Badmen, Bandits, and Folk Heroes: The Ambivalence of Mexican American Identity in Literature and Film

By Ponce, Gustavo | Western Folklore, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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Badmen, Bandits, and Folk Heroes: The Ambivalence of Mexican American Identity in Literature and Film


Ponce, Gustavo, Western Folklore


Badmen, Bandits, and Folk Heroes: The Ambivalence of Mexican American Identity in Literature and Film. By Juan J. Alonzo. (University of Arizona Press, 2009. Pp. x +208, introduction, epilogue, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95 cloth.)

Juan J. Alonzo 's Badmen, Bandits, and Folk Heroes looks at Chicano(a) Studies through the lens of literature and film. This interdisciplinary approach allows the author to formulate convincing arguments regarding Chicano(a) identity and its contingency on and rejection of stereotypes. Alonzo argues that stereotypes are a social construct that need to be studied within the theoretical framework of ambivalence. By examining stereotypes from the perspective of ambivalence, the author moves the discussion of stereotypes from an essentially structuralist understanding of the term to a more complex reading of this social phenomenon. This idea of ambivalence toward Mexicans in American film and literature, from the late nineteenth century up to the Chicano(a) films of the new millennium, runs deep throughout the book. In fact, the concept of ambivalence, and how it manifests differently in the works of various Anglo-American authors and auteurs, forms the backbone of Alonzo's book.

Alonzo's research material not only helps illustrate ambivalence at work, but also showcases the author's breadth of knowledge and mastery of a wide range of disciplines. He carefully selects examples from American cinema, western novels, and other American genres - including early American plays, theater reviews, newsprint articles, and hard-to-find films from Hollywood's nascent period - that incorporate Mexican characters in their plots in order to objectify, extoll, or denigrate them, further reinforcing his argument about ambivalence. By culling from such varied sources, the author is able to trace the origins of some of these negative/positive stereotypes about Mexicans.

Alonzo's book is a must read for anyone interested in Chicano(a) history and ethnic studies in general. This book would also appeal to scholars focusing on the construction of stereotypes in Greater American cinema and literature. The book itself provides some interesting photographs depicting American and British actors impersonating "Mexicans" in Hollywood. From these snapshots and the chapters that follow, Alonzo traces a history of attitudes (i.e., acceptance/rejection, tolerance/abhorrence, attraction/repulsion) that some Americans have shown toward people of Mexican origin. From the often contradictory or ambivalent depictions of Mexicans by D.W. Griffith in movies such as The Greaser's Gauntlet (1908), to the more amicable and humane literary renditions of Jack London's "The Mexican," Stephen Crane's "One Dash-Horses," and "The Three White Mice," Alonzo challenges readers and spectators to revisit these early works and question any preconceived ideas they might have regarding the work of these giants of American film and literature. By venturing into the ideological world of these canonical writers and directors, one develops a broader picture of these individuals' often contradictory and ambivalent attitude towards the "Other."

For instance, one will be surprised to discover that Griffith did not always display the same racist attitude toward all minorities (certainly not to die degree he did toward African Americans and Asians) .

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