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Journal of Hispanic Policy

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

A Review of The Riddle of Cantinflas: Essays on Hispanic Popular Culture, Revised and Expanded Edition By Ilan Stavans

The Riddle of Cantinflas is a thick, colorful knot of essays–essays that map where intellectual and immigrant intersect. If readers focus on this junction and avoid searching for kitsch, the book enlightens.

Stavans claims “kitsch,” an infatuation and reproduction of the past, explains the chaotic pin board beauty of Hispanic culture. For Stavans, Hispanic culture is a copy of a copy.

In the preface to Riddle of Cantinflas, Stavans makes his case for this simulacrum society, swinging through a maze of Spanish and Latin American history to prove his point. However, the thread of kitsch in his essays is as thin as a burnt corn tortilla. The trouble begins when Stavans warns the reader to “beware of looking for sequence and cohesiveness” in his essays. He even advises against looking for some sort of conclusion. This left me confused. If kitsch explains Hispanic culture according to Stavans, why shouldn’t I look for this theme in his articles? At times his essays, often sprawling and itinerant, failed to connect with kitsch at all.

But this book is more than kitsch. Many essays plunge lucha libre style into rascuache, a term Stavans uses for popular and organic Hispanic culture. Stavans uses all his fingers to untangle rascuache with poetic and academic engrossment, “sketching” sense and significance into everything from the colorful pastel cards of lotería, to the rags and rakishness of Cantinflas. The essay on Cantinflas, the Mexican movie star from the mid-twentieth century, captivated me. Stavans believes Cantinflas served as a “Mexican collective self”, acting as therapy for a country in hurried transition from an agrarian to industrialized nation. Similarly, he argues the confusion Cantinflas’ caused was symbolic. Stavans claims Cantinflas’ pun-filled promenades, the actor’s verbal strolls that always ended in confusion, exposed the growing communication gap between Mexican classes. Some of Stavans’ other rascuache explorations include El Sup’s role in Chiapas and José Guadalupe Posada’s street art. For Stavans, the super glue of rascuache is that it is subversive, honest, and a product of a labyrinthine history and culture; a culture that must be cherished, not relegated by a dominant art intelligentsia.

Stavans’ recent essays on society slosh through the bog of the immigration debate. In Mother of Exiles he deconstructs the message and significance of the Statue of Liberty. In A Dream Act Deferred, he explores one undocumented student’s rise to a PhD in America and their ultimate immigration to Canada. Finally, in Immigration and Authenticity he reflects on the significance of dominant cultural expectations, both in biblical history and modern immigration (e.g., camels in the Bible, sombreros for Mexican immigrants).

This book is an Olympic-sized swimming pool of thoughts, stretching with depth, meandering from street art, to Sandra Cisneros, to Latino civility. It would be difficult to find a book on Hispanic culture that extends itself so far, with so few pages, to create such an elegant and colorful dialogue.

Stepping back, letting go, and appreciating this dialogue took time. When I began the book, I felt frustrated as I looked for a billboard-sized takeaway for the Hispanic experience. But I did my best to heed the author’s advice: forget about coherence, consistency, or an answer. Who could possibly explain Latino culture in fourteen essays? When I finally dropped the compulsion to search and connect, I began to understand Ilan Stavans’ experience as an immigrant, his perception of the world, and his profound scholarship. Stavans’ book became a skeleton key, opening small hidden doors into the complicated world of Hispanic culture. Stavans doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but he wants to let you in on the conversation, pulling out a chair, welcoming you, asking you to play lotería. When I let go of the search, a theme in Hispanic literature, Stavans treated me with an engaging pastiche that did the impossible: contextualize Hispanic culture.

On the other hand, I found it difficult to follow the haphazard structure of the book. The essays range from academic discourse, to colloquial interview, from poetic digressions, to historic inquiries. Readers may feel overwhelmed as they hop from one essay genre to another. Similarly, in some essays Stavans’ mental perambulations (while interesting) detracted from the thesis of the piece. Finally, while each essay was soaked with knowledge, I sometimes felt the pieces on immigration wobbled from succinct poetic prose, aligning every atom of readership in me, to stilted inflammatory accusations. One example was when he contrasted modern Latin American immigration with immigration in the past. He suggested “Big Brother” greets modern immigrants while nineteenth century European immigrants were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, a symbol created to mirror them. On the contrary, many believe Lady Liberty was simply modeled after Charlotte, the sculptor’s mother.

Like many essay collections, greatness and verbosity arm-wrestled throughout the book, but anyone interested in Hispanic culture should read this collection. When I read this book that chronicled Stavans’ thoughts over the past twenty-two years, I felt I was watching a microcosm of Hispanic culture unfurl at light speed. Perhaps this is the best way to explore Hispanic culture. While the obliqueness of his essays and the inconsistency of the book’s structure sometimes felt chaotic, ultimately the ineffable completeness I felt after finishing the book made it a treasured read. For those looking to explore Hispanic culture or connect with someone who made a life of this exploration, consider The Riddle of Cantinflas your primer.


Ilan Stavans, The Riddle of Cantinflas: Essays on Hispanic Popular Culture, Revised and Expanded Edition  (New Mexico: New Mexico University Press, 2012), Nook edition