LOL, but seriously: can you ‘Learn To Be Latina’?

Milagro's current satire spoofs some serious issues. We asked the director and a star for impossible answers. Here's what they said.

This weekend, Enrique Ureta’s Learn To Be Latina, “a post-911 race farce/lesbian rom-com with dance breaks,” opens at Milagro Theatre. Hanen Mashalani (played by Nicole Accuardi) is a Lebanese American singer who wants to “make it,” so she meets with a group of star-handlers led by curiously Irish-accented Latina “Mary O’Malley” (played by Olga Sanchez Saltveit). O’Malley, boasting an Ethnic Studies degree, and her company of sassy sycophants insist that Hanen “lose” her true ethnic origins and adopt a more favorable persona: that of a Latina. They proceed (hilariously) to explain why, and try to teach her how, with puppets, hiphop dance numbers, and a cadre of playfully obnoxious “fad girls.” If this production packs even half the surprise attack of director Antonio Sonera’s Invasion, it should be worth an enthusiastic watch and more than a few bursts of stunned laughter.

Image: Russell J. Young

Image: Russell J. Young

Obviously, the show satirizes impossible questions about ethnicity and identity in a humorous way…but after I laugh, I just come back to the questions, and feel somewhat underqualified to address them. So I thought I’d extract the diciest implications from the practice I saw, and ask you for some insights from  Sonera and actor/Milagro mainstay Olga Sanchez Saltveit, who plays O’Malley. Sanchez Saltveit notes, “Although my degree is in Human Development, and much of my work is centered on creating events and spaces that promote positive self-image (often connected to ethnic identity), I also feel quite underqualified to answer your questions without entering into generalities, so I did a little web searching to respond to your questions.” The following becomes something of a discussion, something of a study guide on these hot-button, highly personal topics. But if you do your homework now, by opening night you may laugh—and think—even harder.

From the play: “Is being born the wrong kind of brown keeping you down?”
No, but seriously: Do some ethnicities have “better” stereotypes than others? And presuming all nonwhite ethnicities suffer the effects of prejudice, is it somehow okay to “pass” as a different nonwhite ethnicity and reap its advantages?

Sonera: In the play, “the wrong kind of brown” refers to being Lebanese. The playwright is making a point about our society and us living in a post 9-11 shadow of fear. His point being that in this day and age it is safer and more acceptable to be Latino than it is of Middle Eastern descent. Is it okay to “pass” as another nonwhite ethnicity? I think that is what the play is trying to say. The playwright uses Lebanese [ethnicity] as tool to demonstrate an ethnicity that should probably try and be something else that is “passable”. Remembering that the color of your skin may not allow you to be white, but it may allow you to be something that is acceptable…like Latino.

Sanchez Saltveit: Yes, but this changes with time (era) and circumstances. If I look to the Asian stereotype promoted by the icon of Fu Manchu … a book, film and comic strip antihero, a diabolical criminal mastermind, who, as the original author put it, “represented the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” Among Fu Manchu’s attributes was an absolute contempt for the white man, whose destruction he intended. Wikipedia explains “Yellow Peril” as “the fear that the mass immigration of Asians threatened white wages and standards of living, and the fear that they would eventually take over and destroy western civilization, replacing it with their ways of life and values.” Sound familiar?

In PBS’s Race, The Power of an Illusion , David Freund expounds on how “Italians, Jews, and Slavs were considered non-white in popular political discourse of the late 19th and early 20th century, and this discourse grew very influential in the anti-immigration movement, leading eventually, in the 1920s, to severe restrictions against entry of supposedly “non-white” groups to this country.” and how, “The political context and the power context changes. Ethnicity, like race, takes on different meanings.”

Locally, this report from the Coalition of Communities of Color shows how the African American community seems to have been targeted in arrests.

So, yeah, some ethnicities are more challenged. Or to paraphrase your question, some ethnicities have “worse” stereotypes than others.

[On “passing”]…you mean like Rita Hayworth? Martin Sheen? Bruno Mars? Linda Ronstadt? I guess so… sometimes it’s a matter of life and death, sometimes survival or success… I’m reminded of closeted gays or trans people who needed to stay in the closet or risk isolation (if not persecution) in their communities should they express their true identities. I’m not a fan of “passing” to reap benefits when none are needed (I’m thinking of politicians who conveniently remember that they’re part-‘whatever’ in front of a ‘whatever’ crowd) ~ in this case a person of privilege claims affiliation with disadvantage in order to appeal to a disenfranchised community ~ and thereby benefits from this affiliation.

From the play: “I need my name!” Aspiring singer Hanan Mashalani balks at the suggestion that she take a stage name, claiming her ethnic origin as revealed by her name is an essential part of her identity. But when her handlers press her, she can’t demonstrate any Arabic customs or language. Slyly side-eyeing each other, they suggest that she’s full-of-it, really just mainstream American.
No, but seriously: If all Americans except Native Americans originate from elsewhere, yet have been “Americanized” to various levels into the same language and practices, to what extent can we still claim our respective motherlands?

Sonera: In the play, Mary says that identity is “as negligible and negotiable as a back alley hooker.” So maybe the questions are, Can we claim our respective motherlands? Why do we try to claim them? Are we just appropriating identity? My Father is from Puerto Rico, my mother from Portland, and when asked what my ethnicity is I say Puerto Rican, Scottish, English, and German. I have never been to any of those places. I don’t speak Spanish or German. I identify as Latino, truly based on the way I look, and because of my name Antonio Sonera. Am I really Latino? Do I have the right to claim being Puerto Rican? I don’t know. Have I benefited from being Latino? Yes. I mean…I get to direct this play, right? The play raises a great question.What’s the minimum knowledge and custom needed to connect to our ethnic origins? I think that is an individual choice.

Sanchez Saltveit: Well, I think this stems back to the quote I pasted above about the discrimination faced by Italians, Jews and Slavs in the early part of the 20th century (I’ll add the Irish here as well). The struggle to create a unified “American” identity was critical in order to create peace, survival. I imagine this was fortified during WWII, when so many were banded together regardless of ethnic heritage. Yet there were segregated troops. Over time, so many people lost the language of their grandparents, and lost (or integrated) cultural traditions (I’m thinking Santa Claus, which didn’t exist in Latin America until the late 20th century.) As I understand it, this was one of the reasons for the interest in yoga, and Native culture in the 60s, and even the Back to Africa movement—a search for meaning/identity in the traditions of others, having lost one’s birthright to heritage.

To what extent can we claim our respective motherlands? Are you including naturalized citizens in your definition of All Americans? Sorry to delve into semantics. This is a question among some bi-cultural people (like myself) who feel like they belong neither here nor there.

From the play: Olga Sanchez brandishes a sock puppet she calls “Calcetina Turner,” (calcetina is “sock” in Spanish) and makes it “speak” with a broad Spanish accent and a haughty, flirtatious attitude. “I’ll teach you the secret of my Latin heat!” tempts the puppet.
No, but seriously: Do Latinas have access to a special brand of sex appeal? And if so, how do you characterize that? And is it imitable?

Sonera: In the play, famous Latinas are used as examples of sexy, and it is referred to as Latin Heat. Imitable? No more or less than any other characterization of sexy.

Sanchez Saltveit: Can of worms…

From the play: Speaking in an Irish brogue but intermittently slipping into her Latina impression, Sanchez’s character Mary O’Malley boasts about her postgraduate degree in Ethnic Studies, suggesting she’s outsmarted cultural subtext and is therefore at liberty to exploit it.
No, but seriously: Is it possible to educate oneself beyond one’s cultural predilections? And if so, is that outcome desirable?

Sonera: In the play, Mary’s education is twofold, one to make her an expert on ethnic studies, and to make herself appear to be a “White Girl”. It is desirable to Mary in the play.

Sanchez Saltveit: Not sure I understand the question, are you asking whether one can grow beyond their biases? That’s probably a spiritual ideal, to transcend judgment of others…probably easier said than achieved. As with other spiritual ideals, it requires a certain amount of humility, the acceptance of oneself as equal to—not better than—others.

In the case of Mary O’Malley, I believe she’s so hurt from what happened to her (the rejection she faced from record execs for being Latina in the 80s) that her pain fuels her goals. I don’t believe she’s interested in transcendence. Her education/knowledge is used to manipulate others, to realize her dreams: recording her music and making others see what fools they were for rejecting her.

So, while her education might have served her higher goals, it also serves her baser, more selfish, more vengeful ones. This is the great tragedy of the play, and what makes me cry every time I read it, and why I wanted to do it in the first place. Even if La Juana was never really very good in her day, her feeling of victimization, discrimination, marginalization is so strong it motivates her to become a very ugly, manipulative person. She is a product of prejudice. Many people internalize these judgments, growing to believe the lies they are told about themselves—that they and their ‘kind’ are stupid, lazy, ‘hot’, what have you. Mary rebels against this; she’s on the way to prove everyone wrong. She just goes about it in a mean-spirited way. After all, if she was tough enough to withstand, shouldn’t everyone else be? It’s why she’s so tough with the character Blanca, aka “Office Bitch,” the only other Latina in the play. Dare I call it “tough love?” And I wonder whether Mary hasn’t internalized the negativity she faced, and somehow this justifies her behavior? She can’t help herself; she’s naturally bad.

It’s a broad statement, but there’s a core of truth in this. Hatred, prejudice, bias…hurts a spirit, wounds people. It is desirable to overcome one’s cultural predilections (though I think of predilections as preferences) but perhaps even more desirable to overcome one’s cultural prejudices before they cause more pain.

Seriously… These questions remain unresolvable except on a personal, philosophical level…but who could answer better? Having given the issues a bit more consideration, feel free to brace yourself for belly-laughs. Learn to be Latina opens this Friday, May 2 and runs through the month at Milagro Theater on 6th and SE Stark.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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4 Responses.

  1. olga says:

    I really appreciate this article (and your impossible questions) but the show is a Milagro production, could you please correct? Thanks! Olga…

    • A.L. Adams says:

      Thanks, Olga! I apologize for the mistaken association with Sonera’s company, Badass Theatre. The article has been amended.

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