Evocation of an enigma

By Alfredo Prieto

Tin Tan: “So what do you think of wetbacks?”
Tin Tan: “So what do you think of wetbacks?”

I almost invariably associate the unmistakable name of German Genaro Cipriano Gomez Valdes Castillo, better known in the history of cinema as “Tin Tan” with certain Havana neighborhood cinemas that no longer exist. These were where children laughed, teens groped and old people snored.

However, Tin Tan – like the character Cantinflas, a campesino slum dweller in the 1920s – embraced an entire gilded epoch of Mexican cinema. He, also like Cantinflas, was in some way my first passport to Mexican life,” so overly flirtatious that I have never been able to completely understand it, despite my having been always fascinated with Mexico. This coyness is summarized in the famous Mexican folk song “a todos diles que sí, pero no les digas cuándo” (Tell all of them yes, but none of them when.)

But if Cantinflas (Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes) was by definition the incarnation of the pelao – an urban pariah, a champion of witticism and the absurd, like when he affirmed “life has truly momentary moments” – then German had the character of another urban figure: the pachuco [a Mexican-American “zoot suiting” youth of the 1930s and 40s]. He played this character for the first time on film based on his experience in northern towns and from his work as a tourist guide and English interpreter, jobs that he held during his formative years.

This signature role, dealt with by Octavio Paz in El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), is a hybrid product. In effect, the pachuco constitutes a character halfway between two cultural realities whose very marrow Paz himself summarized in this way: “He doesn’t want to return to his Mexican origin; nor – at least apparently – does he want to blend into American life. Everything in him is impulse that denies himself, a knot of contradictions, an enigma.”

If identity is also a peculiar form of transvestitism, then Tin Tan assumed like no one else, almost with premonition, that new frontier reality, typified in extravagant attire, the wide brim hat and feathers, the suit jacket with exaggerated lapels, two-tone shoes and the flamboyance.

All of this is frequently linked in his films to son and mambo music – that fusion of Cuban music with jazz, erroneously attributed to Damaso Perez Prado – and its slang expressions mixing Spanish with English (in what is today called “Spanglish” or “Inglenol”), such as in the famous line “No forgetees a tus relativos” that caused an uproar in the Mexico of its day for using poor English instead of the Spanish verb “olvidar.”

The "pachuco" constitutes a character halfway between two cultural realities.
The "pachuco" constitutes a character halfway between two cultural realities.

In Tin Tan in Havana, a 1953 movie in which he performs along with statuesque Rose Fornes, a Cuban vedette, he asks a blond gringa in a bar, “So what do you think of wetbacks?” – a question that over time would become one of the biggest problems facing Mexico, given the growing paranoia of the power circles on the other side of the Rio Bravo.

I can therefore subscribe to Carlos Monsivais’s statement: Tin Tan’s words made him the first great example of what he calls the “language of the undocumented”; but it is also said that he is “the first Mexican of the 21st century.”

I must admit that this last part drove me crazy, because with it, what people often want to denote is nothing other than the entry of the country into (post)modernity following the signing of NAFTA (which, as is known, up to now has caused more harm than good, according to local corn producers).

It is also the apology of biculturalism as a supposed superior civilizing category, a construct (which, by the way, has also been applied to Cubans through models such as Desi Arnaz, the Santiago de Cuba native on the popular 1950s television series I Love Lucy; and singer Gloria Estefan, from the epoch of the crossover music of the Miami Sound Machine).

Globalization selects its wild cards. Bicultural status is not an intellectual invention nor much less a perverse deed, but to use it as a measuring stick to disparage others is something that would not be subscribed to even by our very own German Genaro Cipriano Gomez Valdes Castillo, a Mexican who knew how to penetrate with his art a phenomenon that sociological studies in his time had hardly contemplated.