“This is the face of an American.”
Entertainment isn’t enough. A crowd-pleaser won’t do. But that’s ultimately what On Your Feet! is: an entertaining crowd-pleaser, with only superficial nods at real social issues; issues that are currently essential, yes, but issues that felt integral to Gloria Estefan’s experience. Why were they elided?
The American Dream is such a powerful hegemonic weapon that it’s easy for us all to forget that we’ve internalized it as universal truth, so that when we see it played out in art and entertainment, we take it in stride. It isn’t unusual. It doesn’t register as weird or impossible. It’s simply there, an inevitability. An earned destiny. A testament to matter-of-fact national character. America isn’t just the land of opportunity, it’s the land of opportunity fulfilled. Of success. Of advantage accepted and optimized. By anyone who tries. That is, by anyone with a strong enough will. Yet it’s presented (and represented) as a personal investment without risk: the pay-off is a guarantee built into your first step forward. Try. Endure. Succeed. Happiness is yours if you want it.
Who doesn’t want to believe this? Who can avoid not believing it? It’s an American inheritance, naturalized by birthright citizenship, but also extended globally. It’s sold to all unconditionally, so that when conditions preclude participation in its promise, those people have only themselves to blame. The American Dream never said no to them; they said no to the Dream. They didn’t want it badly enough.
How did Gloria and Emilio Estefan succeed? The musical about their journey would have you believe this comforting idea: willpower. Sexism and racism are pathetic foes against the divine force of individuals possessed by the Dream. If you live the Dream, you’re unstoppable.
But…is that it? You just wish really hard upon a star? Or you’re just so damn charming and humble (see: quirky Latin American stereotypes) that nothing would dare get in your way? This is a convenient story to sell to white audiences, which is the implicit hegemonic assumption any artist makes when they create. We all cater to Whiteness. Not intentionally, of course. That’s the unsettling part of it. But it is our culture’s God. We sacrifice everything in its name. It is Whiteness that gets to live the Dream. In turn, we all live as though we’re White, but, of course, we all don’t get rewarded in kind because we’re not.
That’s the great trick of the Dream. It convinces us all that we’re something we’re not, and when we have to confront the impossibility of the identity we gave our lives to – not through anything we did or could ever do – we are forced to accept the blame. It’s our fault we’re not White, which gets mistranslated as, it’s our fault we didn’t work hard enough. This false equivalency, Whiteness as Faith, as Effort, is America’s hidden engine, the Wizard behind the curtain. Oz was designed to keep you at a safe distance from its treasures, and if you get too close to it, to send you back home where you belong and to convince you that that’s what you really
wanted needed. “There’s no place like home,” i.e. there’s no place like wherever I was born. My end is my beginning; I must have been born here for a reason. Oz looks like it’s there in the distance, within reach, but it’s always in the rearview mirror, and your car is broken.
(And now so are these analogies.)
So what am I problematizing here? Nothing new, folks. Just a reminder that I want to dream and have hope too. And for me, a cruel beacon of privilege, my conditioned desires can pay off. I can stop my thinking there, settle nicely into the cushion of a cultural tale of eternal striving and triumph. “But Gloria and Emilio made it,” you might say, thinking it’s an argument for the Dream’s reality. Exceptions confirm the rule; we keep viewing them as harbingers of new rules.
Gloria and Emilio’s real struggles were gobbled up the Dream’s saving graces, and we only experience their victories so that at the end, we can stand and cheer. They bring us to our feet. But what about the people outside the theater, away from the spectacle of it all, stuck in a black and white world; the people who aren’t able to rise, who can’t get on their feet because they were never given feet on which to stand and move?