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The Riddle of Cantinflas

Essays on Hispanic Popular Culture, Revised and Expanded Edition


Publication Year: 2012

Ilan Stavans’s collection of essays on kitsch and high art in the Americas makes a return with thirteen new colorful conversations that deliver Stavans’s trademark wit and provocative analysis. “A Dream Act Deferred” discusses an issue that is at once and always topical in the dialogue of Hispanic popular culture: immigration. This essay generated a vociferous response when first published in The Chronicle of Higher Education as the issue of immigration was contested in states like Arizona, and is included here as a new addition that adds a rich layer to Stavans’s vibrant discourse. Fitting in this reconfiguration of his analytical conversations on Hispanic popular culture is Stavans’s “Arrival: Notes from an Interloper,” which recounts his origins as a social critic and provides the reader with interactive insight into the mind behind the matter.

Once again delightfully humorous and perceptive, Stavans delivers an expanded collection that has the power to go even further beyond common assumptions and helps us understand Mexican popular culture and its counterparts in the United States.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Preface: ¡Viva el Kitsch!

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pp. xi-xiv

Kitsch is king in the hispanic world. Nothing is original, and all things are their own parody. I say this not in a condescending tone: counterfeit is beautiful. The region is hypnotizing in its artificiality; everything in it is bogus; the Roman alphabet is, in and of itself, an extraneous import, and so life must be lived in translation; ...

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Immigration and Authenticity

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pp. 1-7

I have never owned a sombrero in my life. nor have my family, friends, or acquaintances. The reason is simple: I do not often socialize with mariachis. Sound strange for a Mexican like me? In fact, I do not know a single Mexican who ever had a sombrero. ...

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Mother of Exiles

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pp. 8-24

The Statue of Liberty is, arguably, the most famous sculpture in the world as well as the most renowned immigrant to New York. Copper clad, it is a massive 151 feet tall (with the pedestal and foundation, it is even taller: 305 feet) and weighs 225 tons. For more than a century, it has sat on the twelve-acre Liberty Island, ...

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A Dream Act Deferred

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pp. 25-33

Jorge Arbusto isn’t the type of person who seeks the limelight. In fact, for years he has thrived in the shadows. But ask him today what he wants, and his answer is unequivocal: to be recognized. ...

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Arrival: Notes from an Interloper

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pp. 34-46

It was in the pages of transition, I realize as I look back now, where I calibrated my writer’s voice. They became a platform for me to experiment on a variety of topics that, without knowing it then, would become, one by one, the stepping stones that mapped my path as a cultural critic. ...

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Unmasking Marcos

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pp. 47-56

The Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, or El Sup, as he is known in Mexico. His skin is bleached, whiter than that of his compañeros. He speaks with palpable erudition. The sword and the pen: he is a rebel, yes, but also an intellectual, a mind perpetually alert. And like some ranting dissenter, he is always prepared to say no: ...

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¡Lotería! or, The Ritual of Chance

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pp. 57-64

Looooh-teh-ree-ah . . . The sounds still resonate in my ears. Pepe and Lalo Gutiérrez, a charismatic set of siblings who lived next door to my childhood house in Colonia Copilco, in the southern parts of Ciudad de México, often organized impromptu tournaments of la lotería, a board game somewhat similar to bingo. ...

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Santa Selena

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pp. 65-71

During a recent trip I took to South Texas, a dignified old man told me Selena had died because heaven was desperate for another cherub. He described her to me as “a celestial beauty whose time on earth was spent helping the poor and unattended.” In San Antonio, a mother of four has placed Selena’s photograph on a special altar in her home, ...

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The Novelist and the Dictator

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pp. 72-76

Does the current crop of left-wing caudillos in Latin America like Hugo Chávez inspire the type of animosity their military counterparts once did? And will it end up metamorphosed into larger-thanlife characters in novels of the type of Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch? ...

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The Riddle of Cantinflas

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pp. 77-95

Culture in Mexico is governed by two opposing sides, sharply divided by an open wound: on the one hand, a highbrow, Europeanized elite dreams of inserting the nation’s creative talent into a global stream of artistic consciousness; on the other, native art, a hybrid that results from ancient and borrowed elements, is produced by and for the masses. ...

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Mario Vargas Llosa: Civilization versus Barbarism

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pp. 96-98

The decision to award the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa is a triumph of reason over the forces of chaos in Latin America. At a time when the region has moved from dictatorship to fragile civilian government marred by corruption, illiteracy, violence (particularly against women), ...

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The Art of the Ephemeral

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pp. 99-113

Early on in a visit I made to El Salvador shortly after the civil war of 1980–1992, a reporter told me, rather dismayed, that the majority of the people in the country got their news, not from traditional media outlets—TV, radio, newspapers—but from spontaneous messages posted in outdoor spaces. ...

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Sandra Cisneros: Form over Content

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pp. 114-119

Officially anointed La Girlfriend by the English-speaking media, Sandra Cisneros is considered a living classic. She is the most sought-after Latina writer of her generation and a guest impossible to ignore in any multicultural fiesta. The black-and-white photographs used to promote her work are colored by an overwhelming sense of theatricality. ...

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Civility and Latinos

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pp. 120-135

My purpose in the following pages is to meditate on the concept of civility as it relates to the Latino minority in the United States. Before I start, I’d like to make a brief etymological reflection and also offer a general introductory comment. ...

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José Guadalupe Posada: A Profile

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pp. 136-146

Since the turn of the century, political cartoons and murals in Mexico have been considered forms of street art. Still a highly cultivated medium, political cartoons were published from the 1850s on in prints and chapbooks that captured the imagination of the masses—rarely of the sophisticated, highly literate elite. ...


Language and Empire (with Verónica Albin)

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pp. 149-169

Against Biography (with Donald Yates)

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pp. 170-186

Redrawing the Historieta (with Neal Sokol)

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pp. 187-194


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pp. 195-196


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pp. 197-208

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826352576
E-ISBN-10: 082635257X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826352569
Print-ISBN-10: 0826352561

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 11 halftones
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: Revised and Expanded Edition