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The Perpetual Identity Crisis

Growing Up in Hollywood, Ruben Martinez Spent His Life Bouncing Between the 'Real' and 'Reel' Worlds. How Could He Reconcile His Latino Heritage With the Pop Culture Around Him?

June 28, 1998|RUBEN MARTINEZ | Ruben Martinez is the author of "The Other Side: Notes From New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond" (Vintage). This article will appear in a longer form next month in "Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural" (Pantheon Books)

I've always spent more time at movie houses or huddled next to a TV than with my nose between the pages of a book. I read only books directly related to my research and a few literary faves. Sit down with a 600-page best-selling biography? Who has time in the age of MTV?

I want to see colors rippling across a wide screen. I want a soundtrack of violins and trumpets composed by a nonagenarian Russian emigre. I want Bergman (Ingrid), Mitchum, Hayworth (nee Cansino) and Poitier forever teamed up with Curtis.

I grew up in Hollywood. Literally. ABC Studios was just across the Shakespeare Bridge in my Silver Lake neighborhood. The imposing set for D. W. Griffith's "Intolerance" once stood about a mile from my elementary school. My alma mater, John Marshall High, has a New England-gothic facade that has served as the quintessential American high school for dozens of TV shows and movies; John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John bobby-soxed on my football field when I was a freshman.

Hollywood has given me great and terrible things--a culture as tangible as the mix of race and ethnicity I grew up around. Somewhere between my "reel" and "real" lives lie my deepest beliefs and greatest fears, my dreams and nightmares. I was a kid and now am an adult--with a perpetual identity crisis.

I was the only Latino in my elementary school until the third grade; the vast majority of students were white or Asian. My English was somewhat lacking when I began kindergarten, but there weren't a lot of choices back in the days before bilingual education and "multiculturalism." You either "assimilated" or you fought the dominant culture to the death. In my junior high school, a much more mixed environment, I came across Latino kids who embarked upon the latter; they were cholos who followed older siblings or parents and wore the uniform of an ethnic rebel (dickeys, hairnets) and lived a life at odds not just with white society but also with Mother Mexico. I always envied them; however troubled their lives, their style was way cool.

I, on the other hand, did everything I could to assimilate. My father, the son of Mexican immigrants, was crucial in that regard. He, too, had eschewed the cholo way of life. That his parents had made enough money to move into a middle-class neighborhood is not an unimportant detail. By living among The Other, it was much easier to become conversant in The Other's language and perspective. Acculturation is usually as much an economic rite of passage as a cultural one.

I experienced "race" pretty much the way my father did when he was growing up, since he, too, was often the odd one among his classmates. I had to endure the occasional wetback jokes, but I stubbornly remained an assimilationist. I came to speak an accentless English, just as my father did. In fact, I was so good at mimicking the language that I sort of became the Rich Little of my class. By junior high, I was imitating John Wayne and Richard Nixon about as well as a kid with Mexican looks could.

Hollywood helped me, and hindered me, all along the way. I'll never forget when, in the late '60s, the film version of "West Side Story" aired on network TV for the first time. Of course, I fell in love with Natalie Wood's Maria, which placed me firmly in white-kid Tony's shoes. I arrived at school the next day not thinking of having to fight the Jets--hell, I was a Jet, and a white girl named Wendy was, in fantasy, my Natalie Wood. Only in hindsight can I see the irony of a brown kid who thought he was white, and who desired a white classmate standing in for a white woman playing a Puerto Rican.

That morning at Franklin Elementary, all the kids arrived snapping their fingers, whistling and talking darkly of a "rumble" after school. I walked out of class after the afternoon bell rang and heard a pre-pubescent voice screech: "SHARK!" I looked around, but, of course, everyone was looking at me. There wasn't any physical harm to the game, but I can point to the experience as the moment in which a schizophrenic consciousness began to grow in me.

Just about every character I saw on TV and in the movies was white, except for a handful of minor roles for blacks, Asians and Mexicans. ("Latinos" from South or Central America--like my mom, who was born in El Salvador--simply didn't exist back then, except, of course, for the Lisbon-born Brazilian star, Carmen Miranda.) I viewed things from a white perspective, but there was something Faustian about my love affair with Hollywood's whiteness. Sooner or later, the Mexican character appeared on the screen, almost always a stereotype, a jester whose jokes were at his own expense. This was always most obvious in the western genre, my father's favorite.

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