- Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U. S. Popular Performance by Brian Eugenio Herrera
Brian Eugenio Herrera's Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U. S. Popular Performance is a cultural history that concentrates on popular performances by actors "playing Latino" (whether or not they are ethnically Latina/o) throughout the twentieth century. Beginning with the emergence of the conga line in popular film, revue, and theater and ending in the 1990s with "Carlos," a gay novelty doll, Herrera traces how and when playing Latina/o intersected with contemporary racial formations and emergent production modes in popular theater and film. He concentrates primarily on actors' career histories and industry casting practices. Herrera's timeline and his willingness to engage "Latin"-ness without recourse to the discourse of authenticity have interesting results. Latin Numbers emphasizes the trends of visibility of Latinness in cultural production without necessarily advocating for racial justice off the stage or screen. In this sense, Herrera's book is not reparative criticism, nor is it a chronicle of ethnically specific film or theater history, such as Rosalinda Fregoso's The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture (1993) and Alberto Sandoval Sanchez's José, Can You See: Latinos On and Off Broadway (1999). Instead, Herrera's cultural history of Latinness in mainstream US popular culture heeds David Román's call to interrogate the romance of the indigenous, the tendency among critics to valorize grassroots cultural production over the popular realm. Herrera is particularly invested in brief, but unsustainable, flourishes of interest in "Latins" that disappear nearly as quickly as they appear.
Latin Numbers begins by tracing a genealogy of the conga line—itself a fungible "Latin number"—through the film, print media, and popular theater of the 1930s and 1940s. This history is, in part, a careful excavation of entertainment directly traced to composer and lyricist Harold Rome, whose archive Herrera mines to assess a shift in the form and content of popular songs that engage with the Good Neighbor policy. He focuses, for example, on the potential disidentificatory nature of Rome's 1946 song, "South America (Take it Away)," where the performative aspects of the era's Latin craze are both mastered and parodied. Herrera concludes the chapter by gesturing to the submerged racial dynamics of the conga and its inconsistent relationship to Brazil, a country whose African cultural heritage threatens the deracinated utility of the Latin number. [End Page 227]
The second chapter considers stealth Latinos, the phenomenon of the Latino actor as racial cypher and ambiguous, not-quite-white presence from the mid-1940s to mid-1960s—a time before Latinos or "Hispanics" had overtly politicized identities. Concentrating primarily on Mel Ferrer, Ricardo Montalbán, and Juano Hernandez, Herrera demonstrates how and when these actors—who were of different racial, ethnic, and national heritages and different class backgrounds—played broadly ethnic characters in mainstream dramas, often to popular acclaim. For example, Ferrer, who saw himself primarily as a director, was from a privileged Cuban family, and his seeming racial ambiguity allowed him to animate what Herrera calls the "uncertainties of difference" (88) that were often drama-turgically rendered in his roles as "the other man" (87). In contrast, Hernandez, legible as Afro-Latino in today's terminology, played roles in films that revealed anxieties about the color line in the civil-rights-era US. Herrera's greatest contribution here is to think seriously about the practices of filmic typecasting (which goes beyond a generic idea of stereotypical casting); as he shows, these Latino actors' previous roles determined how they traversed racial ambiguities at particular moments in US history.
The next two chapters, "How the Sharks Became Puerto Rican" and "Executing the Stereotype," focus on mainstream and non-mainstream theater. Herrera considers, for instance, the production history of West Side Story (1957; 1961), a show and film that created outrage among Latina/os because of its stereotypical portrayal of Puerto Ricans. Herrera's exploration of changes...