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Opinion: Ricky Martin overshadowed on ‘Glee’ by episode’s awkward treatment of Latino stereotypes
By Miguel Tamayo
That was weird. Very weird.
I don’t really think of myself as an easily-offended person, nor am I particularly sensitive to Hollywood’s tendency to stereotype or over-generalize, but as I sat in front of my TV watching the latest episode of Glee, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell the writers were doing. Was I supposed to be angry, proud, embarrassed, grateful — all of the above? By the end of the episode, the only emotion I felt was pure, unadulterated confusion.
The premise was sound: A non-Spanish-speaking Spanish teacher (I said sound, not perfect) who is ignorant to all things Latino and relies on caricature-like representations of the culture to teach his students, is shown the error of his ways by his one Latina student (Naya Rivera’s Santana) and a new-in-town Chilean-American former tooth model (ok, “sound” is not the right word, but this is Glee we’re talking about). Yet, in what was its first true foray into the world of Latin music and culture (Santana’s homophobic abuelita made a brief appearance earlier in the season) the hit show was a bit off the mark.
The episode opens with Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) delivering a sombrero-ridden rendition of “La Cucaracha” to his class, followed by a voiceover in which the unilingual Spanish-teacher laments the fact that his students are no longer excited by his “Taco Tuesday” performance of the famous Mexican folk song, and asks: “How could I have become so out of touch?” The audience then learns that one of McKinley High’s professors has retired, freeing up a tenured position. Schuester realizes that he needs to learn more Spanish in order to prove that he deserves the coveted position, setting up his introduction to Ricky Martin’s character, David Martinez, the aforementioned tooth model. Martinez teaches Spanish night classes but has a hidden talent (spoiler alert): he can sing and dance. The rest of the episode treats viewers to various Spanish-language songs — some, authentic Latin numbers and others, translated versions of English-language songs — performed by the Glee Club. And while the show’s creators undoubtedly intended to deliver a positive message, the packaging in which it came clumsily toed the line between satirical social commentary and questionable thoughtlessness.
On the one hand, you had Sra. Stephanie, the middle-aged woman in Martinez’s class, explaining that the reason she was taking the course was to learn how to say “‘Stop using my toilet’ to my maid” (a goal that we later learn was reached when Stephanie wins the award for “Best Conjugator” and informs Martinez that, thanks to him, “Claudia knows now to go before she comes to work.”), and on the other, Martinez discussing the importance of learning Spanish: “Did you know that the U.S. Census believes that by 2030 the majority of Americans will use Spanish as their first language? You’re not here to learn a language, you’re here because you’re smart and you’re forward thinkers.”
Normally, such juxtaposition is easily detectable and viewers can quickly pick up on the lesson being taught, but the problem with Tuesday night’s episode was that — due in large part to Glee’s patented ironic irreverence and reverse-offensiveness — the message was consistently muddled. It was unclear if Martinez’s refusal to comment on Sra. Stephanie’s condescension was because it was so in-your-face or because … I don’t know what. Same goes for the male Glee members’ decision to perform their mash-up of the Gipsy King’s “Bamboleo” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” in bolo ties and botas picudas — fashion items that have essentially nothing to do with the artists being covered.
This is not to say that the writers made no attempt at conveying a direct idea. They did.
After Schuester took the stage in full torero regalia — along with two students that ran back and forth across the stage dressed as bulls — and danced and sang his way through a half-English, half-Spanish version of Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation,” Santana delivered a passionate missive.
This is my education and it’s not a joke to me, although it seems to be one to you … [The students] don’t know any better and it’s your fault, you’re their teacher. You went from “La Cucaracha” to a bull-fighting mariachi. Why don’t you just dress up as the Taco Bell chihuahua and bark the theme song to Dora the Explorer? You don’t even know enough to be embarrassed about these stereotypes that you’re perpetuating.Santana spoke the words on many viewers’ lips (a friend of mine texted during the Elvis cover asking: “Is blackface coming next?”), elucidating how even the most innocuous ignorance can be harmful. It was a moment of clarity in an otherwise bewildering episode.
Yet, that was all it was, a moment. The episode swiftly melted back into a puzzling sea of misused duende references and one forced “American dream” anecdote. Though it definitely fell short of being offensive, the entire viewing experience was uncomfortable and, at the very least, strange.
It’s unfortunate that the episode was so perplexing and distracting, as the musical portion was generally quite good. Martin performed admirably in his first acting gig since his soap opera heyday, and he and Rivera’s sleek and sexy rendition of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” was definitely the highlight of the night.
In one of the episode’s final scenes, Shuester offers Martinez his position as Spanish teacher, setting the stage for a few more guest appearances by Martin. And with Gloria Estefan set to join the cast later this season (she’ll play Santana’s mother), the Glee faithful are guaranteed a few more Latino-infused episodes. I just hope that the next time around, I am left bobbing my head to the music instead of scratching it in confusion.
Miguel Tamayo is the Chief Writer at Univision News. A member of the Florida Bar Association, his writing focuses mainly on sports, pop culture, and law. You can follow Miguel on Twitter at @miggytamayo.