Critical Readability

My critical readings of the best and worst of online media

Ten-year-old mariachi hopes to make it to America’s Got Talent’s semifinals

Okay, I’m going to “out” myself. I watch America’s Got Talent. Before I started this blog, I would basically critique the performances out loud and annoy my husband. Now that I have this blog, I’ll direct it at you instead of him.

I want to write briefly about Sebastian “el Charro” de la Cruz, a 10 year old Mexican-American mariachi singer. In the article linked below, Sebastian says “I wanna represent my culture and heritage to break the stereotype and show America the beauty of this music(Mariachi),” says De la Cruz.via Ten-year-old mariachi hopes to make it to America’s Got Talent’s semifinals.

Bless his heart (seriously, he’ s adorable). I have no that doubt he wants to represent his Mexican heritage, and that he’s likely all too familiar with the marginalization of Mexican-Americans in the United States.

Which makes me that much more irate at NBC, the producers, the judges, and the voters.I know, I know…three out of four of those groups are manipulating audiences with the intent of increasing profit, and the fourth is being manipulated. But I still feel compelled to explore how Sebastian’s performances have been problematically represented and interpreted.

To catch you up if you’re not a follower of America’s Got Talent, Sebastian and his Mariachi band failed to attract the necessary viewer votes needed to move on to the semi-finals and were eliminated a few weeks ago (maybe a month?).  The performance that got them eliminated was “Besame mucho,” which Sebastian sang beautifully. Although the judges spent some time sweet-talking the 10 year old kid, at some point they suggested that the performances might not appeal to an “American” audience because it was sung in Spanish (if my memory serves me right, clearly I have not been taking sufficient notes on my TV viewing). Ignoring the fact that “America” is here used to specifically mean “United States of America” at the exclusion of the remainder of the North & South American continents, and ignoring the fact that a significant portion of the U.S. citizenry does in fact speak Spanish, do the judges really believe that non-Spanish speaks don’t understand “BESAME MUCHO?” Seriously?  He could have counted to three in Spanish and they would have said the same thing.

Anyway… the story continues. To create more drama, America’s Got Talent has a “Wild Card Show” in which each judge decides to bring back an artist that was previously eliminated. Sebastian and his Mariachi band were brought back and stunned the audience with an English language performance of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” The audience was stunned, I was not. I thought his singing was weak. He was performing in a new genre, a new vocal style, and a different vocal range. His mid-range, for example, was unsupported and often flat. Yet his performance was successful, in that he was voted through into the next stage of the competition and was given a second chance at the semi-finals.

Now, if it was Sebastian’s decision to sing a “New York, New York” than good for him. But even if it was, I find it troubling that the audience voted through a poor performance in English over a brilliant performance of Mariachi in Spanish. Plus, let’s face it, this is a result of marketing decisions made by producers who felt Sebastian was too much of an “Other” (and specifically an “undesirable Other”) to appeal to an audience that is currently politically polarized over, among other things, treatment of illegal Mexican immigrants.

Which brings me to tonight – Sebastian “el Charro” de la Cruz & his Mariachi band returned to compete for a place in the finals. I was very happy to see that they returned to Spanish-language mariachi music, but was curious to see what new tactic they would use to attract votes. Instead of normalizing Mexican-American Mariachi through English-language crooning, the producers played on (and up) the exotic Latin “other” while simultaneously imbuing the performance with upper-class sophistication. How? By distancing Mexican-Americans from the lower-class migrant laborer stereotype – no use of Mexican folklorico dancers in white, for example – and instead trying to re-position Mexican Mariachi within a distinguished history of European traditions through the use of a symphony orchestra and Spanish flamenco dancers (dressed in red, of course).

And don’t even get me started on The Untouchable’s (children’s dance group) hybrid tango/flamenco/generic Latin dance. And especially don’t get me started on the sexualization of prepubescent girls vis-a-vis cultural stereotypes surrounding the tango.

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