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Book Review

Jose B. Gonzalez



Mr. Spic Goes to Washington by Ilan Stavans (Author) and Roberto Weil (Illustrator)
Soft Skull Press, 2008.



have to admit that I am not a big fan of cartoons or comic strips, and I am indeed one of those readers who prefers to let words speak for themselves.  Having said that, I have been intrigued by the work of many talented Latino artists who have made tremendous strides in the visual arts in the last couple of decades.  Carlos Castellanos. Mario Robles, Lalo Alcaraz and the Martinez brothers, Jaime and Gilbert, are but a few the ever-growing list of Latinos whose names have become as close to household in the world of illustration. And in the case of this graphic novel, the partnering of the Venezuelan artist, Roberto Weil, with the intellectually ubiquitous Ilan Stavans seemed sufficiently enticing.

When reading Mr. Spic Goes to Washington, one must balance its serious social criticism with its humor.  In other words, one must take its satire into perspective.  The title of the work, in part bold with its use of a racist epithet and in part an allusion to the 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is meant to provoke as well as evoke.  The idea of someone named Mr. Spic in a high political office is meant to sound unsettling, for it implies to the world that the ideal of a Mr. Spic in Washington is less probable (and more laughable) than the rise of the inspirational Jimmy Stewart character.  This story replaces the American Smith hero with a Latino former gang leader from the streets, and in so doing, it raises a long list of  of "what if" questions.  For instance, it asks in part what an individual with such an ethnic, colorful background might do if in the Senate, but it also asks the question, how would the U.S. react? 

The U.S. loves underdogs and individuals who come back from the ashes--as long as those ashes are not the ghettos or the barrios of the sort from which Mr. Spic comes. The qualities that make him attractive as a Senate nominee are also the same qualities that make him a huge target of criticism from Latinos and non-Latinos alike. As his nemesis, Astrid Allwyn, the Democratic Senator of California, declares, "Colored politics are fractured by nature.  The Cuban American lobby will detest Spic.  He's hyper-liberal! So will Puerto Ricans, but for other reasons" (30). As the novel follows his rise and fall (and rise again), it brings up the special political rules that apply to a Mr. Spic--i.e. Latinos. 

One of the strengths in this work is related to a weakness; the material is though-provoking, balancing creativity with editorial commentary.  Who can deny that the illustrations capture the multilayered purpose of the book?  On the one hand, the images are entertaining, and on the other, they do more than that, pulling you into a story that gets more hysterical yet poignantly critical at the turn of every page. Yet, it is slightly too brief for what it tries to accomplish.  As I read it, I could not help but sense that this book was cut in length by the publisher. A few more pages would have made the novel flow better at times, and in turn the storyline would have been smoother. 


Still, Mr. Spic Goes to Washington works very well, and I have to say that faculty in political policy classes should especially consider adopting this book, for it raises important and relevant questions about our democracy. After all, Latino identity is not monolithic, and the election of Latino officials brings with it a special type of scrutiny as well as a unique set of expectations.  The many figures cited in this book, from Jose Serrano to Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales and yes, Ilan Stavans, know this all too well.  This graphic novel is innovative in ways that a traditional novel cannot be.  In 2000, Stavans partnered with Lalo Alcaraz to provide us with the successful, Latino USA: A Cartoon History, and it is safe to say that as he continues to combine his eye for social critique with the hands of gifted artists, we will be reading innovative works worth exploring.   




Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie


Last Updated: April 14, 2010