Looney Tunes was a fixture of 1990s Nickelodeon and my TV-watching experience as a kid.
I didn’t particularly aim to watch Looney Tunes, but when it was on, I guess it was alright, it was something to keep me occupied.
Speedy Gonzales was a pretty prominent recurring character whose sole purpose was to make Sylvester the cat look stupid. I hated that, I really wanted the cat to finally catch that little mouse.
Speedy was just one in a line of physically little, quick-moving, thinking characters that included Jerry from Tom and Jerry, Tweety bird, the Roadrunner, and the kids who actually got the Trix in those commercials. These little, quick-moving characters were always elusive, and I couldn’t help but be annoyed at each one of them.
I wonder if the 1950s narrative for these cartoon characters was structured so that we would dislike these nimble little characters. The storylines were constructed in a way in which you wondered if those physically little, quick-moving and thinking characters would get caught.
It was always a narrative of evasion (which probably fit in with the time). So while the characters looked physically defenseless, you knew they would always get away with something, almost like criminals.
The narratives never centered around the Speedy’s, Tweety’s, Roadrunners and a question of when they would overcome these big predatorial characters. It was about when the big predatory characters, the Sylvesters, the Trix Bunny, the Coyote, devising all kinds of plans, would finally win.
Speedy arguably had the most personality of all those little evasive characters. His personality was marked by his ethnicity, which was emphasized way beyond belief: he was undeniably, thoroughly Mexican, from the sombrero to the accent to the use of Spanish.
Arriba, arriba, andale, andale.
I remember going to Spanish class the first day of my freshman year in high school thinking, “I’m finally going to learn what those words mean!”
The video above of Speedy Gonzales is quite relevant to today’s debate over immigration.
You’ve got the immigration boundary, the all-male “border crossers” trying to get cheese (i.e. “stealing our jobs”), and this ineffective “border defense”, the cruder older stereotypes of the Latino lover, and immigrants as these opportunistic rats.
Based on current socially accepted rhetoric of “catching illegal immigrants”, “breeders”, and border patrol video games, I wonder how people might’ve been influenced in their thinking by mere “entertainment.”
People say Looney Tunes was “just” a cartoon, entertainment, as if thoughts can be neatly packaged away into separate compartments of our brains, not ever influencing things like our political beliefs or views on race.
I think things in general would be much easier if our brains actually were structured that way. But our brains are not computers and as was pointed out by Gary Marcus in his book Kluge, our brains are imperfect. This means we are not always rational, controlled, and we don’t always act the way we intend to. So we may not always have the most perfectly formed opinions.
Our opinions on politics and race today might’ve originated from something we don’t remember or don’t really like to admit. We often don’t remember the sources of these beliefs, but we cling to them because they are convenient and our lifestyles have been built around them. I think very few people if any are convinced to change beliefs based on hard, cold factual or statistical arguments. If anything, for both sides of any argument, tools like statistics are just rhetorical weapons wielded from high-minded individuals to convince everyone of their personal extreme rationality.
I tend to think that most opinions on politics, race, even sports originate in early motivations developed from emotional reactions. Our emotional reactions develop from social environments and communities.
I don’t think people in general realize how irrationally formed some of their beliefs and perceptions are, particularly those involving race, ethnicity, and politics. I think most people, particularly those who aren’t made conscious of their race and ethnicity, latch on to certain beliefs and stereotypes of other races and ethnicities early on in their lives.
As a kid, Speedy stirred up a sentiment of annoyance in me. He was so annoyingly evasive. So I disliked him. By association, I ended up not liking some of his traits, like the fact that he was dirty brown or spoke “broken” English.
I knew that not every Mexican actually talked or acted like Speedy or his friends, but I felt like some of the way they speak was what I observed the way some Latinos in real life spoke and were generally dirty-looking, especially the jornalero types. The stereotype had a grain of truth, I thought.
And so in grade school, when I went to a neighborhood friend’s house who was Guatemalan, I saw that he was brown and lived pretty dirtily, unconsciously confirming a stereotype. The friends he brought over from public school were also dirty, especially when one time they played on my makeshift kiddy basketball court, and my finger accidentally touched on dude’s tongue. I sniffed my finger and it smelled foul.
Later in grade school for a school project, I had to go to a Mexican’s house. I was almost pleasantly surprised to find out how clean he was because he was sort of a big dude and always kinda smelled foul.
I wasn’t out there pointing this out to either one of my friends; these were just things running in my head — caricatures of little dirty brown Speedy Gonzales juxtaposed with confirmed stereotypes of real life people.
It’s not like I had anything else in my streaming experience of television, school, or real life experience (in LA no less) to dispel these wholly irrational caricatures of Mexicans/Latinos.
All I knew is that it was wrong to discriminate against any of them or any people or say bad things about them (or any other people of color, much like myself).
All I learned was not to intentionally do bad things around them or anyone else, and everything would be alright.
I didn’t learn exactly how to be cool with them, what good food they had, how clean most of them were, you know stuff that we could actually connect on. All I learned was how to joke about their different stereotypes and not take those too seriously.
The problem with the widespread public idea that Speedy Gonzales is “just entertainment” or was about “jokes” is that I’m not sure there is much out there to make a better attempt at representing Mexicans for other people. It’s as if their non-White racial and ethnic categories are only out there to be punchlines and caricatures. I could probably tell you more about how annoying Speedy G. than how great Cesar A was.