Bugs and Basques

Mexican TV humor and surname sticklers

I was flipping through my television when I noticed the Spanish-language channel showed a man in a red suit with yellow pants, antennae on his head, and a heart with the letters "CH" on his chest. It appeared to be a sitcom, and all the characters related to the insect guy as if he were normal. What really blew my socks off, though, was a part where the insect guy and his cohorts dressed as Confederate soldiers in the antebellum South. At one point, Insect Guy is suddenly in blackface! What's the story of this sitcom? Was it a big hit for Mexicans? And what's the deal with the racist stereotyping?
Tree Huggin' Hippie Liberal Gabacho

Dear Gabacho:
You're referring to El Chapulín Colorado (The Red Grasshopper), a Mexican television icon and the character Matt Groening acknowledges is the inspiration for The Simpsons' Bumblebee Man. El Chapulín Colorado originally aired in a sitcom of the same name during the 1970s, and nearly every episode featured the same plot: Someone in distress would call Chapulín's name, Chapulín would appear and proclaim, "¬°No contaban con mi astucia!" ("They didn't count on my astuteness!"), and then save the day in a bumbling manner and with his squeaky toy hammer. Seems childish, , but Mexicans continue to love Chapulín because the show contained all that's brilliant about Mexican humor: satire (the show's narrator always introduced him as "more agile than a turtle, stronger than a mouse, nobler than lettuce"), a working-class perspective, slapstick, self-deprecation, surrealism, muchos puns and double entendres, and a slew of racial caricatures. El Chapulín is so popular that many Mexicans in los Estados Unidosdress up their children as him for Halloween; check out this picture of me dressed as Chapul√≠n last year. As for the Mexican fascination with caricatures: I wrote about it in a previous column. Go find that edition of The Mexican yourself, Tree Huggin' Hippie: You can't teach a Mexican the meaning of the word "illegal," but you can teach him how not to do the same job twice for a lazy gabacho.

My wabby friend wants to be called Spanish instead of Mexican. Thing is, his last name is Navarro. If I remember my UCLA Chicano Studies classes correctly, Navarro is a Basque surname. So my friend is basing his "Spanish" heritage on a group of people who hate Spaniards! I told him this, but he seems oblivious to the Basques and still insists he's of Spanish blood. Who's right? Spaniards aren't the same as Basques, are they? We bet $100 on this. Put the pendejo to shame, master.
Pendejo Buster

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Dear Wab:
Prepare to collect your Benjamin, Buster. Navarro is indeed a Basque apellido. In fact, many common Hispanic apellidos are actually Basque — Gamboa, Aguirre, Salazar, and Garza, to name a few. And you're right to note that the Basques aren't Spanish — ETA, anyone? But take some pity on your wabby friend: Those wabs who insist they're Spanish don't realize that the Spanish blood in their veins is the hereditary equivalent of mud. Many of the New World's original Spanish settlers came from provinces (the Basque country, Galicia, Andalusia, and the conquistador incubator called Estremadura) or were religious minorities (Jews and Muslims) who faced persecution in the Castilian-dominated Kingdom of Spain. Once here, they dropped their cultural heritage in favor of a faux-Spanish identity — not because these oppressed groups suddenly pledged fealty to Madrid but because Torquemada's disciples would subject them to the rack if they didn't. A similar phenomenon occurs with Chicanos: Mexican historians emphasize the country's Aztec heritage so much that newly radicalized Chicanos tend to immerse themselves in the culture of the People of the Sun at the expense of Mexico's other indigenous cultures. So next time some Chicano yaktivist drops his "Spanish" surname in favor of a long, consonant-filled Nahuatl name, tell him he's no better than a conquistador.

 
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