Friday, February 08, 2008

Silencio Real and the Afro-Latina Voice in Film

Free Ph.D., yo! Here's the scholar in training, sending you some of the stuff she's been looking at. It's long, but it should be easy to read, and it's about Afro-Latina's, man. Where you gonna get words on mis mujeres? There are not a lot of places, but that's changing. Anyway, let me know if you think this work is hot, 'kay? I'm gonna present this at a conference in less than a week and girl is nervous. Wish me luck!

(I apologize if the formatting gets funky.)

Silencio Reál: The Historical Afro-Latina Voice in “I Am Cuba” and “Anne B. Real”

It was a typical workday evening in Jersey City for my husband and me. We had our meal, talked of our day and then walked over to Gandhi – our video rental guy – to see if there was something worth seeing. Gandhi was very kind to us and often bought films for the store that he knew only we would rent – the art films. He didn’t have any on this day, so we had to rent a movie about another an inner city kid trying to make it. I was expecting to make my wisecracks about the inspirational teacher who chooses to live in the projects just so he can relate to his students, or the trash-talking comic relief sidekick who only serves as an extension of the main character’s personality, or the hokey line that gets said at the beginning of the film by someone who later dies and then is later repeated by the main character at a poignant moment in order to create a circle of closure. I expected all of this from Anne B. Real, but as the film progressed, I found myself saying things like, “There are all kinds of Latinos in this film” and “They show the difference in class between White and Black Latinos!” I was shocked because I had never seen any other film depict race or class within the Latino community as this one does. Well, that is not true, but I will get to that later. Anne B. Real soon became a film that I used in my classrooms in order to address the various ways in which Latinos speak and act based on class and race. I have not encountered a student who is not inspired by the film.

I mentioned that I had, indeed, seen one other film that presents Latinos of different races in varying situations based on class and color lines. This film is I Am Cuba/Ya Kuba. I Am Cuba is a more complex film than Anne B. Real and much has been written about its being propaganda and ineffective in terms of character. I agree with Martin Scorsese, in the DVD’s special features section, and other critics in that the film is a poem – it was written by Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet and Russian poet Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko – but my main concern in examining the film is the Afro-Latina who is at the center of the opening sequence and who graces the cover of The Ultimate Edition DVD of the film. After seeing Anne B. Real, I thought of the parallels between its Afro-Latina main character, named Cynthia/Annie B. Real, and I Am Cuba’s main Afro-Latina character, named Maria/Betty. Both live in impoverished conditions, both have a difficult time speaking due to fear and multiple language usage, both are being exploited by men, and both have lines of dialogue that use signifying, or double meaning. If one looks at the two films, one could easily come to the conclusion that Maria/Betty represents the Afro-Latina’s silenced voice in history and that Cynthia/Annie B. Real represents the Afro-Latina taking back ownership of her words, but the fact that the two films were primarily written by men creates a problem with this interpretation. However, I believe that because genuine Afro-Latinas were cast in these roles (unlike Angelina Jolie’s turn as a Black person in A Mighty Heart, for example), the Afro-Latina voice does come out despite the scripts that would imply otherwise. This creates a jarring effect, especially in I Am Cuba when the script contradicts a voice that is so clearly there.

I will first attempt to examine the silences that both of the characters in the two films exhibit. Maria/Betty lives in a shanty town in pre-revolutionary Cuba and she is working as a prostitute in Havana. She speaks Spanish and some English, but we rarely hear her speak at all in the film. Similarly, Cynthia/Annie B. Real lives in the projects of Washington Heights, her family is on welfare, and she is a struggling student since her father died. Before that, she was a straight A student. Cynthia speaks Spanish and English and she can speak varying dialects of the two. Her art is poetry and rhymes, but she also plays with sounding like a radio announcer, a scholar, and a ghetto girl. Lisa Delpit, in “The Silenced Dialogue,” states that, “There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a ‘culture of power.’ The codes or rules I am speaking of relate to linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of self” (25).

Both Maria and Cynthia are well aware of this culture of power in their environments. This is why Maria, when prostituting herself, becomes “Betty,” and Cynthia, when attempting to become a more powerful alter ego rapper, becomes “Annie B. Real.” The two women are presented as silenced because of the culture of power; they are poor, Afro-Latinas with limited options. Maria/Betty has resigned herself to being exploited and Cynthia/Annie B. Real has resigned herself to giving her poetry/raps to her brother so that he can sell them for money. Her brother repeatedly states throughout the film that “no one wants to see a girl rapper.” When Maria, as Betty, is asked if she wants a drink at the nightclub she works at, thinks about it and answers “yes” in English, even though it seems she could care less about the drink. She is performing for the culture of power that surrounds her in the form of men from the United States who want to have a good time. Both Maria and Cynthia often appear to hesitate when speaking, as if they are thinking of which language to use and how to use the language properly. They appear nervous and hedge often. I argue that when a woman has to traverse between various cultures – Black, White, Latino, Americano, male, female, urban, rural – she will remain quiet and observe and it will take her longer to understand how to deal with certain customs than someone who has only one culture to learn.

I also argue that, within the Afro-Latino culture, once these varying cultures are reconciled, a successful Afro-Latina will orally express her understanding of what is going on, of her role within the culture of power. Victor Villanueva, in a speech at the University of Texas at San Antonio, stated that, in terms of Western composition, we currently get stuck in the first three parts of the Latin model: inventio, which is ideas; dispositio, which is organization; and elocutio, which is style. People of color, who often come from an oral culture, however, do move on to the next step, pronuntiatio, which is delivery. This, in turn, creates memoria, which is remembering. Memoria is, historically, a female muse, and Villanueva argues that we must not exclude these last steps because they are what create understanding at the cellular level; when someone delivers something orally and it is combines all the previous steps, we feel it within our DNA, we remember. Maria and Cynthia do this in their respective stories, despite scripts that do not include many facts about women in their positions and that, in fact, use the ideas from other cultures to tell their stories.

Before I get into how the women are successful in presenting a historical Afro-Latina voice, I will explain how the films fail the stories of the two women. I Am Cuba, we already know, is written by two men, one of which is not even Cuban. If we really want to get into silencing the Afro-Cuban voice, we can also choose to view the DVD with the Russian dubbing, which creates a linguistic confusion that puts the viewer in the same bind as Maria/Betty. However, if we view the film in Spanish, the male perspective dominates the screen and the exploitation of Cuban women is center stage. This causes the authors to make some mistakes. They use Afro-Cuban rhythms to represent Maria/Betty’s anger at having to be a prostitute and create a scene where she dances madly and, “Afro-Cuban essence surges out of her. This exaltation of the unique, essential qualities of Cubans to heighten the sense of their exploitation contributes unwittingly to the film’s opposition” (Ching, Buckley and Lozano-Alonzo 263). This is the only moment when Maria/Betty gets aggressive and it is constructed as out-of-control. In another scene, when she finds out that her boyfriend is part of the revolution, she says she is scared. According to Ching, Buckley and Lozano-Alonzo, she “becomes immediately marginal to this revolutionary endeavor for stating her fear” (262). Maria/Betty has been represented as a victim and a very quiet, half-crazy one, at that. This does not depict the historical reality of Cuba at the time. According to Ilja A. Luciak, in “Gender Roles in the Revolutionary War,” women were vital members of the movement and nearly 1/3 of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front combatants were women. While it is true that the majority of these women were from privileged backgrounds, the tone in Cuba was that women were not naïve bystanders (4-11). Furthermore, prostitution did not carry the puritanical shame that would drive a mind crazy as implied by the film.

According to Isabel Larguia and John Dumoulin, in “Women’s Equality and the Cuban Revolution, 13.7% of women were economically active in Cuba in 1953 and “[r]egistered prostitutes comprise a significant number” within this percentage” (346). However, Larguia and Dumoulin also acknowledge that “[t]he concept of the woman as an exclusively sexual, dehumanized biological being was reinforced by extensive prostitution” (346). Despite this, women were clearly poised at this time to begin to make changes in their sexist world. After the revolution, by 1970, 18.5% of women were working and by 1980, 31.3% of women were working (Farnós, González and Hernández 200). By 1986, women in the education, public health and social assistance, and finance and insurance industries in Cuba outnumbered the men (Safa 30). In other words, Maria/Betty represents the moment in history when working women were poised to make many gains in Cuba, and this is not at all in the script of the film.

The way in which Maria/Betty does show deeper understanding of the situation comes through pronuntiatio and memoria, but first let’s take a look at how Cuban and Dominican culture are related linguistically. This is important because Cynthia/Annie B. Real is Dominican and she and Maria/Betty use a similar technique to demonstrate deeper understanding that is not necessarily written into the script. According to John M. Lipski, in “Africans in Colonial Spanish America,” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, native speakers of Haitian arrived in Cuba and they learned Spanish as a second language, exhibiting similar traits documented for the Dominican Republic (110). Immigration from Cuba and Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic was documented, too (112-113). Lipski further states that “[t]he major extra-Hispanic influence on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dominican Spanish was Haitian Creole (114). Esther Figueroa, in “Rude Sounds,” cites the importance of silence and what is not said when referring to practices in Haiti and Barbados and other countries in the Caribbean (85). If we synthesize what these scholars are saying, it is clear that African languages have influenced the way both English and Spanish are used and that Cuba and the Dominican Republic, through waves of immigration and similar ancestry, share in this influence. More importantly, they share in the way silences are used.

According to Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, in “Gender Dynamics in the Film Anne B. Real,” Cynthia “must be able to function as a performer in order to empower her status as a creator….She must actualize her rhymes in a physical performance before they are legitimate” (70). In other words, Cynthia must work against being silenced or choosing to be silent in order for her words to have any significance. What we also must consider is that Cynthia is being silenced as a character, just like Maria/Betty, because her role was written by two Latino men and a Jewish woman. In the film Cynthia believes she must compete in the male-dominated rap world in order to be successful because she was written that way and one has to wonder if most female writers in Washington Heights actually believe that. Several scenes that depict Cynthia in the bathroom, show her singing R&B, rapping, and mimicking a radio announcer in Spanish. She is skilled linguistically but when she is in public, she says very little. The bathroom scenes also depict insecurities that question beauty notions and racial identity. When Cynthia does become Annie B. Real and raps, the raps that she has are “clean” and empowering to women without being insulting to men. Janice Richardson, even though she is a singer/songwriter, did not write any of the rhymes in the film. The rhymes were written by two men: Canadian rapper Verse and Luis Moro, who also wrote the screen story for the film. According to the commentary on the film’s DVD, Verse also trained Janice to rap. Interestingly, Moro states on the commentary that when Janice does rap, “it gives new female dimension to the rap.” Exactly how much female dimension – specifically, Afro-Latina dimension – can exist in Anne B. Real when so much of the work is written by men? Yes, there is a female director but why did the female director, Lisa France, decide to tell an Afro-Latina story through the framework of The Diary of Anne Frank? Why did Antonio Macia, the story writer, choose to tell an Afro-Latina story this way? He is a white Latino; why the Afro-Latino subtext? We stretch this question into our analysis of I Am Cuba, as well. Why is the first segment of the film so strong in its Afro-Latino subject matter? The later sequences only show the Black population of Cuba as a backdrop, with an occasional speaker here and there. And why does I Am Cuba show two out of its three female main characters as being exploited by men? A White Cubana escapes a troop of seedy Naval Officers with the help of another White Cuban, but Maria/Betty has no such defender.

I believe our filmmakers which include the already named Lisa France, of Anne B. Real, and the famed Mikhail Kalatozov, of I Am Cuba, were drawn to the Afro-Latina as subject because they realized that there are truths that Afro-Latinas know that have not been voiced. Because, perhaps, these filmmakers did not feel comfortable with actually asking Afro-Latinas to contribute to their projects in terms of writing, they probably felt that some of that knowledge would come through if they casted actual Afro-Latinas. Given the critical success of the two films, I do believe the directors were right in their casting choices. There are specific ways of speaking that the actors provide that are distinctly Afro-Latina, in that they merge influences from Africa and Latin America with women’s ways of speaking. There are two scenes, one from each film, that reflect this historical voice. In I Am Cuba, Betty is about to go to a hotel with her scholarly Americano, who has shown a great interest in her crucifix because he collects them. He suggests that instead they go “to her place” because he “wants to see how these women live.” He then translates the word “interesting” to Betty, so she will understand why he wants to go to her home to solicit her services. Betty pauses, looks away, and then says, “No, no es interesante.” We know that Betty understands conversational English for her job. She could have spoken in English and said, “No, it’s not interesting.” It is not a difficult phrase. But Betty wasn’t really speaking to her john because she knew he wasn’t really listening anyway. The silent pause is what signifies the phrase to have a multiple meaning. Betty, who is disgusted by the tourists, hates their world and probably thinks of her shanty town as more honest and honorable than the world of the tourist. She knows it is a place of many interesting truths that she could never explain to the tourist and she also knows that the tourist suspects that but instead of wanting to truly understand that, he’d rather buy a little excursion into poverty. She says her home is not interesting and this means, “What do you care? You don’t have to live there,” or “No fancy cocktails for you at my place,” or “I don’t want you telling anecdotes about my life because you don’t have your own ‘interesting’ life.”

In Anne B. Real, Cynthia has a similar moment with a teacher who happens to be the White Latino who abandoned Cynthia’s sister who was pregnant with his bi-racial child. In the scene, this teacher is talking to her about what she needs to do in order to pass high school and get into college, implying that he knows what is best for her. She agrees to return to classes but she has many things to take care of first. The teacher clearly wants to know more, so she humors him by telling him the problems that she has been having with her drug addict brother. Cynthia says all of this while looking away from her teacher. He wants to help and asks if her brother has hurt her, and this is where she turns to him, she simply says, “Thank you, Mr. Dominguez.” This “thank you” has multiple meanings, as well. We know from a conversation with Cynthia’s sister Janet, earlier in the film, that Mr. Dominguez has changed his name from Miguel Dominguez to Michael Smith. Because he is a White Latino, this has allowed him the education and career that he wanted to pursue. When Cynthia calls him “Mr. Dominguez,” she is saying, “How dare you accuse my brother of hurting me, you can’t judge him” and “You are trying to do something now when it is too late,” and “How can you expect to care for me when you got my sister pregnant and abandoned her and your child,” and “We’ve gotten along fine without you,” and “You aren’t fit to help me until you atone for your mistakes,” and “I have grown recently and I am ready to do what I need to do.” When Moro commented that Richardson brought something uniquely female to the role, he might have been neglecting the fact that all of her material had been written by people who were not specifically Afro-Latina, but he was right in that she does frame all the words within the Afro-Latina context. Luz María Collazo does the same as María/Betty.

What these Afro-Latina actresses bring to the voice of their Afro-Latina characters is something that happens when one, historically, has dealt with multiple languages and communities and has been treated as if one’s knowledge is not worth knowing. Yes, both Maria and Cynthia have been silenced to the extent that they are not noticed unless they wear alter egos that go by the names of “Betty” and “Annie B. Real.” But they have learned to use those silences, along with language, in order to create meaning that they know but that others will not understand and cannot get offended by. Maria can blame her silences on not understanding the foreign language that has intruded on her territory. This is the colonial past in our Afro-Latina timeline. Cynthia, however, has actually mastered all of the languages she has been exposed to and feigns ignorance in order to avoid confrontation. However, when she finally decides to become confrontational, she can not only use silences, but she melds all her languages into a rap that comes off as tough, sweet and humorous at the same time. Their words and silences, if read correctly, contain wisdom can end up silencing the audience. The fact that the writers and filmmakers did not use Afro-Latinas to write the scripts or raps is sad because it does dilute the Afro-Latina voice, but the voice is still there. Indeed, the Afro-Latina has historically had to use languages and dialogues that were not of her own construction, but the trick in their language construction is that they will make do with what is given to them. According to the commentary on Anne B. Real, Luis Moro and Lisa France attempted to put in references to Anne Frank’s diary throughout the film, including a plaid diary, chain link fences, and eating potatoes, however the Jewish voice is not the voice that resonates with the audience. It is the Afro-Latina voice that stays with the viewer, even though it was not written in.

This is where Villanueva’s pronuntiatio and memoria come in. When Collazo and Richardson voice the lines out loud, a remembering occurs. Ed Morales, in “Toward a Spanglish Hemisphere,” states that “there exists very little understanding in North America that the everyday salsa or merengue star is actively engaged in a project of multicultural artistry. He/she is completely fluent in the language that celebrates a union of and contradiction between European romanticism and African call and response” (286). I add to Morales’ statement that the everyday Afro-Latino/a is engaged in this multicultural linguistic artistry and I would include the influence of the indigenous populations of the Caribbean and the Americas, as well. The signifying, or double meaning, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has defined it, has grown into multiple meanings. The silence, which Lisa Delpit attributes to interactions with the culture of power, has changed into a pause that informs, a pause that mimics the calm before the Caribbean storm that has something to say. The use of language has turned into a stew, a sancocho, where the exploited Afro-Latina knows that she is going to get someone else’s leftovers, but she is still going to make it into her own creation, and it will taste good. The historical voice that we hear in these two films is definitely incomplete, but it is some of the very little that Afro-Latinas have been allowed to depict in film and if we are to learn from it, we must understand what part of that voice has come through. We must learn this if only to ensure that one day, the script will contain all of the missing parts.

Works Cited
Anne B. Real. Screenplay by Antonio Macia and Lisa France. Dir. Lisa France. Perf. Janice
Richardson. Screen Media Films, 2002.
Ching, Erik and Christina Buckley and Angélica Lozano-Alonzo. “Film Analysis: Soy Cuba/
Ya Kuba (I Am Cuba).” Reframing Latin America: A Cultural Theory Reading of the
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Eds. Erik Ching, Christina Buckley and Angélica
Lozano-Alonzo. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2007. 259-268.
Delpit, Lisa. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s
Children.” Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. Ed. Lisa
Delpit. New York, New York: The New Press, 1995. 21-47.
Farnós, Alfonso and Fernando González and Raúl Hernandez. “Cuba.” Working Women in
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Anker. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labor Organisation, 1985. 197-233.
Figueroa, Esther. “Rude Sounds: Kiss Teeth and Negotiation of the Public Sphere.” Politeness
and Face in Caribbean Creoles. Eds. Susanne Muhleisen and Bettina Migge.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2005. 73-99.
I Am Cuba. Screenplay by Enrique Pineda Barnet and Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko.
Dir. Mikahail Kalatozov. Milestone Film and Video, 1964.
Jensen-Moulton, Stephanie. “Gender Dynamics in the Film Anne B. Real.” Critical Minded:
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Brooklyn, New York: Institute for Studies in American Music, 2005. 61-76.
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and Change in Latin America. Eds. June Nash and Helen I. Safa and contributors. South
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Lipski, John M. “Africans in Colonial Spanish America.” A History of Afro-Hispanic
Language: Five Centuries, Five Continents. Ed. John M. Lipski. New York, New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2005. 95-128.
Luciak, Ilja A. “Gender Roles in the Revolutionary War: Initiating Change.” Gender and
Democracy in Cuba. Ed. Ilja A. Luciak. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of
Florida, 2007. 1-12.
Morales, Ed. “Toward a Spanglish Hemisphere.” Living in Spanglish: The Search for Latino
Identity in America. Ed. Ed Morales. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Safa, Helen I. “Gender and Industrialization in the Caribbean Basin.” The Myth of the Male
Breadwinner: Women and Industrialization in the Caribbean. Ed. Helen I. Safa. Boulder,
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Villanueva, Victor. Speech. Language and Identity Graduate Course. University of Texas at
San Antonio. 13 Sept. 2007.