Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

“Glee” gets bilingual–sort of!

I can’t believe it–finally Glee addressed “Mr. Shuster’s” status as a so-called Spanish teacher at the high school–one who can’t and/or doesn’t speak Spanish!  Ricky Martin comes and saves the day as “David Martinez, a night school adult Spanish teacher (see Hulu.com for the show if you missed it).  Mr. Shu enrolls in Mr. Martinez’ class to improve his Spanish (and get a “tenure track” job at the high school)  and learns that “by 2030, the majority of Americans will use Spanish as their first language.”  After class, Mr. Shu (MS) and David Martinez (DM) have this conversation:

DM: No entiendo, tu eres maestro del español pero estás tomando clase de español

MS: Could you maybe say that a little slower, I think your accent is throwing me off.  Where are you from?

DM: Ohio. But my parents are from Chile and we only spoke Spanish in the house growing up.

Mr. Shu’s gaff that an “Ohio accent” is difficult to understand is an early comic moment that foreshadows the many blunders the Glee Club director/Spanish teacher will make regarding the language, culture, and identity of Latino USA.  In class Mr. Shu declares the Glee Club will sing songs written or performed by someone of “Latin descent or performed bilingually.” He explains:

Mr. S: Where do you think you’ll you be by 2030? Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you’re gonna need to speak Spanish.  The reality is by 2030 more people on this planet will be speaking Spanish than any other language.

Mr. Shu (mis)ventriloquizes his own Spanish teacher’s wisdom and suddenly he moves the significance of Spanish in the U.S. to world dominance  (Look out English! Look out Chinese!) Despite the exaggerated statistics, I agree with Mr. Shu’s central message: “The world is changing, our culture is changing, and that needs to be reflected in here [in U.S. high school].”

Who would think Fox TV’s Glee club would be talking about Spanish as a vital language of our (inter)national future?! –that by the show’s end Mr. Shuster would hand over his Spanish position  to Ricky Martin and decide to go for a history position instead (my colleagues in Social Studies education should also have a field day with this episode!).

Well, as readers likely know by now, I prefer to remain on the positive, rather than cynical, side.  “Latin music” for Glee club ends up meaning a mostly English version of the Gypsy Kings “Bamboleo,”  Madonna’s “Isla Bonita,” and Elvis’s “Satisfy me” with one English-Spanish tranlated line. Although the hour long show is depressingly filled with the hyperbolic “hot Latin” (Okay, Ricky Martin is indeed eye and ear candy) and filled with stereotypes, Santana plays the critical cultural reader and educates her defensive educator.

Santana [to Mr. Shu]: You went from La cucaracha to a bull fighting mariachi!  Why don’t you just dress up as the Taco Bell Chihuahua and bark the theme song to Dora the explorer?  You don’t even know enough to be embarrassed about these stereotypes that you’re perpetuating!

David Martinez  invoked Lorca’s concept of “duende” had me over the top with GLEE! Okay, so duende was given short shrift, quickly and mistakenly translated as dwarf and pawned off as  Ricky Martin’s sexual energy.  He explains duende through a bilingual performance of “I’m sexy and you know it”:

David Martinez:
Cuando hago mi entrada, this is what I see
Todo el mundo para pa’ mirarme a mí
I got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it, show it, show it,
show it.

I’m sexy and I know it
Soy sexy y lo sabes

Hey, checalo.
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle yeah (x4)

To the wiggle man, así menealo man yeah
Soy sexy y lo sabes.

Do I wish the show’s writers would have included some discussion of the term “duende” coined by Spanish civil war poet, Federico Garcia Lorca–you bet.  Lorca called the duende, “an emotive and poetic logic rather than a disembodied rational logic” (Hirsch, 1999, p. 13).  Duende’s etymological root comes from duen de casa [not dwarf!], “master of the house,” a house that is filled with emotion and death. I wrote in Teachers Act Up (p. 80): “Like the flamenco singer or bullfighter whose dark improvisational arts place them closer to death, duende allows one to succumb to mystery, and absorb its carnival of hunger, desire, sin, and sunlight.”  It’s NOT reduced to “passion in my pants.”

But we critical academics can’t remain all tied up in what isn’t all the time.  We must recognize the slow celebratory moments of cultural shift and laugh outloud when the show makes fun of a U.S. Adult Spanish student whose goal is to learn enough Spanish to say “Stop using my toilet to my maid” (hello, “The Help”).  The show illuminates U.S. Americans’ backwardness through great doses of humor and irony.  By the end, this same adult student is awarded “best conjugator” and gives thanks to her teacher:

Adult Spanish learner: Thank you Sr. Martinez. Thanks to you, Claudia knows now “to go” before she comes to work.

Oye (Yiddish groan not Mexican command “listen!”).

Mr. Shu is awarded “most improved” as he celebrates his fiancé getting the covetted “tenure track” position at the school and hands over his Spanish classroom to Ricky Martin.  Should I worry about the effect of this show, reinforcing Fox viewers’ understanding that diversity means the White English-only speaking guy (or woman–see the show’s take on Sue Sylvester) loses his credibility and his job to more qualified women and minorities? Or will viewers’ feel invited to sing along to bilingual lyrics by their favorite all American heros, gyrate their stiff hips to global Spanish rhythms, and rethink their attitudes towards cultural and linguistic knowledge.  Maybe it is important for English speaking Americans to take World Language & Spanish language education seriously?  English speaking Americans do great damage  to U.S. students’ future potential if they are “protected” from integrated schools, linguistic diversity, and the struggles inherent in learning different ways of being in a multicultural world.  And while we may be cultivating critical geniuses like Santana–at what price? We can’t hope that minority youth will trade in their anger and cynicism in light of ignorance and symbolic violence against cultural and linguistic “others.”  Until we pay more attention to world language education and -yes- history, we will never create learning environments that nurture respect, humility, inquisitiveness, and care.

In the meantime, who else saw the show?! Responses?!! LA Times blog on it, in case you’d like a  review of the various narratives.  Any other links to other “Gleeks” writing with loving criticism of the show?

One response to ““Glee” gets bilingual–sort of!

  1. Denise February 13, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Mr. Schu’s Message & The White Hero Narrative

    Misha, this is such a FABULOUS analysis of The Spanish Teacher! You give us so much to consider. I especially appreciate your positive view. This episode absolutely opens the door for English speaking Americans to take seriously World Language education and to consider the consequences of segregating children from ways of being in a global, multilingual society.

    I agree with your take on Mr. Schu’s message for his students and Fox viewers. Yes, despite his misinterpretation of David Martinez’ statement, Mr. Schu wants everyone to know that the US is not a monolingual country and that we must embrace this fact and prepare young people for the future.

    To have Mr. Schu deliver this message to viewers is important. As Sue Sylvester reminds Emma, Will is good/positive member of mainstream America; this is why Sue wants his sperm. Mr. Schu counters many of the oppressive/negative views of the dominant class that are often voiced by Sue in the show. He might even help some Fox viewers to suspend/overcome their disbelief about the importance of the Spanish language in the US through his own struggle to try to figure-out what’s true and to “do the right thing.”

    So, I LOVE the way Santana stands up to Mr. Schu and lets him know that he doesn’t know enough to recognize that he is perpetuating stereotypes! -Although he’s a good guy, Mr. Schu has A LOT to learn just like many other Americans!

    With Santana’s words in my head, the next scene in which Mr. Schu offers David Martinez his job looses a little steam for me – even though Mr. Schu comes to realize that his students deserve to learn from a teacher who has a passion for teaching Spanish.

    Dare I say… It is only because Mr. Schu plays the role of the White Hero that David Martinez is even afforded the opportunity of daytime work. Hero Schu lobbies Principal Figgins to hire the son of immigrants – immigrants who had to lie about their citizenship to obtain an education.

    I suspect that the GLEE writers may have been trying to make a political statement about current legislation that denies undocumented immigrants access to public education. This statement was not as polished as David Martinez’ teeth. 😉

    I am really curious about the writers’ decision to make David Martinez the son of Chilean immigrants.
    How would it have been received is he was, in fact, Mexican American or Puerto Rican like Ricky Martin himself? Is being from Chile more sexy and exotic? Does it permit Fox viewers to take a tourist’s stance that distances them enough to be voyeurs rather than members of the same national community? I’d like to tease this apart a little more.

    As for the musical selections, I was disappointed, too. I could not believe that Ricky Martin & Naya Rivera sang a duet of Madonna’s La Isla Bonita. –This is such a tourist song!

    I am actually surprised that Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba didn’t make the playlist. It might have appealed to viewers as a classic part of the American cannon of rock and roll music.

    That’s it for now, but I am still processing… On a different note, do you think that GLEE writers will reinforce that Santana’s dad is a doctor? (Santana mentions this in Britney Spears episode.) This could be very interesting.

    Thanks again, Mish for encouraging us to think more critically about GLEE and to recognize that one of American’s most favorite shows is thinking differently about linguistic and cultural literacy.


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