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Remembering The First Latino Oscar Winner: Speedy Gonzales

This day in age, American audiences are very familiar with an assortment of Latino stars. That wasn’t always the case. In the past, talented actors and singers of Hispanic descent made a concerted attempt at hiding their ethnicity and changing their names (case in point: Martin Sheen, whose real name is Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez) to appeal to white audiences. There was one person, however, who never changed his name, never compromised his heritage, and broke down the door that so many Hispanic actors have walked through. We, of course, are talking about Speedy Gonzales, the fastest mouse in all of Mexico.

Speedy first appeared in a 1955 Warner Bros. cartoon called, Speedy Gonzales. The plot involved the titular mouse outwitting Sylvester the Cat– or as Speedy calls him “El Gringo Pussygato”– in order to get some cheese. Speedy Gonzales won the 1955 Oscar for best animated short, making Speedy the first Hispanic character to win an Academy Award. Speedy would go on to star in 46 cartoon shorts for Warner Bros. Most of them involved Speedy doing battle with either Sylvester or Daffy Duck in order to save his fellow mice from their post-colonial oppression.

You might be saying, “Hold up,Tu Vez! Aren’t those cartoons totally racist?” And you know what, you would totally have a point! The mice are stereotypical sombrero-wearing Mexicans with ridiculous accents. In fact, if you listen to the Spanish in these clips, you’ll notice that they are speaking gibberish. So to draw parallels between the characterizations of Mexicans in these cartoons and the minstrel hijinks of Amos & Andy would be totally legit.

But, to play devil’s advocate here for one second, not everything about Speedy Gonzales was straight up wrong/evil. When we were growing up there was no Dora the Explorer. The only Hispanic character we saw on children’s TV was Speedy. To his benefit, he was portrayed as being much smarter than his American enemies. It’s hard to believe, but back in the 1950s Americans didn’t know a lot about Mexican culture. Mexican food was not widely available outside of the Southwest, and Mexican migration hadn’t reached the North. So, though it wasn’t the best representation of Mexico, at least it was some white dude wearing brownface. Much like African-Americans, we too have had to play stereotypical roles in order to break down the color barrier. There would be no Denzel Washington without Hattie McDaniel, just like there would be no Edward James Olmos or Benicio Del Toro without Speedy.

In 1999, Cartoon Network stopped airing the Speedy cartoons. Fans of the cartoons launched a massive campaign, backed by the League of Latin American Citizens, to get it back on the air. Finally, in 2002, Cartoon Network buckled and began airing the Speedy cartoons once again again. Speedy is still huge in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. If nothing else, you have to look at Speedy Gonzales as a cultural artifact. He represents a time when Hispanics were largely invisible in the media.

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