, or say that's not what they meant. In this case, there was no confusion. It wasn't so much Merchant's words that were offensive, but the manner in which he said them. As a friend of ours quipped, what he really meant to say is, "He hates #!*#!! Mexicans."
Daniel D. Portado of Hispanics Against Liberal Take Over (HALTO), a political organization whose guru is renowned Latino rights champion, Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson, wasn't fazed by Merchant's exclamation. But he was troubled by something else. "I'm more concerned with references during the bout to the 'Mexican liver punch.' Is that some kind of disgusting south of the border drink? It's probably contaminated with hepatitis." (It actually refers to a boxing punch to the liver which many Mexicans boxers are very adept at delivering.)
The worst part about this sneak attack was that the defenseless mariachis and De La Hoya weren't even aware that the biggest blows that night were being delivered from the safe distance of the announcer's booth. As might be expected, many people think Merchant should be stripped of his announcer's credentials. That's too easy. This is a much bigger issue.
This episode is what we've been talking about for the past few years. Hate and contempt for other groups of people and their culture has been legitimized and it has nothing to do with the immigration debate and can not be dismissed as a mere "slip-of-the-tongue." Merchant's comment wasn't simply insulting to Mexicans, but to anyone who isn't considered part of "official" U.S. culture.
In effect, it is an insult to everyone, because there's never been a referendum that established an official American culture. For we are a country of jazz, mariachi, rap, elevator, country and all kinds of music.
There are indeed some people who would love to see an official language and culture established, and, no doubt, an official color. Neverthelsss, we think if there were a referendum on the matter, most Americans would vote in favor of mariachi music. ("Ahua!")
There's actually a civil resolution to this dispute. Tucson, Ariz. comedian Dona Chona says that there ought to be a rematch. But instead of Whitaker facing De La Hoya, Merchant should step into the ring with the champ. "And he can have whatever music he wants playing in the background," offers Chona generously. Perhaps Fuzzy could join Merchant in the ring.
"Viejo desgraciado" is how Dona Chona describes Merchant. "That's untranslatable," she says. Suffice to say he's a "bad man."
(Copyright Chronicle Features, 1997)
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