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Speaker discusses evolution of Latino political satire

| Friday, January 24, 2014

Albert Laguna, professor of American studies and ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University, spoke in Nieuwland Hall Thursday as part of the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services’ Martin Luther King, Jr. Series for the Study of Race.

Laguna’s talk, “The Politics of Play in Latino America” focused on the politics behind Latino, specifically Cuban-exile, humor. Laguna said humor is a special aspect of Latin American culture, which makes studying the culture all the more engaging.

“Academic and journalistic discourse surrounding race is rarely funny,” Laguna said. “Yet on a quotidian level, playful ways of representing culture or race is everywhere, for better or for worse.”

Politics of playemmetfarnanEMMET FARNAN | The Observer

Laguna said the topic of Latin American and Cuban humor was one that must balance popular culture and academia.

“The interest in my class from a number of majors across the university taught me that students are looking for tools to make sense of race in forms of play,” he said. “My goal is to provide a balance between these two poles, to delight and instruct, and help you appreciate the complexity and critical potential to thinking about race and play simultaneously.”

Laguna said what made Latin American humor so compelling to him was that, despite its being a huge part of Latin-American life and culture, the subject was greatly understudied.

“The inspiration … came from growing up in Union City, New Jersey … over 80 percent Latino, situated over the Hudson River,” Laguna said. “I clearly remember the important role and highly visible role of humor in narrating everyday, quotidian life … [so] I was galled by the lack of scholarship of humor in Latino studies.”

Laguna said his interest in Latino, specifically Cuban-American, humor also comes from its riveting, tumultuous history. He spoke about particular publications that used humor to make political statements.

“Cubans have brought their particular brand of humor to the U.S. and used it to make sense of dying, sport, life and life in Cuba since the 19th century,” Laguna said. “[Here] is a satirical newspaper published in 1897, ‘Cacarajícara,’ printed in New York by Cuban exiles who opposed the Spanish Government … It was basically like ‘The Onion’ of its time.

“Little later on you have this … tabloid newspaper called ‘Zigzag’ … from 1963. This was another version of ‘The Onion,’ popular up to 1969, until they decided to make drawings. Fidel Castro, he did not like that and asked nicely — or not so nicely — for them to shut down and many cartoonists fled into exile.”

Laguna said Latino humor took on new forms in the 1970s when visual mediums also began to incorporate the style of comedy and satire.

“And then you have ‘¿Qué Pasa, USA?’ This is the first bilingual sitcom in the history of the United States,” Laguna said. “It tracks three generations of the Peña family on their first year in exile.”

Peña said Latino and Cuban humor add a unique perspective to the history of Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

“[Latino humor] has a long history, and it tells an interesting story, one that bucks the usual narrative of the Cuban-exile community and right-wing politics.”

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