Cultural battle may propel Latino icons north of border
Arizona Daily Star

Ernesto Portillo Jr.

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


At the core of the immigration debate, the arguments have become more about cultural changes than economics.
Consider the flare-up over the Spanish translation of the national anthem. Then there's the U.S. Senate vote declaring English the national language.
What we have here is a cultural dust-up. Politicians and commentators who want to seal the border and deport undocumented immigrants insist that migrants primarily Spanish-speaking border crossers intend to replace our culture with theirs.
"The cultural sky is falling," they are yelling.
Well, the sky isn't falling. Just as it didn't cave in after earlier waves of immigrants, legal and undocumented, came to our country bringing their languages, cultures and customs. Previous immigrants enriched our country, and today's largely Latino immigrants are doing the same.
If Latino culture does take over, we're in store for more Spanish being spoken; more restaurants serving Mexican tacos, Salvadoran pupusas and feijoada, Brazilian stew; and more airline flights serving Latin America.
Also, "Sabado Gigante," the popular variety show featuring Don Francisco, will replace "American Idol," and Shakira, the saucy Colombian singer, will be on the minds of most American men.
There will be other cultural icons too far more important than Don Francisco and Shakira.
Allow me to introduce El Santo, the Mexican masked wrestler popularized through his feats in the ring and on the movie screen.
El Santo emerged from the lucha libre contests in the barrios to become a socio-political force.
El Santo is the Everyman hero. He fights for neighborhoods and communities. He stands up for people who are denigrated and shoved aside.
El Santo's influence has crossed north. The thousands of young Latinos who took to the streets for fair immigration reform in late March and early April did not know it, but they invoked the moxie of El Santo.
Accompanying the masked man will be El Cucuy.
In Mexico, Mexican-American barrios and parts of Latin America, El Cucuy is the folkloric boogeyman. Mothers invoked the terrifying threat of El Cucuy when children failed to listen: "Behave yourselves or El Cucuy will come and take you away."
But in the flip-flop immigration debate, where closing an international border is considered a neighborly act, El Cucuy has been turned upside down. Today, hardworking undocumented immigrants, who help sustain our economy, are portrayed as the fictional Cucuy by the seal-the-border activists.
We're constantly told that Cucuy immigrants are taking our jobs, our homes and our way of life.
But like the maternal stories of the imaginary Cucuy, today's boogeyman is an empty threat.
Completing the cultural troika will be La Llorona.
She will dominate the new cultural landscape if Congress passes, and President Bush signs, a bill that would tear apart immigrant families by forcing those without legal papers to return to their native countries.
The anguish of La Llorona, the mythical crying and suffering woman, will become real to thousands of immigrant families.
Congress could pass new legislation to allow some undocumented immigrants the chance to become legal residents but deny it to others. The cries of mothers, parents and children would become deafening.
La Llorona no longer would have to roam alone, crying for her lost children. She would be joined by thousands of new cultural symbols.
● Ernesto Portillo Jr.'s column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach him at 573-4242 or at He appears on "Arizona Illustrated," KUAT-TV, Channel 6, at 6:30 p.m. and midnight Fridays.