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Why All the Howling Over Taco Bell Dog?

March 29, 1998|ANNE BEATTS | Anne Beatts is a writer who lives in Hollywood

Some people are dissing the dog--the Taco Bell Chihuahua, that is. They think the cute little critter with an irrepressible craving for tacos is demeaning to Latinos, especially those of Mexican descent. Apparently "Yo quiero Taco Bell" gets on their last nerve.

Other people can't get enough of the dog. Decals featuring the Spanish-speaking Chihuahua are swiped from Taco Bell outlets as fast as they can put them up. In April, Taco Bell will offer Chihuahua T-shirts through a toll-free number. And Chihuahua breeders say that, as a result of the commercials, demand for the skinny little bat-eared dogs is through the roof.

I occupy a special position in all of this. You see, I know the Taco Bell Chihuahua personally. I mean, I know the guy who does the dog's voice. He is a talented actor, comedian and voice-over artist named Carlos Alazraqui. Naturally, he is upset by the controversy, which threatens the livelihood of at least one Latino--him.

His family came here via Argentina, not Mexico, but Alazraqui does speak Spanish, at least well enough to order a taco at the Taco Bell in Mexico City. "Maybe if it was a big, tough dog, nobody would object," he says. "The problem could be that the dog isn't macho enough."

The dog isn't macho at all. Just as Lassie was in reality a boy, the dog that pines for Taco Bell tacos is a girl. Unlike collies, Chihuahuas are hairless, which raises modesty issues.

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This makes it all the more confusing when Taco Bell execs issue such statements as: "The Chihuahua's character is to be perceived as a 19-year-old guy in a dog's body who primarily thinks about food and girls." Such is the wild, wacky, gender-bending world of show business. First "Ellen," and now this.

The person who started the controversy, Gabriel Cazares, 78-year-old president of the Tampa, Fla., chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (or LULAC), doesn't care whether Taco Bell uses a boy dog, a girl dog or even a different breed of dog. He says that "Mexican Americans are treated like dogs, they have to work like dogs, and now they're being portrayed as dogs."

Not one to stay away from the deep end of the pool, Cazares calls the commercial "a hate crime" and thinks it should be "outlawed." Maybe he's especially sensitive because his parents came to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Although LULAC's national board is on the fence, describing it as a "nonissue," the San Antonio chapter has just come out in support of Cazares. This should make for heated discussion of what some LULAC staffers are already calling "Dinkygate." At the national convention in Dallas over the July 4th weekend, expect fireworks.

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Meanwhile, Taco Bell, despite threats of a boycott, is holding firm. "Consumer calls are running overwhelmingly in favor of the ads," says Vice President for Public Affairs Peter Stack. Although you might think that a Taco Bell taco is about as Mexican as your local "French" dry cleaners is French, Stack maintains that "Taco Bell has a special obligation to our food's Mexican heritage."

Translation: They're keeping the dog. A new ad campaign using the talking Chihuahua to launch a top-secret "revolutionary new product" starts this weekend. If I were in charge of Taco Bell's PR, I wouldn't use the word "revolutionary" in connection with a product whose country of heritage is having a few little problems in that regard right now in the region of Chiapas, but hey, that's just me.

Meanwhile, I happen to be of Scottish descent, and I'm deeply offended that every time some local hardware store has a sale, they drag out those tired old '50s drawings of kilt-wearing bagpipe-blowing Scotsmen and stick a plaid border on the ads. Are they trying to say we're cheap, penny-pinching blowhards?

Personally, I think the Taco Bell Chihuahua should be put to sleep. But only if Qantas agrees to dump that cuddly koala, which clearly belittles Australians, most of whom aren't cute and furry with long claws and a passion for eucalyptus leaves. While we're at it, let's make sure no "French" products ever feature a French poodle.

Count Chocula should be banned from cereal advertising for portraying law-abiding American citizens whose ancestors hail from Carpathia as blood-sucking vampires in capes. And the Irish are particularly in need of advocacy, what with the Lucky Charms leprechaun--a splay-footed, hairy-eared freak of nature--and those Irish Spring commercials implying that the sons and daughters of Erin have a special need for water and soap suds.

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Why must Italians be forever characterized as pasta-twirling, wine-guzzling peasants who think nothing of disturbing the peace of the entire neighborhood by screaming "Anthony!" out of tenement windows? And what's the implication behind "Continental" coffee--that if your heritage is European, you're more likely to be susceptible to languorously romantic sexual encounters?

How about those Budweiser frogs? Once again, another slur on French people--while their rivals, the tough-talking lizards, clearly cast New Yorkers in a bad light as slimy, scaly strivers who failed to make the cut, no doubt due to their obnoxious attitude and impenetrable "Noo Yawk" accents.

Let's not forget Chef Boyardee and Betty Crocker, demeaning to Italian-Americans and women, not to mention Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, now retired, who will live forever in the halls of infamy. I only wish El Exigente were still around to make short work of all these negative stereotypes. There was one Latin-American jefe who really knew his stuff.

To paraphrase a famous ad campaign for Levy's Rye Bread from that terrifyingly liberal decade, the '60s: "You don't need a sense of humor to enjoy ethnic advertising. But it wouldn't hurt."

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