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Book Review
by Jose B. Gonzalez
Originally published in MELUS, Winter, 2002


Jose, Can You See?: Latinos On and Off Broadway
Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez
Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1999.
x + 275 pages. $49.95 cloth; $22.95 paper.
 
 

In the area of Latino/a studies and for that matter, ethnic studies, many authors, perhaps at the behest of publishers, attempt overly ambitious works that look at spans of generations and waves of movements. As a result, the market is flooded with books that claim to provide overviews on such broad topics as the history of Latino/as in as little as 200 pages. Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez' equally short work, Jose, Can You See?, at first glance appears to be such a book, seeking to review and examine the history and roles of Latino/as on and off Broadway. Yet, in less than a couple of hundred pages, Sandoval-Sanchez manages to produce one of the most informative works ever published on the subject.

Creatively, Sandoval-Sanchez divides his book into two theater-like parts. "Act One: A Critical Reading of Latino/a Representations on Broadway," looks at how Carmen Miranda and Desi Arnaz, two Latino/a cultural icons who were hailed and assailed for their performances, objectified, typecast, and stereotyped Latino/as. "Act Two: Latino/a Self-Representations in Theatrical Productions," takes a closer look at contemporary theater, specifically AIDS theater, US Latina playwriting, and the construction of bilingual and bicultural identities.

As Sandoval-Sanchez argues that Arnaz and Miranda created images of Latinidad on Broadway that contributed "significantly to the contemporary stereotypical characterizations of U.S. Latino/as," Sandoval-Sanchez analyzes the then-prevailing attitudes toward Latin America and their effect on America's expectations of Latino/as. Noting that rhetorical topo(s)graphy helped create Anglo American models of imagining the Latin other, he points to the common views during the 1920s of Latin America as a feminized and sexualized other. Citing other historical markers such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy and the emergence of film, Sandoval-Sanchez stresses that the success of Arnaz and Miranda was partly a product of an American society that had been prepared to accept the two stars' representations of Latinidad as truth. Incorporating reviews of critics who glamorized Miranda for her supposedly authentic Latin portrayals, the author presents a convincing argument that helps explain why Miranda was not so beloved upon returning to her native Brazil. The fact that she sang in Portuguese, and was still able to earn the praise of film critics who believed that she sang in Spanish, solidifies Sandoval-Sanchez' point.

In criticizing Arnaz so harshly, the author goes against the views of such modern-day critics as Virgil Perez Firmat, whose admiration of Arnaz, made apparent in his autobiographical work, Next Year in Cuba, mirrors that of millions of I Love Lucy fans. Sandoval-Sanchez revisits a few classic episodes, including "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," in which Arnaz' famous alter ego, Ricky, goes to the hospital in blackface because he has to rush there from his gig at a cabaret. Upon arriving at the hospital, where Lucy is giving birth to their son, Ricky finds a nursing staff who is unconvinced that he could be the father. The author uses this instance as a sort of metaphorical representation of the racial misrepresentation that takes place in the show.

Just as Sandoval-Sanchez does a brilliant job of examining the questions of Latino/a/a authenticity that Miranda and Arnaz raised, he is equally masterful in his "Puerto Rican reading of West Side Story." Reminding us that the play was originally intended to be a love story about a Jewish girl and an Italian Catholic boy, he explains how certain binary oppositions were purposefully constructed: Puerto Ricans and Anglo Americans; Puerto Rico and the US; (animalistic) Sharks and (technologically advanced) Jets; West Side and East Side; Latino/a ethnicity and Anglo American Eurocentrism; and poor and rich. Essentially affirming that West Side Story became the Latino/a authentic archetype against which other Latino/a plays were judged, Sandoval-Sanchez carefully analyzes the work's blatantly racist lines and its derogatory views of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, and again revisits reviews which hailed the play as a reflection of the social crisis taking place in such cities as New York.

Jose, Can You See? also looks at the politics of participation and representation in A Chorus Line, which Sandoval-Sanchez calls "the first Latino/a crossover theatrical piece on the Great White Way." Offering perhaps more reflection than analysis, this section of the book, nevertheless, provides a unique and worthwhile look at the efforts of the play's Puerto Rican author, Nicholas Dante, whose real name was Conrado Morales. As Sandoval-Sanchez explains, the author was marginalized in real life, not having received much deserved financial rewards and writing credits for his work, and was similarly marginalized in the play through his alter ego, Paul San Marco, AKA Ephrain Morales.

The enlightening and well-researched discussion of Latino/as' participation in AIDS theater provides a very thorough overview of a topic that has been largely ignored in Latino/a literary studies. Noting that the main purpose of this genre is to educate the Latino/a population, he focuses on Noche de ronda and A Better Life, proving that a new paradigm of Latino identity is being formed through this new tradition. Similarly, he examines the efforts of Latina playwrights to deconstruct myths and gender stereotypes, stressing that since the 1980s, US Latina theater "has become an accomplished and fruitful enterprise that embodies a heterogeneity of voices, a plurality of discourses, and a diversity of experiences."

Although this is undoubtedly one of the best-written books on the subject, the most noteworthy strength of Jose, Can You See? is the author's obvious emotional attachment to the subject. Rare is the book that can combine critical analysis and provocative thought with a refreshing but tempered personal approach based on experience. Critics such as Nicolas Kanellos have written on the history of Latino/a drama in the United States, but not many of them have let their convictions serve as an asset in their writing. Sandoval-Sanchez does this while at the same time leaving the reader with a sense of great satisfaction and understanding of Latino/as on and off Broadway.

 

Jose B. Gonzalez is the Editor of LatinoStories.Com, the Co-Editor of Latino Boom: Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, and an award-winning poet and educator who has been a featured speaker at various colleges and universities nationwide.