It would be great if all of us would unite behind the goal of creating better conditions of life for all species on this planet. But in this political moment, it’s more expedient for black and brown people to band together ideologically. I am using the terms “black” and “brown” fully aware that these categories are insufficient. They amount to partial and emotional approximations to social groups which are not monolithic but have been defined historically in the U.S. by discriminatory laws, color-based prejudice, and the ethnocentric ignorance of the racial majority.
Currently in this country, the balance of power is being vigorously contested by conservative forces, not afraid to engage hostility towards their political opponents, people of color, women, and LGBTQ+. Those in positions of power and their rank-and-file do not look kindly on turning it over or letting others take their turn at solving society’s problems. Black and brown, people of color, know this only too well because we share similar scars of oppression and strategies for survival.
African Americans and Latino Americans could benefit from banding together in certain areas of social life. And laughter can play a crucial role in achieving or fostering the goal of unity. Laughter is a great spiritual resource and a powerful linguistic-cultural device that can help us overcome miscommunication, learn a little bit more about each other’s language, and, most importantly, heal some of our pain.
There are a handful of African American and Latinx comics who excel at incorporating each other’s idioms, accents, or idiosyncrasies. In this regard, I am delighted by the wonderfully promising work of Dominican American comic Vladimir Caamaño, recently featured on the Jimmy Kimmel Show.
In his set, he tells the funny story of a black woman in front of an ATM in the hood endearingly soothing the pain of this young Latino brother who realizes that he has a negative account balance. These comics are doing more for the empowerment of people of color than a lot of activists and politicians.
Another excellent illustration of the power of laughter to liberate us from prejudice and stereotypes, to strengthen and unite, is stand-up comedian Aries Spears’ hilarious and poignant bit “Immigrant at Popeye’s.” It is about managing miscommunication while having respect and sympathy for one another’s struggle.
Aries Spears is an African American comedian, a master of impressions who writes his own material. In his comedy special, he tells the story of a service encounter at Popeye’s. Aries goes on to describe the long and challenging process of trying to place an order with “Jorge,” someone who systematically mispronounces everything, reproducing in English (as his second language) the sounds of his first language (Spanish), thus leading to a great deal of lexical confusion.
He begins with the set-up of the jokes, trying to hook the audience with the nativist ideological rant of “If you’re gonna come to this country, I got one rule: learn how to speak fucking English.” To which the largely black audience predictably reacts with vigorous clapping and approval.
At first, Aries mistakes the man’s pronunciation of “the spicy or the mild” for “the spicy or the mayo.” He goes on to narrate the rest of the encounter in which almost every English word has strong Spanish accent which makes the English word sound like something other than the target or intended word. There’s some berating, self-explaining, and a bit of stereotyping, but mostly, hilarity ensues. Together, they manage to maintain the difficult conversation by never dismissing one another, continuing their search for common ground, endlessly decoding words, and approximating meaning. At the end, Aries is not only able to select, order, and receive all his food items successfully but he also ends up adopting, embracing, the man’s accent: “tell me about your [jiuses].”
This bit works, first of all, because it is funny but also because it is ideologically edifying. It points to the great political potential that exists in grasping and embracing linguistic difference among social groups that have been historically oppressed and marginalized by colonialism and racism. It is also exemplary because it illustrates by the play on foreign accents how learning another language is key to gaining knowledge and achieving cooperation.
The desire to understand one another necessitates learning and embracing one another’s language. Comedians, generally speaking, are very good at exploiting the benefits of linguistic contact zones. We, language educators, have a harder time selling these benefits to our students and universities.
I’ve been using laughter as a metaphor but one that has serious social and ideological implications. Although a culture-specific thing, humor has deep philosophical meaning and liberating potential. In a time of repression and terror during the Stalin regime, the Russian philosopher of language Mikhail Bakhtin wrote: “laughter could never become an instrument to oppress and blind the people. It always [remains] a free weapon in their hands.” Black and brown should unite behind the power of laughter, even while we work to find common ground with others and improve the conditions of life for all.
Juan R. Valdez was born in Santo Domingo and raised in the Bronx. He is an independent scholar, the author of Tracing Dominican Identity: The Writings of Pedro Henriquez Ureña, and a huge fan of comedy and laughter.
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