MEXICAN SPAT DANCEIT'S CURTAINS FOR "RACIST" ELEMENTS OF GRADE-SCHOOL VARIETY SHOW
Late last year, it was an outraged Native American versus Squaw Peak.
Earlier this year, it was an African American who claimed that Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal Four contained subliminal endorsement for the Ku Klux Klan.
And the unlikely scene of the Valley's latest p.c. controversy? A grade-school variety show staged in the Scottsdale Unified School District last month.
A Hopi Elementary School tradition for nearly two decades, this year's show featured a global theme, focusing on musical and dance numbers from around the world. As in years past, a handful of doting parents dropped by to watch the after-school auditions as young hopefuls performed everything from hulas to horas in an effort to win spots in the tune-packed travelogue.
One of those parents was Angeles Dorame, a Mexican citizen who has been living in this country for 30 years. And although Dorame had come to the school to watch her fifth-grade daughter audition, she left the auditorium seeing red after witnessing a couple of student-performed numbers representing her native country.
"I could not believe what I was seeing," says Dorame, recalling two skits performed during the February audition. One of them involved a group of students who lip-synched to the Ritchie Valens hit "La Bamba"; in another, a trio of youngsters pantomimed the title song from The Three Caballeros, a 1945 Disney cartoon produced to promote America's "Good Neighbor" policy with Latin America.
But in Dorame's mind, the two Latin-themed numbers represented nothing less than a south-of-the-border slur fest, jam-packed with the worst kind of Mexican stereotypes.
"They had three boys--little kids!--wearing big hats, serapes and waving maracas," gasps Dorame. "They were acting like they were lazy, like they were drunk. Then a little girl walked past dressed in a Mexican costume and these boys, they all whistled and chased her off, trying to catch her. It was terrible--I can't think what else they could have thrown in there."
Still reeling from those allegedly objectionable production numbers (I can still hear the laughter ringing in my ears!"), Dorame stops to catch her breath before delivering a seemingly peculiar complaint: "And these little kids in the hats and serapes, they were not even Mexican!"
Dorame claims she immediately aired her complaints to Sheryl Cooper, a Hopi School parent overseeing the audition process. The wife of rock performer Alice Cooper (who pitched in to help write this year's show), the former professional dancer has volunteered to stage and choreograph the Hopi shows since her children began attending the school about five years ago. "Believe me, there is no place in my heart for discrimination," counters Sheryl Cooper, who claims she was "shocked" over Dorame's charges. "But after I heard what she had to say, I thought, 'Okay, let's step back and see if I'm missing something here.'" Personally unable to perceive any glaring evidence of discrimination or negative stereotypes, Cooper claims she opted for diplomacy instead.
"When Mrs. Dorame complained about the boys' position at the start of one number--they were in a seated position, with their heads down and their hands clasped around their knees--I could understand how that might be considered indicative of a lazy cultural stereotype," concedes Cooper, who subsequently informed the students they'd have to restage the opening of their number.
But another backstage insider who prefers anonymity claims that variety-show staffers had a much harder time swallowing most of Dorame's other objections.
"In one of the numbers, the boys were clowning around for comic effect," according to the source. "Well, Mrs. Dorame insisted that because these boys kept bumping into each other, this represented 'drunkenness.'" The insider groans. "Come on! We're talking about a bunch of 9- and 10-year-old boys who were just imitating movements from a cartoon. But in order to keep her happy, we had to tell the kids that, no, they couldn't bump into each other anymore. The things she was asking us to do were ridiculous."
And as this backstage drama slowly edged toward curtain time, even the ever-patient Sheryl Cooper was inclined to agree.
"I really tried not to be bullheaded about this," claims Cooper. "If Mrs. Dorame really had a problem with this material, no matter how erroneous I thought some of these complaints were, I tried to work with her. But, in the end, we could never really pinpoint what the problem was. One day it was the authenticity of the hats. Another day it would be some kind of problem regarding certain steps, certain poses or the fact that one of the boys told a 'Why did the chicken cross the road?' joke. It got to the point where I just wanted to say, 'Hey, this is just a grade-school variety show. It was never meant to be an educational show.'"
Even if the Hopi extravaganza wasn't intended to be an educational show, the production eventually turned into a crash course in p.c. red tape. Dissatisfied with Hopi's response to her complaints, Dorame complained to U.S. Representative Ed Pastor, who requested Hopi to produce a videotape of the allegedly racist material. The tape was subsequently viewed by congressional attach C.P. Miranda, who found nothing offensive about the numbers. Undaunted, Dorame continued her campaign, forcing several meetings attended by Sheryl Cooper, Hopi personnel, members of the school district board and several lawyers for the district.
When the show finally opened a two-night run on March 4, Dorame had scored a quasi-victory. Reportedly fed up over endless tampering with their children's act, the parents of the boys performing "The Three Caballeros" refused to let the children perform. Bowing to Dorame's demand that the students who performed "La Bamba" not wear Mexican costume, the students performed the number in anachronistic Guns N' Roses garb--a costuming point that effectively defeated the program's global theme.
"Basically, I feel this lady is just going around causing problems," says Hopi Principal Robert Holzmiller, who suspects that Dorame's outrage may have something to do with the fact that for the second time in three years, her daughter was not selected for the variety show. (Three years ago, the child's audition consisted of five minutes of modeling poses, while this year she unsuccessfully performed, ironically, "La Bamba." However, unlike other students who are not selected to perform feature acts, Dorame elected not to let her daughter participate in the grand finale, as all unsuccessful auditionees are invited to do.)
Dorame says she wasn't surprised when her daughter wasn't chosen for a solo spot. "Are you kiddin' me?" she asks. "My daughter--she's a Mexican--and they can't stand to see a Mexican in that show. It's nothing unusual, though. In that school, they can't stand to see Mexicans do anything--sports, academics, nothing."
Absolutely not true, counters Principal Holzmiller. Characterizing Dorame's daughter as "a good student, the sweetest kid in the world," Holzmiller says he can't help wondering whether her mother's actions are counterproductive. "As an Anglo, I could call up a congressman's office and say that I feel that I've been discriminated against and nobody would do a thing," says the principal. "At best, they might say, 'Oh, well, sorry about that.'"
"But here we have a lady who is Mexican and just because she opens her mouth, everyone's yelling 'Discrimination!' and the school is suspect--even though that's really not the case at all. And here's what bothers me--if she continues to do this kind of thing, it's going to be like the story of the boy who cried 'Wolf!' If there ever really is a case of discrimination somewhere, who's going to listen? And that will be a shame. My firm belief is all kids are equal and we work hard to make sure that every child, regardless of ethnicity, receives a good, solid education."
Sheryl Cooper, meanwhile, remains ambivalent. "It's a shame this had to happen. Alice and I have a great time writing the show, producing it, and choreographing it. It's debatable who had the most fun--the kids or us. Plus, I figure if I did the show, they wouldn't ask me to do the bake sale."
But after this year's debacle, Cooper's cookie sheets may not look so bad, after all.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.