More than a Mayan Princess: Representations of Ethnicity and Gender in John Fante's "Ask the Dust" by Ivonne Gonzalez
This article investigates a discrepancy between Latino representation in mainstream film and Latinos' significant presence as consumers of film. According to recent market research, Latinos make up a large portion of movie theater audiences and constitute fan bases for popular, profitable movie franchises such as “Fast & Furious”. However, as a 2013 study by film scholars at USC reveals, Latinos are seldom depicted on the big screen. The article cites Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, who points out that big budget films are less likely to cast Latino actors since very few are household names who have the power to attract huge audiences to movie theaters. Latino representation on the silver screen is severely lacking, despite Latinos’ notable presence as mass consumers of big Hollywood film industry.
Additionally, the article mentions the hypersexual representation of Latina women on the big screen. USC's study shows that “Hispanic females” are more likely to be depicted in sexy attire and partially naked than women of other ethnic/racial backgrounds. This reinforces representation that privileges the white gaze upon Latino bodies, instead of promoting characters that Latino audiences can genuinely connect to. The contradiction that becomes central in the article is that “the industry” is aware of the Latino demographic, as evidenced by an increase in advertisements appealing to a Spanish-speaking Latino audiences, yet there is little interest in telling their stories in Hollywood. The article ends with one of the USC film scholars, Stacy Smith, concluding that this lack of representation may negatively affect whether Latino viewers perceive of their experiences as worthy of being told. The repercussions, therefore, lie in rendering Latinos invisible to a mass international audience and excluding them further from being part of “American” storytelling.
Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Ask the Dust by John Fante tells the story of a young Italian writer by the name of Arturo Bandini who moves to Los Angeles from a small town in Colorado in the hopes of becoming a big-shot writer. Bandini’s life is changes drastically when he meets a young Mexican American waitress and becomes embroiled in an intense love affair that leads him to question his own American identity and the American landscape to which he belongs.
The book opens by detailing Arturo’s life as a struggling young writer living in a small hotel room in the gritty Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles. He dreams of the glamorous Los Angeles that had been promised to him; he dreams of “having” luxurious women in silver fox furs and drinking cocktails at fancy bars. Bandini desires women, wants to write about women, but he’s a young boy with no experience and big dreams - all talk, no action. He tries to get in bed with a prostitute one night, but fails miserably ends up paying her to talk to him instead (this is before Holden Caulfield in Cathcher in the Rye). He dreams of “buying” one of the exoticized Mexican women he sees around the city one day, until his fantasy materializes when he meets Camilla Lopez, a waitress at the Columbia Buffet restaurant. From the beginning, their relationship is tumultuous, as the two insult each other right away upon meeting. Bandini mocks her for wearing old, worn-down leather strapped sandals, or huaraches. At the end of chapter 5, he insists on asserting his “American” superiority over the “dirty Greaser” Camilla and her Mexican “people” who had “failed” to create the “beautiful city” of Los Angeles.
This section of the novel begins with Bandini relating his observations of what Los Angeles represents for him - a land where midwesterners either realize their dreams and revel in paradise or die old and trying. He also starts to think about how he himself was racialized by white kids back in Colorado who would call him called Dago, Wop, and Greaser (racial slurs for Italians/Italian Americans).
Bandini also feels insecure about his writing, having had only one measly story, The Little Dog Laughed, published in a magazine. He becomes ecstatic when a fourteen-year-old girl in his hotel expresses her admiration for his writing. Shortly thereafter, he receives a letter from a publisher accepting his second short story called The Long Lost Hills. With a new sense of confidence, he goes back to The Columbia Buffet to speak to Camilla, and after having a brief dispute in which Camilla accuses him of being haughty and “different” when he disregards her new white shoes, pumps with heels. Nevertheless, they make up and head to Santa Monica beach and swim naked in the ocean at night. Camilla is affectionate with Bandini, and asks him to hold her naked, wet body, but he neglects her sexual advances. Instead, he retreated into his own thoughts, thinking about his newly published story and his ambiguous American identity.
After that night at the beach, Camilla becomes increasingly colder and distant toward Bandini; he tries to make it up to her by sending her telegram poems and notes, but she rips them into shreds. She refuses to see him when he insists and stands waiting by her car until the end of her shift at the restaurant and leaves with Sammy, the bartender, instead. Feeling rejected, he becomes involved with an emotionally unstable Jewish woman named Vera Rivken who lives in Long Beach. He visits Vera in an attempt to forget about Camilla, but instead, he finds himself thinking about Camilla while he’s laying in bed with Vera.
While in Long Beach, Bandini also experiences his very first California earthquake. The earthquake causes a lot of damage and death around the city, and he becomes worried about Camilla’s safety. As soon as he returns to Los Angeles, he runs to the Columbia Buffet and desperately tries to force Camilla to see him. She leaves with Sammy instead, and a few days after, she reveals to Bandini that she is in love with Sammy. Nevertheless, Bandini agrees to give Sammy constructive feedback on a few short stories that he had written. Sammy thanks him by giving him advice about Mexican women: “They don’t like to be treated like human beings. If you’re too nice, they walk all over you.”
Camilla visits Bandini in his apartment room one night, her face beaten up and bruised; she tells Bandini that Sammy had beat her. They drink whiskey and fall asleep drunk, and thus begins another dramatic chapter of their relationship. Camilla begins to drink more and to his dismay, Bandini also finds that she is secretly smoking marijuana. She forces Bandini to take her to see Sammy in San Juan, where he lives in the middle of the desert. Bandini is shocked to see Camilla acting subservient around Sammy. “All the fight and glory was drained like blood from her veins.”
Despite his volatile relationship with Camilla, Bandini receives good news from his publisher - a book contract! He becomes excited about sharing his wealth with Camilla, until he finds out that she has been institutionalized at a mental facility. She escapes, and then wires Bandini to ask him for money. He gladly helps her out, and when they reunite he takes her to Laguna Beach, where he tells her he’ll buy a house for them both. Bandini also buys Camilla a little white dog, and calls him Willie. Things seem to be going well at their new beachfront home, until Bandini leaves for a short trip to Los Angeles. When he returns, Camilla is gone. A few days later, he receives a telegram from Sammy telling him that Camilla was with him, and that he didn’t want her there. Bandini rushes to the desert in search of her once more, but he arrives too late; Sammy tells him that Camilla had left again. She had disappeared into the desert, and no trace of her remained. Bandini signs his first published book, to Camilla, with love, and throws it out into the nothingness of the desert.
Like films, novels can serve as a medium through which people receive ideas about a particular ethnic or racial group - and these ideas have the potential to either create damaging stereotypes about a group or humanize the experience of its constituents. Ask the Dust, written in the 1930s, delivers a charged representation of Mexicans in Los Angeles to its readers. What ideas, therefore, can be grasped from John Fante’s Mexican characters? How does the reader mediate between the narrator's (Bandini's) opinions of Mexicans as an ethnic group and his/her own interpretations? Ask the Dust can be read as a novel that adds overtones to Mexican American/Latino representation in bringing to life a character, Camilla, who is not merely a caricature; her character is complex and multidimensional. Alternatively, Camilla can also be interpreted as a fictional metaphor that represents Mexicanness according to the white gaze - exotic, rustic, and full of fiery passion.
In fact, Camilla is often spoken of by Bandini as something to be conquered - he thinks of her as a Mayan princess, after all, and fancies himself as the conqueror Cortez. Camilla then becomes a metaphor for the indigenous woman victim, La Malinche, who is “seduced” by Cortez and betrayed her Indian people in order to serve as his mistress. However, Bandini fails to ever make Camilla fully his and their relationship centers around this struggle and resistance on both their parts. She isn’t the “sweet little peon” that Bandini makes her out to be - she’s an independent working woman who drives, shoots guns, and seems to be in full control of her sexuality. In many ways, therefore, Camilla provides a counternarrative to the stereotype of Mexican women as docile, “traditional”, and family-oriented. For being a novel of the 1930s, Ask the Dust presents a Latina character that exerts agency over her own body; it presents a nuanced yet also slightly archetypal character that predates Lupe Velez’s “Mexican Spitfire”.
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