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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“Can joo belieb it?”: The Racial Politics of Chican@ Linguistic Scripts in U.S. Media (1925-2014)

  • Author(s): Hinojos, Sara Veronica
  • Advisor(s): Casillas, Dolores I
  • et al.

Language has long been used as a means of indexing one’s ethnic, gendered, racial and, arguably, their sexual identities. One’s perceived “accent” drawl, tone or even word choice communicates socially constructed cues to listeners. Studies have shown that white listeners often detect an “accent” from speakers of Color even when one is not apparent. My dissertation project focuses on these politics of language within the field of ethnic and media studies. I examine how patterns of “accent” are linked to troubling representations for Chican@ and Latin@ actors have remained noticeably similar throughout the twentieth century despite drastic changes in media technologies. For instance, from celebrity magazine of the 1920s to the digital era Spanish inflected English (SIE) “accents” are perceived and represented in the media in strikingly similar fashion.

I analyze racialized linguistic representations across four media formats: print media (1920s-1940s), television (1970s), animated film (2000), and the Internet (2010-2014). Each period represents different moments of heightened racial, immigrant strife often expressed in coded humorous, language play. For instance, staged “accents” and slang worked to racialize Chican@ and Latin@ comedic actors and voiceovers as sidekicks, peripheral characters and non-citizens. “Accent,” encased in quotes, is used to emphasize the relational nature and notion that certain people are heard as having one and other not. Two of my dissertation chapters focus on the visual representation of vocal SIE “accents” through word play in subtitles (print media, Internet). The first chapter focuses on Mexican film actress Lupe Vélez and the representation of her linguistic “accent” in fan magazines while the last chapter investigates how web celebrity “La Coacha” uses of accented subtitles in her parody YouTube videos. Two other chapters examine how vocal “accents” and slang are heard and performed in relation to the written directives in scripts (television and animated film). The second chapter addresses the characters Chico Rodriguez and Louie Wilson in the 1970s sitcom Chico and the Man and the subsequent third chapter examines language use and Benjamin Bratt’s accented voice over acting of Mexican villain “El Macho” in Despicable Me: 2 (2013). Together, these four case studies demonstrate how language has long been a primary mode of racialization, which recurrently casts People of Color as both funny and foreign across different media forms.

I use a feminist critical discourse (FCD) analysis as my primary approach. This analysis focuses on how knowledge is produced, reported, and used. FCD refers to how the systems of gender are produced in cultural productions by focusing on the linguistic tactics in relation to struggles of power and agency. The literal language is investigated as well as the power dynamics that are not made explicit by the text. Archival materials such as magazines, television and film scripts, and analog videos were consulted. I also engaged in acousmatic listening in order to analyze the “accent” in question, for example a video clip’s sound was transcribed, meaning the dialogue, without the visual image, in order to analyze and interrogate how the “accent” is vocalized.

My project makes key contributions to topics related to Chican@ and Latin@, media, and linguistic fields. This interdisciplinary approach to language and media representation pushes the boundaries of how to study language in a fictionalized context when viewers read the speaker as a real person and not a scripted character. Ultimately, I investigate how the racial politics of language helped craft several character tropes largely assigned to performers, actors, and comedians of Color in media.

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