Peter Sollet’s 2002 movie “Raising Victor Vargas”, is a fascinating piece of cinematic work because it has the incredible ability to transport an audience member from the movie theatre and place him or her behind main character Victor, thus becoming an eye witness of his daily actions in the barrio. By taking this approach, Sollet gives the audience the opportunity to analyze the negotiation and construction of Dominican self-identification in the United States.
The movie is set in New York City’s Lower East Side and a majority of the main characters are members of the working class Vargas family. The head of the household is grandmother Anna Guzman, who is a first generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She has the responsibility to raise her three grandchildren named Victor, Vicki and Nino. Victor is a real ladies’ man and the central narrative of the movie revolves around his attempts to seduce popular neighborhood girl Judy Ramirez. His involvement with Judy is a desperate effort to rescue his reputation as Victor’s friends assume that he has slept with “Fat Donna.” Over the course of his seduction process, Victor gets both his brother and sister tangled up in his actions which makes raising victor vargas a mission impossible for his traditional grandmother.
Both the general audience and critics appreciate the movie. It faired well at the box office and it received many positive critical reviews, including one from popular Chicago-Sun Times critic Roger Ebert who gave it three and a half stars out of four. “Raising Victor Vargas” also won several prizes including the Grand Special Prize at Deauville Film Festival and the Made in Spanish award at San Sebastian International Film Festival. Reasons for its success may lie in the fact that it is not a typical teenage comedy, since it not merely touches upon teens’ experiences with relationships. It also raises issues concerning the search for an Dominican-American identity, the defining of race through language, the acceptance of generational tensions and the existence of cultural differences. All of these issues give a glimpse of how ethnic-racial identities are played out in New York City’s Lower East Side. By analyzing the construction of an ethnic-racial identity in “Raising Victor Vargas” by means of the previously listed topics, this paper will demonstrate how the existence of fluid identities encompasses feelings of inclusion and exclusion that are able to dominate lives within an urban minority community.
The academic discussion on identity construction in Latino communities in New York City mostly focuses on the existence of panethnicity among Latinos and how this affects integration into American society. According to scholars José Itzigsohn and Carlos Dore-Carbal, the existence of panethnicity “refers to the expansion of ethnic group boundaries to include different national or ethnic groups that share a common language, a common culture, or a common regional origin into an encompassing identity.” This panethnicity has been examined as a secondary identity that coexists with national identifications. In addition, the link between America’s racial classification system and panethnic identity has also been researched extensively. Overall, research has drawn the conclusion that separate racial and ethnic categories are able to construct panethnic identities, yet they can also create panethnic identities together.
These studies on panethnic identity are not without problems as several scholars, such as Douglas S. Massey in “Latinos, Poverty, and the Underclass: a New Agenda for Research”, have pointed out. One main point of critique is the notion that a panethnic identity combines peoples from different backgrounds, ultimately homogenizing a group of immigrants which is in fact very heterogeneous. Research done on identity construction among Dominicans in New York City suggest that they also fall under a process of panethnic identity formation. They continue to honor their national identity, yet they also embrace the Hispanic/Latino identity as a group identity. However, it is important to take into account that the number of studies done on Dominicans is very limited, as they seem to be overshadowed by other immigrant groups such as the Puerto Ricans and Cubans.
Dominican-American identity construction has a long history dating back to the United States led intervention in the Dominican civil war in 1965. From this moment onwards, flows of Dominican immigrants began to move towards the United States, resulting in immigration numbers jumping from 9.897 in the 1950s to 93.292 in the 1960s. The rise in numbers was aided by the fact that laws and regulations concerning Dominican migration were made more flexible by the American government to ease social tensions in the country. The first flow of immigrants mostly came from an urban-lower middle class background, thus preferred to settle in urban surroundings found in New York City. In the early 1980s, the economic situation on the island worsened which motivated Dominicans from all layers of society to migrate to the United States. Most of them entered the American job market as low wage manual laborers, but unemployment continued to prevail. This though economic position did not severely hurt the development of vibrant Dominican cultural life because it came to combine elements from American culture with Dominican culture. This was especially the case in New York City, which up until this day functions as the heart of the Dominican population in America. Furthermore, Dominicans continue to maintain a close relation with their homeland, a relation that successfully aids the economy of the Dominican Republic. However, within Dominican society itself, Dominican-Americans are frequently rejected and stigmatized, since Dominicans in the Dominican Republic feel that the immigrants have betrayed their roots. This is exemplified by local Dominicans calling immigrants “Dominicanyork”.
The social construction of racial differences in America and the Dominican Republic plays a large role in the lives of immigrants, something which will be discussed in more detail later on when analyzing Victor Vargas’s life. The Dominican Republic has a very detailed racial classification system based on nationality and color. This makes Dominicans able to look beyond Black and White. However, the American system makes a clear distinction between Black and White and the ‘one drop rule’ categorizes Dominican immigrants as Blacks, since they have Spanish-African origins. The categorization of being Black clearly separates Dominicans from other Latino groups such as Mexicans. Mexicans have more opportunities to negotiate their “Whiteness” due to the fact that many of them have lighter skin tones. Dominicans simply cannot negotiate their “Whiteness” as their phenotype is too similar to the African American one. This notion certainly affects Dominican-American identity construction as in search for an identity many young Dominican-Americans identify strongly with an African-American lifestyle, most noticeably the hip-hop lifestyle including hip-hop social codes and dress code. This is also the case with Victor Vargas and his friends. In addition, next to resemblances regarding phenotype, other reasons for this strong identification with African American culture lie in the fact that both groups share more or less the same political and economic position.
Victor’s connection to the African American hip-hop community is evident as his reputation as a ladies’ man is carefully choreographed according to hip-hop social codes. His friends call him a player and a playboy, a label which he wears with pride and tries to reestablish after his supposed encounter with “Fat Donna.” His identification with African-American hip-hop culture goes as far as copying the same dress style of baggy shorts with a tank top and flashy jewelry, while his hair is frequently combed into a nice afro. In this way, Victor constructs an identity based on American cultural elements, instead of honoring Dominican cultural elements. However, his identity will never be fully American or mainstream American since it is part of a racialized identity category which is constructed by mainstream American culture in order to function as an exclusion factor from typical Americanness.
Moreover, what makes Victor’s association with African-American culture especially apparent is his use of African American Vernacular English, a type of English associated with the African American community. Phrases such as “Hey whassup? How y’all doin.”, “You ain’t talkin’ to nobody, How you gonna stop me?.” and “You saw me bag how many bitches, they dimes.” are used with much confidence by Victor. Within his group of friends it is also accepted to call each other nigger, a word that his best friend Harold uses in the first minutes of the movie: “I can spot your fro from anywhere, nigga.” However, it is interesting to examine that Victor and his friends never copy African American Vernacular English in its entirety. Victor’s language also includes traces of Spanish which is the national language of the Dominican Republic. Examples of this are: “Papi chulo” right there, that’s me, of course”, “She is loca, shut up!” and “Oh, thank you. “Muchas gracias.” Thanks.” This mix of African American Vernacular English with traces of Spanish shows how language is able to define race for Victor. He shows that he is able to speak Spanish which emphasizes that he cannot be considered as being fully Black. In other words, Spanish is used as a marker to exclude Victor from African-Americanness or Blackness. One could suggest that Victor’s use of language is a form of resistance to America’s strict racial categories’, yet it is doubtful that Victor himself realizes this. More importantly, however, is that through his use of various language varieties, Victor is able to highlight the Dominican and American facets of his Dominican-American identity. His fluent English language skills include him in the identity construction of an American and his Spanish skills include him in the identity construction of a Dominican. This whole notion seems to bypass Victor to some extent as the movie never makes the main characters analyze their language use, yet it defiantly becomes apparent that Victor appreciates his male Hispanic identity based on the Spanish language by him asking at one point whether “You wanna be a “papi chulo” or “papi ferro?.” He stresses “papi chulo” which literally means attractive man in Spanish, but probably meaning “pimp” within the context of the Dominican community. Although no official translation can be found, “papi ferro” most likely relates to a man who is loyal to one girl which Victor and his friends seem to consider to be sad behavior. On the whole, Victor’s language use complies with research done on language and the construction of identity among Dominican Americans, more specifically research done by Benjamin Bailey.
To summarize, Victor’s phenotype, English language skills and style of dress categorize him in the African-American category, but his knowledge of Spanish marks his Hispanic identity. This shows how racial identities are never fixed, as they change through local situated contexts. Contexts in which the use of language plays an essential role. In addition, this change of contexts can bring about feelings of loneliness and exclusion, because it is almost impossible for persons such as Victor to fit into mainstream American culture, hence feeling excluded from it. However, the use of own social codes, dress codes and language is able to make people feel accepted within their own tight knit community, because Victor seems to feel comfortable within his group of friends living in the same neighborhood.
Generational differences between immigrants in relation to identity construction is also a topic that is raised within the movie and it is also something which is able to produce feelings of inclusion and exclusion within American society. Victor’s grandmother is a traditional Dominican woman who adheres to values and traditions present in the Dominican Republic. She is very protective of her grandchildren and a devout Catholic. She considers the world in the barrio as being rotten and able to infect her family with all the wrong values. Something that she frequently makes clear to Victor by addressing his loose morale concerning his relationships with different girls. In the first act, she even calls him a ‘gigolo’, relating back to her husband who was according to her “the first gigolo.” Grandma’s patience with her grandchildren is slowly running out as she helplessly states, after a quarrel: Oh, my God. What kind of kids are you?” Thus, making clear that she cannot understand the children’s actions anymore consequently also concluding that she feels distanced from the American world her grandchildren are growing up in.
In the third act of the movie, the grandmother becomes so desperate that she calls upon social services in order to take over the upbringing of her grandchildren. It is exactly this moment where here Dominican background clearly becomes intertwined with her American surroundings, thereby allowing her to reaccept her presence within American society. In Mrs. Guzman’s dialogue with the social service employee, she answers questions concerning her name and birth place. She states with pride that her name is Anna Guzman, but that she prefers to be called ‘Tatika’ and that she was born in the Dominican Republic. However, after this last question she quickly ads the line: “But I live in the United States for many, many years. I believe I am American.” This addition labels Mrs. Guzman as being a Dominican-American, as she acknowledges her Dominican roots within an American context. Nevertheless, despite her acceptance of the American context, her traditional values continue to clash with the American system as social services cannot do anything for her since Victor has not technically done something wrong. Overall, her traditional values do not necessarily limit her Americanness, but they do mark her feelings of inclusion and exclusion within American society. Moreover, her traditional values put Victor in a difficult position.
Throughout the movie it becomes clear that Victor is trapped between different worlds, consequently trying to balance his identities leading to feelings of inclusion and exclusion. As Robert E. Park would state: Victor is a man “on the margin of two cultures and two societies.” First of all, he feels that he has to honor his father’s background, more specifically his macho manners. Victor states that his father has had many wives “like four or five”, therefore also leading to the existence of many half-brothers as he continues by saying: “How many half-brothers we have? A lot.” He explains his father’s behavior by stating that his manners are like an instinct, because “it runs in our blood”, namely “in the ‘sangre.” Therefore, suggesting that a Dominican man is born with capable ‘gigolo’ abilities which cannot be changed easily. The whole notion that it runs in one’s blood seems to relate back to the idea stating that acquired characteristics are biologically inherited, more specifically also linking back to the differences between consent and descent as explained by Werner Sollors in his Theories of Ethnicity. Victor probably wants to be a fully accepted mainstream American, yet his descent limits this. Relating back to Victor’s father’s background, Victor is trapped between accepting his father’s supposedly inherited gigolo abilities and rejecting them in order to fit better within American society, because mainstream culture rejects infidelity. This constant switching between loyalties and identities may make Victor feel as if he is stuck between two worlds.
Not much is known about Victor’s mother, as she is only mentioned with regards to the disappearance of Victor’s sister’s father: “My sister’s father, we don’t know where he’s at”, as Victor factually states, without being judgmental. This piece of dialogue together with the piece on Victor’s father explains to the audience that Victor to some extent continues to honor his father’s infidelity, even though it clashes with his grandmother’s traditional values. This makes his home situation very tense as he switches between his streetwise identity to his identity as a grandchild of an elderly Dominican woman. The change of identities is exemplified by a short scene in which Victor and his sister listen to their brother playing the piano. The grandmother is smitten with Victor’s younger brother, as she lets him promise to always be there to play the piano for her. Victor’s reaction to this is a mere shrug of his shoulders, suggesting that he feels distanced from his grandmother’s ways. This distance suggests that Victor is becoming more focused on his individual self, instead of on the family, something that is also frequently made clear by the grandmother who states: “Do you promise me to be a family again?.” The idea of being a good family is a very important issue within the Hispanic community. Family supports you and kinship networks are valuable for success in life. However, in most cases immigration to the United States often changes family dynamics as American life is much more centered on the individual. A transition that dates back to the early beginnings of immigration to the United States. Immigrant peasants preferred to act as individuals instead of reestablishing traditional communal units in America. On the whole, Victor is also someone who prefers to act as an individual instead of focusing on communal units consequently excluding his family from his life, hence also acting more American than other family members.
To conclude, Victor is a good example of a person with immigrant roots who is adapting to the needs of his own society and not the needs of the society of his ancestors. This creates tensions, as Victor has become more American in thinking than his grandmother. These tensions exclude him from traditional Dominican family life, but they also do not immediately include him into traditional American life. This produces a feeling of exclusion and this feeling is probably what motivated Victor, his friends and other inhabitants of the Dominican community in New York City to create a whole new identity. An identity connected to the African American hip-hop lifestyle, using both the English and Spanish language and setting up own social codes, thereby creating a feeling of inclusion within ones own group of third generation immigrants. As a result, it can be concluded that feelings of inclusion and exclusion go hand in hand in the construction of an identity in the barrio.
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