World's Fairs, Nightclubs, and Starships: Fantastic and Futuristic Spaces for Latinx Representation

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Latino/a; Popular Culture; Visual and Performing Arts


This panel travels back in time—and into the future—to examine the politics of Latina/o/x representation in popular culture. We will start with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, then move into the Latin nightclubs of the 1930s and 1940s, and finally, travel into the beyond, with Star Trek and other science-fiction adventures, to raise questions about the labor and representation of Latinos in some of these most extraordinary spaces. While expositions, nightclubs, and soundstages often produce the most fantastic assemblages of the imagination, they also require the participation of those who can best serve those visions. Thus, our papers are joined in an examination of how Latinos fit into U.S. fantasies of modernity, progress, and technology. To begin our conversation, Lorena Chambers will examine representations of Mexicans and Mexico in the construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Her study of U.S. and Mexican visions of statecraft raises questions about Gilded Age narratives of industry and white supremacy on both sides of the border. Our panel proceeds with Cary Cordova’s focus on the backstage politics of San Francisco’s Latin nightclubs and how these complex spaces shaped and reflected the everyday lives of Latino residents. Her study of performers, proprietors, and servers opens a window into city politics and the lines of segregation in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, Anthony Macias spins our panel into the future with an examination of how Chican@s have participated in, produced, and struggled through Hollywood’s sci-fi constructions of humanity. Though often marginalized and repeatedly ignored, the active participation of Chican@s in mass media also has enabled meaningful and influential moments of intervention more broadly. Together, these papers travel through time to ask questions about space, race, and gender in the context of Latina/o/x representation. Our work highlights the unusual to understand the quotidian, emphasizing the visibly overlapping and intersecting struggles, as well as the differences, shaping experiences from the nineteenth century into diverse imagined futures.

Papers Presented

Chican@s in Space: Science Fiction, Race, and Americana

American science fiction has not traditionally represented Chican@s (Chicanas and Chicanos) in mainstream popular culture. This paper first traces Chicano-Chicana science fiction in American art, theater, film, and television, then argues that Mexican American actors, often in special effects makeup playing aliens, have enriched television series and feature films. As a genre, science fiction has enabled Chicano and Chicana actors and directors to break out of stereotypical conventions and display their talent, craft, and artistry. For example, as Chicano Movement documentary filmmaker Jesús Salvador Treviño stated in 1982, “We Chicanos have tried to … infiltrate and subvert … existing opportunities in [mass media]; and we take the opportunity to express our own vision whenever possible … we have maintained a perspective that is at once historical and futuristic.” In the 1990s Treviño took audiences to other worlds when he directed episodes of the cable television sci fi programs Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Babylon Five. Presenting a Chican@ perspective, or at least inserting Chicana and Chicano actors in the stories we tell ourselves, specifically in speculative fiction time and space, helps us reimagine what Americana means. Including Mexicans and Mexican Americans in pop culture versions of the future can potentially shift our paradigm, expanding our notions of who counts, and who belongs, as a real American. As a result, a group historically considered both a race and an ethnicity, and maligned as inferior, can continue asserting its proper place in our national narratives.

Presented By
Anthony Macias, University of California, Riverside

Behind the Scenes: The Production of San Francisco’s Latin Nightclubs, 1930s

In the midst of the Depression, and in relation to the nation’s Good Neighbor Policy, Latin nightclubs grew in popularity nationwide. In San Francisco, the rise of La Fiesta, the Copacabana, and the Sinaloa served as local expressions of this widespread phenomenon. Italian restauranteur Nino Brambilla opened La Fiesta nightclub, “the doorway to Latin America,” in March of 1937, just two months prior to the momentous “Fiesta” opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and two years ahead of the 1939 World's Fair. Despite the economic downturn and a pending World War, city boosters enthusiastically celebrated the city’s “world famous restaurants and nightclubs” as emblems of a metropolitan center fully recovered from the 1906 earthquake. Nightclubs participated in this layered city politics, while also conveying fantasies about faraway lands. This paper focuses on the complex histories of three high-profile nightclubs—La Fiesta, the Copacabana, and the Club Sinaloa—and the ways these spaces packaged and represented the Latin. La Fiesta nightclub offered a prominent stage for a variety of high-profile entertainers, including Don Alvarado and his Sensational Cuban Orchestra, dancer Alicia Arroyo, known as “90 lbs. of TNT,” and Hollywood actor Joaquin Garay, who later opened the Copacabana Nightclub in 1942. The Copa was so beloved that after its closure in 1947, one columnist mourned, “If [Garay] hadn’t tried to bring in big name stars, I’ll bet the Copa would still be going.” While La Fiesta and the Copacabana closed at the end of the war, the Club Sinaloa survived another two decades, thanks to Luz Garcia, who represented an unusual and powerful presence in this male-dominated world. Garcia’s Club Sinaloa also had a longer and more torrid history as a prohibition rum den. This paper will contextualize these three nightclubs and document the extraordinary talent of San Francisco’s Latin nightclub scene in the context of limited roles and opportunities.

Presented By
Cary Cordova, University of Texas at Austin

"The Situation Is Critical": Race, Statecraft, and Mexican Performance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 visually and thematically placed the United States as the world’s economic and cultural leader. Underpinning this narrative were racialized notions of primitivism and barbarism reflected throughout the exhibits, privileging white civilization as the foundation and future for public displays in both the formal “White City” and the entertainments of the Midway Plaisance. This paper tells the stories of Mexican musicians Juventino Rosas and members of the Mexican Eighth Cavalry military band who performed in Chicago for millions of spectators amidst great fanfare. The musicians' talent, sartorial choice, and classical musical training forever changed paid entertainment in the United States. The "mexicanidad" running throughout their performances was not just individual expression, but part of the cultural diplomacy through which the United States and Mexico sought to implement their grand strategies for North America. While the countries shared an interest in a unified North American capitalism, each used its displays and presentations in Chicago to seek greater control of their increasingly interdependent economies. The United States sought new sources of raw materials and corresponding railroad routes. For its part, Mexico desired to mask the country’s Indian and Mestizo reality with a bourgeois modernism in order to further attract foreign investors. Constructions of race premised the statecraft of each country, shaping the perceptions of Mexico in the United States. Amidst the racialized meanings, metaphors, and metonymy of the Columbian Exposition, Mexican performers navigated their way with dignity and resilience, indelibly changing American popular culture.

Presented By
Lorena Chambers, Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Stephen Pitti, Yale University
Stephen Pitti is a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, where he is the inaugural director of the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. He is the author of The Devil in Silicon Valley: Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Northern California (2003) and American Latinos and the Making of the United States (2012). As a member of the National Parks Service advisory board during the Obama Administration, he chaired the National Historic Landmarks committee and serves on the Latino scholars panel. As a public historian he advised the Peabody Award–winning series "Latino Americans" on PBS and the Latino Americans: 500 Years of History project organized by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. He has testified before Congress in favor of immigration reform as well as the establishment of a National Museum of the American Latino. He is an editor for the Politics and Culture in Modern America book series at the University of Pennsylvania Press and a member of the editorial board of the U.S. Latino Oral History Journal. He chaired a White House committee on LGBT history in 2014; he has worked with secondary school teachers and high school students around the country; and he has served on the board of directors of Freedom University in Atlanta, a school founded to serve undocumented residents of Georgia. He has also contributed expert reports to ongoing court cases in Arizona related to both immigration and ethnic studies, and he wrote the brief in favor of DACA recipients that was endorsed by the Organization of American Historians and submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Presenter: Lorena Chambers, Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University
Lorena Chambers is CEO of Chambers Lopez Strategies LLC. She is the only Latina — and one of only two women — to have produced broadcast commercials for a U.S. Presidential campaign. Chambers currently is also a Visiting Research Affiliate at the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University.

In 2018, she was the media strategist for PowerPAC Georgia’s I.E. campaign supporting Stacey Abrams in her run for Governor of Georgia, and for Senate Majority PAC’s win in Nevada to elect Jacky Rosen as U.S. Senator, and in 2016, helped elect Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto, the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate. A top-tier political consultant, Chambers worked with Priorities USA in 2016 and 2012 Presidential cycles, leading the CLS team in developing and producing award-winning television and radio advertisements supporting the Democratic nominees for President. She led the development of advertising strategies for I.E. expenditures on behalf of SEIU and PFAW to deliver 71% of Latino voters and re-elect President Obama in 2012.

A graduate of UCLA and the University of Michigan, Chambers focused her graduate studies on the intersection of American history and feminist theory, analyzing Latinx representations in advertising and entertainment. She taught in the Department of History and the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, and in the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Among other engagements, Chambers has appeared as a political analyst on CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Perspectiva Nacional, and Destination Casa Blanca with Ray Suarez. She sits on the Board, the Ethics Committee, and the Executive Committee of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC).

Presenter: Cary Cordova, University of Texas at Austin
Cary Cordova is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on Latina/o/x cultural production, including art, music, and the performing arts. She is the author of The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), which received the 2018 Lawrence W. Levine Award from the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American cultural history. Her articles include, "Portable Murals: Children's Book Press and the Circulation of Latino Art," in Visual Resources, "Hombres y Mujeres Muralistas on a Mission: Painting Latino Identities in 1970s San Francisco" in Latino Studies and, "The Mission in Nicaragua: San Francisco Poets Go To War," in Beyond El Barrio: Everyday Life in Latina/o America. She also has written on the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s. Cordova earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.

Presenter: Anthony Macias, University of California, Riverside
Anthony Macías is a scholar of twentieth-century cultural history with a Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. An Associate Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, he is currently working on a book-in-progress, “Chican@ Americana: Pop Culture Pluralism.” He is the author of the book, Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968 (Duke University Press, 2008), and has published on bebop, hip hop, punk rock, bandleader Gerald Wilson, Jewish Americans, gay rights and film, U.S. cultural history, and pan-American imaginary. Macías has been awarded the Institute of American Cultures Postdoctoral Fellowship, Chicano Studies Research Center, UCLA; the Humanities Research Institute Resident Fellowship, UC Irvine; the Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research; and a UC Institute for Mexico and the United States Travel Grant. He has also served as a curatorial consultant for museums and introduced movie screenings for the “What is a Western?” film series at the Autry National Center of the American West.