May 12, 2006

Mock Spanish or Mock Mock Spanish?

When the news broke that Cingular Wireless had revoked a cell-phone ringtone featuring Mock Spanish in a poorly conceived joke about border-crossing, I rattled off a post that suspected "racist intent" at work behind the ringtone (which had already drawn the ire of Latino advocacy groups). The post was based on early reports filed before anyone had investigated the origin of the offending ringtone, in which the Southern-sounding voice of an agent for "La Migra" (the Border Patrol) says, "I repeat-o, put the oranges down and step away from the telephone-o. I'm deporting you back home-o." Now we know more about the source of the ringtone, and the details not only undermine some of my initial assumptions but also raise a whole new set of questions to ponder.

The AP has reported that the "Migra" ringtone was the work of Mexican-American comic Paul Saucido. The company that developed the ringtone, Barrio Mobile, has apologized but has said that it was intended as a work of satire. A spokesman for the ringtone's distributor is quoted as saying of Saucido, "His position is that people of Hispanic background need to maintain a sense of humor about the immigration situation."

An interview with Saucido on Gearlog provides some further insight:

The ringtone, "La Migra Alert," is Saucido pretending to be an immigration official with a really bad fake Southern accent, saying, "I'm deporting you back home-o."
The character came from a brainstorming session between him and a few other Latino comedians, Saucido said, citing Dave Chapelle and Carlos Mencia among his comedic influences.
"It was inspired by other comedians who riff on the same stereotype of the immigration officer ... you know how people try to phonetically speak when they talk down to you, like, 'where is the bathroom-o?'" he said.
The ringtone came as part of a package of comic ringtone characters developed by Saucido, including a hovering, novela-obsessed Mexican mom, a Mexican dad, and a "barrio kid" who would say "I can't make it to the phone right now, I'm busy rotating the tires on my low-rider." All of Saucido's ringtones have been removed by Cingular, he says.
"I think because of the times, right now people are a little extra sensitive [about immigration issues,]" he said. "I'm sensitive to this issue! But people obviously leave their senses of humor behind when they get so much fever in them. I thought the Migra character was the last character that would get that kind of reaction."
Saucido says there's "absolutely" room for edgy comedy in the ringtone world.
"I've played it for all my friends and they love them - they're waiting for them to be sold, and they're like, where can we buy them?" he said. "These companies have got to have some backbone to say we bought this content, we believe in it, and we're not going to get rid of it just because the first advocacy group calls racism. Dude, everyone that produced them and worked for them - we're all Mexican!"

Satire's a very tricky thing, and context is key. If Saucido had presented the Mock Spanish of the "Migra" character in the context of a standup routine, his audience would be prepared to hear lines like "I'm deporting you back home-o" as the work of a Latino comic parodying "how people try to phonetically speak when they talk down to you" — Mock Mock Spanish, if you will. But the discursive frame of a cell-phone ringtone is wildly different from a standup act. Saucido's voice was recorded, disembodied from the original context of utterance, and commodified in the form of a downloadable audio file (Cingular ringtones cost $2.49 a pop). And the joke was further decontextualized in news reports about the controversy — especially since the ringtone had already been pulled from the Cingular site, leaving accounts in the print media as the only representations of the original routine. Despite the comedian's amazement at the backlash against the ringtone, it's not too surprising that the radical recontextualization of Saucido's work would lead many observers (including me) to miss the intended satire completely.

Saucido's original bit relied crucially on its own type of recontextualization: it took the condescending use of Mock Spanish by immigration officials and reframed it as satirical social commentary through the mimicry of standup comedy. But the misinterpretation of the joke once it was let loose on the world as a downloadable ringtone only demonstrates the unpredictable effects of recontextualization (and re-recontextualization, and re-re-re...), particularly in a highly charged political atmosphere as we currently find surrounding the issues of immigration and Spanish language use in the United States. Po-mo types talk about these pragmatic pitfalls in Derridean terms like "iterability" and "citationality" (see, for instance, the work of Judith Butler, who has written extensively on the difficulties of reining in "subversive resignification"). Whatever one's theoretical outlook, the controversy over the "Migra" ringtone would make a fascinating case study in misconstrued speech acts and failed performativity.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 12, 2006 01:11 AM