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A post-NAFTA star

Times Staff Writer

QUICK, somebody, seal the border! Call out the National Guard, the Minutemen, the Motion Picture Assn. of America! Round up the chief accomplices -- Gael Garcia Bernal, the writers of “Desperate Housewives” -- and notify Congress muy pronto.

America is being invaded by Mexican culture, and our republic may never be the same.

This spring, the barriers that once used to keep out the southern hordes (telenovelas, ranchera tunes) began to crumble like the walls of the Alamo. In March, the L.A. Coliseum played host to some 60,000 screaming pubescent devotees of the Mexican pop group RBD, a spinoff of the Mexican-import TV show “Rebelde,” which has teeny-boppers swooning on both banks of the Rio Bravo. Meanwhile, Televisa, the Mexican network giant that produces “Rebelde,” has become one of the leading candidates to acquire Univision Communications Inc., the nation’s preeminent Spanish-language media conglomerate.

But none of these events could have prepared Americans for the, ah, cultural temblor of this month’s issue of Maxim. There at center stage in the lustful laddie magazine was Eva Longoria, the Mexican American model-actress who plays the sultry, strong-willed Latina trophy wife Gabrielle Solis on “Desperate Housewives,” the hit ABC prime-time soap opera that wrapped up its second season last week. Reflecting both the show’s success and her own surging career, Longoria for the second year in a row topped Maxim’s “annual Hot List,” besting such fair-skinned rivals as Lindsay Lohan, Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley.

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Granted, this news bulletin is unlikely to sway the deliberations of the U.S. Senate as it ponders a slew of controversial immigration reforms. But at a time when Mexico and the United States are again struggling to sort out their tangled political relationship, the Texas-born Longoria is a potent symbol of how Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, are dramatically reshaping U.S. pop culture -- and being reshaped by it. More specifically, Longoria represents the emergence of a new hybrid popular culture with a frisky, bilingual sensibility all its own.

The political brouhaha over the vast numbers of Mexican illegal immigrants pouring into the United States is likely to be with us for years to come. But lost in the uproar over demonstrators waving Mexican flags, and the Spanish-language version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is that most Mexican and Latin immigrants, particularly children and young people, begin to assimilate American cultural values practically the moment they set foot in the United States, even before some of them learn to speak English.

“The whole acculturation process begins the minute they cross that border,” says Manny Gonzalez, vice president and managing director of Hill Holliday Hispanic/abece, a Miami-based ad agency that specializes in the Latino market. In fact, Gonzalez says, there are two concurrent transformations happening today. “While American mainstream culture is changing because it’s being Latinized, Latino culture in itself is changing,” he says.

The resultant phenomenon goes beyond the periodic “Latin crazes” that have swept America every decade or so, then vanished as suddenly as they began, says Gonzalez, who was born in Ciudad Juarez and moved to Los Angeles with his family as a child. The new wave is not merely a tokenistic fad, like Carmen Miranda turbans, Ricky Ricardo’s mambo club on “I Love Lucy” or the Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin livin’ la vida loca. Fernando Valenzuela on a corn flakes box is one thing; Longoria in a wet negligee in the pages of a leading men’s magazine -- or, in more formal attire, doing charity work on behalf of Latin Americans -- is quite another.

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Through the mainstream

TO begin with, Longoria, 31, cannot be viewed simply as the latest incarnation of the exotic Latin American Other, like the Mexican screen goddesses and pinup girls of old. The former Miss Corpus Christi is as much a U.S. citizen as any Boston Brahmin descended from Cotton Mather.

Her path to showbiz stardom is similarly mainstream: talent show contests, some modest TV parts (“General Hospital,” “Beverly Hills, 90210") before landing her current breakout role. So there’s no need to trot out the usual metaphors about the “spicy” new ingredient in the national stew. Longoria’s success story is as American as apple pie, or hot sauce. She even likes guns -- what’s more American than that?

At the same time, Longoria takes evident pride in “mi sangre mexicana,” “my Mexican blood,” as she has put it in interviews. Unlike some members of previous generations of Mexican American and Latin American performers who dyed their hair and ditched their Spanish surnames, Longoria consistently emphasizes her roots. A Los Angeles resident, she serves as national spokeswoman for Padres Contra el Cancer, which helps Latinos with cancer. She also worked with the John Kerry-John Edwards campaign to spread the 2004 Democratic presidential nominees’ message to Latino voters.

As an apparent testament to the image she projects, Longoria hosted and co-produced the 2006 ALMA Awards, which were taped this month at the Shrine Auditorium and will be broadcast June 5 on ABC. The awards are presented by the National Council of La Raza, the largest U.S. Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, roughly the equivalent of the NAACP.

In Mexico, the second season of “Desperate Housewives” has been running Tuesday evenings on the powerful national TV Azteca network, while the first season is being rebroadcast on the same network Monday through Friday evenings -- a measure of the show’s popularity here.

In recent months, Longoria has spent time in Mexico City, Baja California and her ancestral homeland in the northern industrial city of Monterrey, where the local paparazzi received her like visiting royalty. She is, one might say, our first post-NAFTA sex symbol.

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“She’s very proud of her background,” says Liza Anderson, Longoria’s longtime personal publicist and friend. “It’s something that definitely makes up a major part of who she is.” (Longoria was busy heading to the Cannes film festival last week and couldn’t be reached for an interview.)

Stephen Palacios, executive vice president of Cheskin, a Bay Area consulting firm with an expertise in Hispanic marketing, says that Longoria’s identification with her Mexican roots reflects a phenomenon seen among other second- and third-generation Latin Americans who were educated in English and raised on U.S. pop culture. “What we find is that assimilated Hispanics are often looking to what we call ‘retro-acculturate,’ to reclaim aspects of their ethnic identity,” he says.

It’s the flip side, he suggests, of what the Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek has done in crossing over to make Hollywood movies and becoming a regular presence in U.S. media. “Maybe Salma and Eva are somewhat representative of the trend toward biculturalism but from different starting points,” Palacios says. A handful of bilingual stars such as Jennifer Lopez, of Puerto Rican ancestry, and Thalia, the Mexican singer, actress and one-woman business conglomerate, are other examples.

Ironically, Longoria has said that as the youngest of four sisters, and the only one with dark hair, eyes and skin, she was called prieta fea, the Mexican equivalent of ugly duckling. But rather than disguising her Latin features, she has made them her professional calling card, endearing her both to Mexicans and Mexican Americans (not to mention L’Oreal, which has signed her to a fat endorsement contract).

Since “Desperate Housewives” began airing south of the border, Longoria has become a favorite of the Mexican media, in part because she has embraced rather than downplayed her heritage, as the Mexican edition of Marie Claire magazine pointedly noted in a May cover story.

Longoria’s adulterous “Desperate Housewives” character also is turning some cultural stereotypes on their head. The show, an American Gothic take on suburban living, is itself a hybrid of satire and drama. Aided by deft scripts and a preternaturally shiny production design, the lovelies of Wisteria Lane bend postwar cliches about infidelity, status envy and spiritual malaise amid the well-kept hedgerows.

This may be especially true of Longoria’s Gabrielle, a social climber who married way, way up into a life of pampered boredom. As one of the few middle-class Latinas to be depicted on a prime-time show, Gabrielle is a pop culture novelty. But she has other taboo-tampering qualities as well: she not only dominates her nice-guy husband -- an upending of traditional Latin machismo -- but has had a fling with her young Anglo gardener.

In Mexico’s rigidly moralistic telenovelas, philandering females are summarily flogged for these sorts of moral transgressions. But Gabrielle, like a modern-day Becky Sharp, dances around her peccadilloes.

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She also differs physically from the typically blond, light-skinned actresses on the telenovelas that are produced by Mexico’s Televisa network and air in the U.S. on Univision. Ironically, while Televisa (via Univision) serves up light-complexioned heroines that reflect Mexico’s own seldom-acknowledged ethnic prejudices, ABC is offering Mexican American viewers in the U.S. a Latina character whose skin tone and eye shade are far more likely to accord with their own.

It remains to be seen how Longoria’s image will evolve as she segues from TV into feature films. She has finished making the indie “Harsh Times,” starring Christian Bale. “The Sentinel,” released this year, with Michael Douglas, in which Longoria plays a Secret Service agent, was widely panned.

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A history of blending

WHAT Longoria personifies, on screen and off, is cultural duality, the notion that two different things can share an identity without sacrificing their distinct individual properties. For centuries, this has been an essential component of Latin American identity and thought. It is expressed most succinctly in concepts such as mestizaje and syncretism, the mixing of clashing ethnic and cultural attributes, literally through sex and figuratively through the interchange of traditions, customs and beliefs.

To Mexicans and other Latins, this type of cultural blending -- of pagan and Christian gods, opposing philosophical systems, bloodlines, musical styles, whatever -- is as old as the pyramids at Teotihuacan.

But north of the border, historically, the idea of cultural mixing has been tainted by fears of miscegenation, more bluntly known as “interracial sex,” one of the hobgoblins of the Anglo-Saxon mind. Our popular culture is filled with images of tragic Spanish American or Mexican American “half-breeds” caught between two worlds, from “Ramona” to Jennifer Jones as the doomed, mixed-race Pearl Chavez in King Vidor’s nutty, hysteria-laced western “Duel in the Sun” (1946).

As America’s newly anointed sex goddess, Longoria -- not unlike Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson before her -- is undermining an old-fashioned racial ideology whose locus is human sexuality and the human body. So is Longoria’s paramour Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs’ star point guard, who was born in Belgium to an African American father and a European mother and raised in France. Both are part of the massive remixing of hyphenated-American culture underway.

Evidence of this two-way transformation abounds. In a recent “Saturday Night Live” broadcast, Colombian pop star Shakira belted out one song in English (“Don’t Bother”) and the other in Spanish (“La Tortura”). This summer, Jack Black will star with a mostly Mexican supporting cast in “Nacho Libre,” about a priest who becomes a Mexican free-style, or “lucha libre,” wrestler (a sport that has gained a U.S. cult following among non-Latinos).

Top U.S. publishing houses like Alfred A. Knopf are putting out Spanish-language editions of quality literature, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir “Vivir para contarla.” Viacom’s MTV has announced that this year it will launch MTV Tr3s (pronounced “MTV Three,” or tres, in Spanish), with a bilingual format targeting bicultural U.S. Latinos between 12 and 34.

“It’s to give them the voice and kind of the validation that they are leading today’s pop culture,” says MTV publicist Emma Carrasco. “That’s true across all trends, whether it’s style or fashions or music.”

At last week’s Cannes Film Festival, after all the hoopla over “The Da Vinci Code” was deflated by mediocre reviews, the media masses turned their attention to fresher efforts such as Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation,” an adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction bestseller. The movie, which stars Ethan Hawke and the up-and-coming Mexican actress Ana Claudia Talancon as an illegal immigrant working in a fast food restaurant, was labeled by a New York Times critic as “the most essential political film from an American director since Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11....’ ”

Talancon, a former Mexican telenovela star, personifies the new breed of frontera-straddling young performer. The prototype, of course, is Garcia Bernal, the 27-year-old from Guadalajara who burst into global cinematic consciousness a few years ago with very different portrayals in two watershed Mexican movies, “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

Fittingly, his next role, in James Marsh’s “The King,” will be as a Mexican American vagabond named Elvis who arrives in a small Texas town seeking the father he’s never met, a Baptist preacher played by William Hurt. The theme of a cross-border search for a missing identity -- a long-lost part of one’s self -- also animates John Sayles’ “Lone Star” (1996) and Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005).

This phenomenon of inhabiting more than one culture simultaneously, without feeling a sense of conflicted loyalties, differs in important ways from Chicanismo, the political-cultural movement that arose among Chicanos (people of Mexican descent born in the United States) in the 1960s. Chicanismo was a survival strategy for members of a minority group struggling to get along in a society that treated them as third-class citizens. By necessity, its supporters felt, Chicanismo often took an aggressive stance of resistance toward mainstream U.S. culture.

The new dualism favors assimilation over resistance. Rather than being grounded in identity politics, it’s being fueled by technology and the free flow of goods, ideas and talent across an increasingly open and globalized border. This border is not merely a physical place. It exists on the airwaves and in cyberspace as well, in big urban centers and remote pueblitos.

Its influence is especially evident among Mexican Americans and other Latino American youth, who are seeing themselves reflected not only in TV, movies and books but on millions of individual MySpace.com pages. They’re wearing LeBron James jerseys, but they may root as hard (or harder) for El Tri, the Mexican national soccer team, as for the U.S. squad in the upcoming World Cup.

“In a sense, mainstream media have opened up a Pandora’s box. Now that they’ve teased Latinos and young Latinos in particular, they will want more,” says analyst Gonzalez. “That is the crux of what this transformation of Latinos is all about: What media entity out there, Spanish or English, will do a better job of reflecting the reality of what Latinos are experiencing today?”

For many Americans, especially in the heartland, the size of last month’s pro-immigration demonstrations registered as a profound shock. Where did all these people come from? some wondered aloud. It was like finding out at middle age that you have a half-sibling your parents never told you about.

But the cultural inter-connectedness of Mexico and the United States should be seen less as a revelation than as the inevitable rediscovery of a centuries-old family tie. We always have shared some of the same DNA, whether we knew it or not.

Staring at each other across the border and increasingly through the kaleidoscope of pop culture, Mexicans and Americans have come face to face with their own double nature -- dramatized, for the moment, by an iconographic young actress at home in either world.

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