Monday night, when Hollywood troops to the cultural Acropolis on the hill, there’ll be another awards show going on just a few miles to the east. In distance, the two events aren’t far apart. Culturally, though, there’s a world between them.
The second annual Nopalotes--produced by downtown’s Troy cafe at Plaza de la Raza--is an awards show of a different color, so to speak.
Part send-up, part counter-celebration and part serious tribute to the achievements of a burgeoning creative community, the Nopalotes toast (and roast) the talent and sense of humor of an up-and-coming generation of primarily Latino/Chicano performing artists.
Loosely based on the academy format, the show intersperses live entertainment with the presentation of the prizes and requisite video clips of the nominees and nominated performances. Instead of Billy Crystal and cohorts, you’ll get Raul Raul and a host of entertaining others. There may be fewer paparazzi at the Nopalotes, but you’ll probably be able to buy a ticket at the door.
Named after the Mexican cactus--a slang expression for a country bumpkin--the Nopalote Awards began as a group of Chicano artists’ irreverent response to the Academy Awards, and especially the lack of Latino representation there. (Why the Nopalote? “Well, it’s my favorite loteria card,” quips producer Sean Carrillo.)
Categories in which the prestigious prickly will be awarded range from the familiar (best film, lifetime achievement) to the more esoteric (“Best Torment by a Young Sensitive Male Chicano Named Ruben”). The program is written by Taloo Carrillo, Jesse Nunez, Pablo Prietto and Bibbe Hansen, who also directs. The handsome Nopalote itself is designed by artist David Serrano.
It’ll be a droll evening all right, but there’s a serious point to it too. “A year ago, someone asked if I was going to be watching the Academy Awards,” recalls Carrillo, who, along with Hansen, co-founded Troy, a downtown performance venue/gallery/coffeehouse that serves as unofficial headquarters for many of L.A.'s premier Latino artists. “I asked if any Chicanos were nominated and the answer was ‘No,’ as usual. At that moment, the Academy of Chicano Arts and Sciences was born.”
According to the Academy of Chicano Arts and Sciences’ mission statement--which is traditionally included in the proceedings--the organization was launched “in order to create a nepotistic, self-congratulatory, incestuous forum within which to shamelessly pat ourselves on the back in a public display of wife swapping and cheap shoes.”
The academy membership runs to “Chicano Wunderkinder and retired Shaklee distributors.” And as for who is eligible to receive the sensational succulent, “Non-winners of the Golden Eagle Awards are given priority.”
The best part about the Nopalotes, though, is the live entertainment. Raul Raul is one of the fictitious personas of Robert Lopez, the actor-performance artist best known as El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. The Vanidades are a sort of Chicano En Vogue, a musical performance-art “girl group” with a gender-role twist. The comedians of Chicano Secret Service will provide the laughs. And Charles Lane--a master cabaret singer in the European style--and Mario Prietto, an alternative pop artist, will contribute to the musical portion of the show.
Yet while the Nopalotes may have been prompted by these artists’ dissatisfaction, they have grown into something more than simply a rejoinder.
The artists involved are part of a cadre of talent that has begun to reconsider the viability of careers in the performing arts. It isn’t just that theater and music are becoming somewhat more receptive to non-Anglo women and men, but also that the performing arts do not require the same resources as film and TV.
Film, after all, is hardly the only art form in which Latinos are proportionately underrepresented. Despite increased attention to the imperatives of multiculturalism, the mainstream stage and the music industry also have yet to catch up to the new L.A. The Mark Taper Forum, for instance, has not produced any mainstage work written by a U.S. Latino since Luis Valdez’s 1978 “Zoot Suit.” (Valdez’s “Bandido” is said to be on the roster for next year, although a spokeswoman for the Taper said the schedule for next year has not been set.)
Prompted in part by California’s revamped demographics--especially in L.A., where 40% of the population is Latino--Chicano comedy is fast emerging as the latest incarnation of American outsider humor.
Just as Jewish humor was when it started out in the Catskills 60 years ago, this comedy is put forth by people who are often the children of immigrants and the disenfranchised. It’s also heavily media-influenced, as befits a generation weaned on sitcoms.
Take the Nopalote gang, for instance. “My father’s idol was Jack Benny,” says Sean Carrillo. “What does a lower-class Mexican with a third-grade education and nine kids have to do with a European Jew? My parents never took me to a Mexican movie. Our sensibilities are formed by Jack Benny, not Cantinflas.”
That isn’t to say that there isn’t a vestige of Mexican culture. “When I hear mariachi music it reminds me that I’m part of the mainstream culture, but that there’s this other side of me, too,” says Pablo Prietto. “It makes me worried because everyone is singing along and I’m not.”
“We’re called Mexican-Americans, but we’re really American-Mexicans,” says Carrillo. “Chicanos of our generation are the sons and daughters of Lenny Bruce. We’re not Ritchie Valens, Eddie Olmos or Paul Rodriguez. We’re more like the bilingual Kids in the Hall.”
Don’t, in other words, expect too somber an evening. The Nopalotes will begin with the arriving nominees and other luminaries being interviewed by the character of Smarmy Archard. The audience members will watch via video monitors.
Then it’s on to the awards. Pablo Prietto’s favorite is Best Goatee, Male. “It’s one of our most crowded fields,” he says.
For Taloo Carrillo, it’s the best after-party performance. “Sometimes Chicano events are not as spectacular as the parties that follow and some of the after parties have better performances,” she says. “People get tanked and the real entertainer comes out. We have it on tape.”
There will also be an inductee into the Hall of Blame, the place, say the writers, where Chicanos are sent for dubious creative actions. “If Pepsi or Coke offers you vast amounts of money to portray a chollo or a drug dealer, think twice,” warns Sean Carrillo. “The Hall of Blame is watching.”
As their tone might tell you, the Nopalote crew aren’t just “ABC--Angry, Bitter Chicanos.” They’re not simply pointing fingers at the Establishment. “There’s a shared responsibility for our exclusion from the industry,” says Carrillo. “Part of it is that the people who have the resources to green-light a film haven’t really sought to give a voice to Chicano culture. At the same time, when we have an opportunity as Chicano artists, I don’t think we’ve sought to fully take advantage of that and build upon it.”
Latino representation on Tinseltown’s glitziest night may remain less than what these artists would like it to be, but they are making inroads where they can, in other fields. “If Luis Valdez hasn’t made a movie, and it wasn’t brilliant, we as a people aren’t nominated,” says Sean Carrillo. “We’re pinning all our hopes on one director, and now Robert Rodriguez has that responsibility. We need more directors, producers and writers.”
Especially writers. “It all begins with the word, and that’s why we’re writers,” says Carrillo. “If something is missing from the screen, we can write it. We may not have access to the screen, but we can perform it.”
Hence the Nopalote Awards show, where these artists can poke fun at, critique and pay homage to achievements that might otherwise go unsung. “We began with the categories from the Academy Awards, but this year we’ve added our own categories as well,” says writer Taloo Carrillo, who is Sean’s sister. “We’re celebrating a much broader spectrum of the arts.”
The academy format just happens to provide the perfect setup. “There’s so much about the Academy Awards to make fun of that it deserves something like this,” says vocalist Charles Lane, who will have to hotfoot it over from a Los Angeles Master Chorale rehearsal in order to appear in the Nopalote finale. “This is a ridiculous show that takes itself sort of seriously.”
Lane, an African-American performer who trained at CalArts, feels that it’s perfectly natural that he’s part of a predominantly Latino event. “I don’t feel threatened,” he says. “There’re a lot of people who feel threatened by the success of other cultures. You see that in high schools, with black kids not wanting to go to dances where they have to listen to Mexican music and Latinos not wanting to have to listen to rap. All this high anxiety has to do with the lack of culture in the schools.”
What passes instead for cultural education is often the rites and wrongs of Hollywood. “Because we all grew up in L.A., we’re all awards ceremony literate,” says Piettro, a photographer who has exhibited at Troy. “This gives us a chance to celebrate our accomplishments. But we also have production numbers, a show-stopping finale and we’ve even sold a couple of commercials to underwrite the show.”
Of course, putting on a major awards shindig like the Nopalotes is bound to entail trials and tribulations along with the fun and games. “The academy found out about us,” deadpans Pablo Prietto. “They’re upset because some of the triple-A presenters and nominees are coming to our show instead of theirs and going to super-agent Speedy Gonzales’ after-party at El Tepayac. Swifty Lazar is furious.”