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When Aladdin was released in 1992, Arab-Americans were upset.
When Pocahontas was released in 1995, Native Americans were upset.
When Mulan was released in 1998, Turks and some Asian-Americans were upset.
Given its track record, it should be no surprise that Disney's plans for a live-action remake of Elia Kazan's 1952 film Viva Zapata!have drawn criticism from Latinos. It's just natural in a time when our country's education system is so fucked-up that people regard Disney flicks as historical documentaries.
But the point of contention this time is not with the portrayal of a culture but the casting of an actor. Disney has signed Spaniard Antonio Banderas to play the role of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. It's a character ripe with cinematic controversy: in Kazan's original film, Marlon Brando wore brown makeup in the title role, and the filmmaker who famously named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee depicted Zapata not as a revolutionary, but as an anti-communist warrior.
Picking Banderas seems progressive by comparison. At least a Spanish-speaking actor got the lead, and a truer depiction of Zapata can be expected now that the Cold War is over. But Disney's predictably star-struck choice has sparked calls for a boycott by the Mexica Movement, a self-described "indigenous-rights organization for people of Mexican and Central American descent."
Composed mostly of left-leaning Latino students from Southern California colleges, the Mexica Movement is somewhat akin to a brown beret-wearing Nation of Islam. Members of the segregationist identity group take Aztec surnames and consider any Latino who favors multiculturalism a vendido(sell-out). The group has promised to picket not Disney's low-profile Burbank headquarters, but rather world-famous Disneyland—every weekend "until this latest racism stops." As of press time, there had been only one protest, on March 10, by "a small group of people," according to a Disney official who requested anonymity.
The Mexica Movement fired off an e-mail on March 13 explaining that Disney had "confirmed that it has signed Antonio Banderas (a Spaniard, a European) to put on brown makeup in order to play Emiliano Zapata." The makeup reference is significant because the group claims Zapata was "himself a full-blooded Nahuatl-speaking Indigenous [capital "I" in original] person."
It's hard to know what's more ludicrous: Brando in brownface, Banderas in brownface, or the assertion that Banderas and Disney are racists for wanting to make a bankable movie about a Mexican revolutionary. The notion that Zapata was a "full-blooded, Nahautl-speaking Indigenous person" has no basis in the historical record about Zapata, who was born into a comfortable and influential rural clan in the central Mexican state of Morelos.
Although Zapata is rightfully remembered as a revolutionary hero, his actual deeds—like those of Che Guevara (a wealthy Argentinean who stumbled into revolutionary activity after touring South America on his motorcycle)—are frequently misrepresented. Yes, Zapata fought in the Mexican Revolution from 1911 up to his assassination in 1919. And yes, his aim was to expel foreign interests from Mexico and take power away from the wealthy hacendados that kept Mexico's citizens in poverty. And (note to Kazan) he believed in collectivism; between 1914 and 1915, Zapata set up in Morelos what Mexican intellectual Carlos Fuentes has described as the only successful socialist program in history.
If Zapata was more of a commie than Kazan would like to acknowledge, he was not nearly as radical as some progressives depict him. His vaunted Plan de Ayala, which people today mistake as his call to confiscate all the land from the rich, in reality called for the seizure of only one-third of the property of each hacienda owner. Even then, Zapata demanded that landowners be reimbursed for their losses—hardly robbing the rich to give to the poor.
More important, while he was—and still is—a hero among Mexico's landless Indians (many of whom still call themselves "Zapatistas" in his honor), Zapata himself was a true Mexican. Like most Mexicans —including the Mexica Movement's membership—Zapata was not an Indian, but a mestizo—a Mexican of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage. The giveaway is Zapata's most famous facial feature: his thick mustache. If you have traveled in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas or Guatemala, you've noted that Mesoamerica's pure-blooded indigenas grow barely any facial hair, let alone something like Zapata's famously drooping mustache. Like more than than 90 percent of all Mexicans today—rich and poor alike—there was a Spaniard in the Zapata family woodpile.
Can a Spanish protest of Viva Zapata!be far behind?