Macho Camacho’s Beat
Macho Camacho’s Beat
by Luis Rafael Sánchez
THE LITERARY WORK
The novel intertwines vignettes about several characters from different social classes with the voice of a disc jockey who reminds readers about the popularity of a new guaracha tune by musician Macho Camacho, the main refrain of which is “Life is a Phenomenal Thing.” The vignettes take place simultaneously on a Wednesday afternoon around 5:00 p.m. during a traffic jam in which two of the main characters are trapped.
Luis Rafael Sánchez was born on November 17, 1936, in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Sánchez spent his childhood in Humacao and his adolescence and youth in San Juan. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico and a master’s degree from New York University, Sánchez went to Spain where he obtained his Ph.D. from the Complutense University of Madrid. Having established himself as one of Puerto Rico’s most prominent intellectuals and successful playwrights during the 1960s and 1970s, Sánchez first ventured into novels with Macho Camacho’s Beat, which breaks away from earlier Puerto Rican texts in its experimental form and exploration of the island’s sociopolitical conflicts. It achieves this largely through a focus on the role of mass media (radio, cinema, television, advertisements) and on the plurality and instability of language (Spanish, English, local Spanglish) in everyday Puerto Rican life.
A short history of colonialism in Puerto Rico
In 1493, during his second journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico—then called Borikén by its native Taino Indian inhabitants—for the Spanish empire. Like most of the rest of Latin America, Puerto Rico underwent processes of conquest and colonization that included the exploitation of its natural resources, the extinction of its native inhabitants, and the importation of African slaves to replace the extinct natives.
Many of the national and cultural characteristics of today’s Puerto Rico emerged during the four centuries of Spanish domination (1493-1898). Although some of these characteristics can be seen as Spain’s exclusive legacy (e.g., the Spanish language and the predominance of Catholicism), it is crucial to remember that they are part of a hybridization process involving the various cultures that converged on the island during this period—primarily, but not exclusively, the African, the Spanish, and to a lesser degree the Taino cultures. After the extinction of the Indians, the concept that Spaniards and other whites were superior continued to dominate the island, as manifested in the racism towards African slaves or dark-skinned citizens, and in the “official” culture’s contempt for African traditions.
The year 1898 marked a shift in Puerto Rico’s status as a colony. This shift, however, did not signify the independence of the island; it represented only a change in the colonizing power. As a result of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico—along with Guam, the Philippines, and, until 1902, Cuba—became a colonial territory of the United States. Once more Puerto Rico’s social, political, and economic structures were transformed, this time to accommodate the exigencies of the United States.
After Puerto Ricans had lived for almost two years under a military government, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, which instituted a civil government in Puerto Rico. This act allowed Puerto Ricans to elect a resident commissioner, who would represent their interests in the United States; in 1904 this commissioner became a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1902 the Official Languages Act stated that both English and Spanish could be used as official languages in all official and public activities.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. military bastion: the most prominent U.S. military bases in the Caribbean were established on the island because of its strategic geographic location. In 1917, in view of the possibility that it would be participating in World War I, the United States granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship through the Jones Act. This maneuver made it possible for the United States to draft Puerto Rican islanders into the U.S. military. The Jones Act also changed Puerto Rico’s governmental structure, introducing the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. While the governor and other official functionaries would be named by the U.S. president, Puerto Ricans had the right to choose those who were to belong to two newly created legislative bodies: the Senate (19 elected members) and the House of Representatives (39 elected members). The Jones Act did not make any mention of the island’s political status.
In the 1940s and 1950s Puerto Ricans migrated in massive numbers to the continental United States in an attempt to improve their economic situation; over 100,000 made their way to the mainland from 1950 to 1954, when there was a high demand for labor and too few hands because of U.S. involvement in the Korean War. Back in Puerto Rico manufacturing surpassed agriculture as the main source of income in 1955. Prompting this pivotal change was an industrial and social development program known as “Operation Bootstrap,” which provided special tax breaks to commercial companies from the United States who wanted to relocate in Puerto Rico, and attracted small, labor-intensive industries to the island. This rapid industrialization led to rapid urbanization, which, in turn, encouraged the adoption of a city-oriented lifestyle. With it came an increasing focus on consumerism. Because there was an insufficient number of jobs to absorb the working-age population, the rural-to-urban shift led also to widespread unemployment on the island.
Related to Operation Bootstrap was Puerto Rico’s controversial political status. Ultimately the controversy would surround three positions: should Puerto Rico become independent of the United States, assume the status of statehood within the United States, or have an in-between status? Political events of the late 1940s and early ‘50s showed an increase in autonomy for Puerto Rico:
1946: Puerto Rico has its first native governor, Jesús T. Pinero, who is nevertheless appointed by the U.S. president.
1947: Through a special amendment to the Jones Act approved by the U.S. Congress, Puerto Ricans are allowed to choose their own governor.
1948: Luis Muñoz Marín (1898-1980) becomes the island’s first elected governor and inaugurates the Operation Bootstrap program; he will remain in office until 1964. 1950: The U.S. Congress approves Law 600, which authorizes Puerto Ricans to be governed by their own constitution, which still had to be submitted to the U.S. president and Congress for approval.
1951: A referendum demonstrates Puerto Ricans’ acceptance of Law 600, which also establishes Puerto Rico’s status as an associate territory of the United States.
1952: The Puerto Rican Constitution is approved. It ratifies the separation of the three governmental branches and expands the numbers in the Senate (from 19 to 27) and House of Representatives (from 31 to 51). Puerto Rico’s governor now has the right to select the heads of all the island’s departments, which increases autonomy from the United States.
The island continued in the 1950s and 1960s to experience rapid industrialization and urbanization. Puerto Rico’s economic development up until today—through North American investment, tourism, and U.S. federal aid—has consolidated the island as a consumerist society, and makes it the “promised land of opportunities” for other Caribbean islanders, like Haitians and Dominicans, whose countries are in less advantageous economic situations and whose citizens end up illegally migrating to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico in the late 1960s and early 1970s
The end of the 1960s marked another pivotal turn of events in Puerto Rico’s history. A plebiscite to decide the island’s status—independence, statehood, or commonwealth—took place in 1967. In the end, the majority (60.5 percent) of the island opted to remain a commonwealth. In 1968 Puerto Rico’s first pro-statehood governor, Luis A. Ferré, was elected. While in office, Ferré openly condemned any group that was not politically aligned with a pro-U.S. ideology—in other words, any group that favored independence. The islanders continue to show a preference for remaining a commonwealth, most recently in a plebiscite of December 1998.
Student movements at Puerto Rico’s universities have long been connected to, though not exclusively determined by, pro-independence ideals. The desire for political and cultural autonomy from the United States has found its way into the many demonstrations staged at Puerto Rican universities. In 1948 students’ rights to engage in political activities at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) were suspended because of disturbances that occurred after university officials banned a campus speech by Pedro Albizu Campos, one of Puerto Rico’s most important nationalist leaders (Trillin, p. 124). The suspension of these rights remained in force until 1970.
By the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the majority of students at the various UPR campuses (as well as at other private universities and community colleges) had organized to protest U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the mandatory draft of Puerto Rican youth for this unpopular war, and the presence of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) on UPR campuses. One of the more vocal groups in these demonstrations was the FUPI or Federación Universitaria Pro-Independencia (Pro-Independence University Federation), which had been created in 1956. At the UPR’s main campus, which is located in Río Piedras, part of San Juan’s larger metropolitan area, the student movement’s main center of activity during this time had movedfrom the College of Humanities to the College of Social Sciences—hence, the reference in Macho Camacho’s Beat both to the FUPI and a bombing in this part of the Río Piedras campus (Trillin, p. 124).
DEFINING THE COMMONWEALTH
As a commonwealth Puerto Rico retains control of its internal affairs, in which the United States may not intervene. It is exempt from U.S. tax laws but has only limited representation in Congress* Puerto Rico does not have a representative in the U.S. Senate and, while it sends a Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives, this commissioner does not enjoy full voting privileges. Similarly Puerto Ricans themselves do not have full voting privileges in U.S. elections; they can vote in national party primary elections but not in presidential elections. Executive power in Puerto Rico resides in its governor, who is elected for four years, and rules with the help of a cabinet of 17 appointed secretaries and Puerto Rico’s two-house legislature.
In 1970 a total of 2,712,022 people inhabited the 3,435 square miles that constitute the island of Puerto Rico. This figure would go up almost 18 percent during the next decade (to 3,196,520 inhabitants). By 1970 more Puerto Ricans lived in urban areas than in rural ones. As the 1980 census indicated, 67 percent of the population, or 2 of every 3 people, lived in cities (Silvestrini and Lu que de Sánchez, p. 580). The rapid industrialization that took place after the 1950s, the decay of agriculture, and the high unemployment rate in the interior of the island explain much of the rural-urban migration. Unfortunately in many cases such migration did not lead to economic progress. The lack of employment and material alternatives in the cities as well as the emphasis that urban life placed on consumerism and the use of imported products (by 1980 the total amount of money spent on imported products was $2,450 million out of which $300 million was spent on cars and $1,041 million on food) accelerated the growth of slums and other areas of extreme poverty (Silvestrini and Luque de Sánchez, pp. 582, 586-87). By the early 1970s close to half of all city houses were new structures (built since 1960) and equipped with conveniences such as electricity, refrigerators, and indoor toilets, although only about 33 percent of the homes in cities had telephones at this point. Making up about 10 percent of the population, middle-and upper-class members earned $10,000 or more a year. Meanwhile, close to another half of the homes in Puerto Rico were substandard dwellings, and 42 percent of the island’s families earned less than $3,000 a year (Wagenheim, p. 177). Such families would rent shacks in one of the slum areas for about $23 a month. “Despite poverty and high levels of violence,” notes one historian, “the general mood in [the slum] La Perla is one of gaiety. There is constant noise from radios, jukeboxes, and television sets” (Wa-genheim, p. 179).
Popular culture and mass media in Puerto Rico
Macho Camacho’s Beat explores the role of popular culture in everyday life and the pervasiveness of mass media in Puerto Rican society. The novel constantly refers to cultural phenomena, such as the fictional guaracha of Macho Camacho as well as “real” television shows (El hijo de Ángela Maña, El Show de Ms Chacón), actors (Bette Davis, Libertad Lamarque, Madeline Willemsen), singers (Tom Jones, Juan Manuel Serrât, Danny Rivera), newspapers (El Mundo, El Nuevo Día), and magazines (Time, Vea, Estrellitas).
Associated with the question of national identity, how to define Puerto Rican culture, especially popular culture, has been a subject of constant debate. The earliest examples of Puerto Rican popular culture were related to Afro-Caribbean groups. These expressions of popular culture were eventually substituted for another kind of “whiter” popular culture, connected to the jíbaro (or the rural farm worker) and nostalgia for an agrarian past. Puerto Rican cultural and governmental institutions adopted the jíbaro as the official spokesman of popular culture, displacing other cultural legacies, especially those related to Afro-Caribbean cultures.
The appearance of salsa as a popular musical genre during the 1960s reclaimed and brought to the foreground Afro-Caribbean cultural manifestations in Puerto Rico. Of Cuban origin, this popular style of music (see description below) incorporated Puerto Rican elements as it evolved. Salsa illustrated how forms of popular culture were coming together with mass media at the time. The fusion was apparent not only in the way radio and television stations heavily incorporated salsa into their programming to broaden their audiences, but also in the creation of a new musical industry with its own labels (such as Fania Records) dedicated to salsa (Manuel, pp. 73-74). Salsa’s close relationship with other Afro-Caribbean rhythms, such as the Cuban son and Puerto Rican bomba and plena, and to the mar-ginalization experienced by Puerto Ricans in New York, who greatly influenced this music, made it particularly popular among certain sectors of society, such as the lower classes.
Guaracha and salsa music
Guaracha music originated in Spanish theater as an accompaniment to a dance performed by one dancer. It is thought that guaracha’s appearance in Puerto Rico is linked to frequent visits of Cuban bufo theater companies to the island during the nineteenth century. Generally speaking, guaracha is “an uptempo genre of Cuba and, subsequently, Puerto Rico, originally with a light, often satirical or bawdy text and verse-chorus form” (Manuel, p. 250). Its fast and lively pace and rhythmic structure are similar to those of the son, another kind of Cuban music that emerged from a mixture of Spanish-derived and Afro-Cuban elements (Manuel, p. 36). The similarity between son and guaracha is important since both eventually became the foundation for salsa music. By the late 1960s and early 1970s salsa and its performers were taking over the Puerto Rican musical scene (as well as those of other places, such as Venezuela), after having emerged as “a new musical movement that could at once embrace Puerto Rican tradition and capture the spirit of the [New York Latino] barrio in all its alienated energy and heightened self-awareness” (Manuel, p. 73). For example, in 1968 one of Puerto Rico’s most popular radio stations, WKAQ, changed its format from news broadcasting to only salsa. Salsa singers resurrected guaracha music and played it either in its original form or as an adaptation that incorporated various elements tied to the musical genre that was emerging during that time.
Macho Camacho’s Beat opens with a note that establishes the repetition (of words, phrases, and sounds) that recurs throughout the novel. It also provides a brief explanation of what the book is about:
Macho Camacho’s Beat tells the story of the flattering success of Macho Camacho’s guaracha Life is a Phenomenal Thing, according to information received from disk jockeys, announcers, and microphoniacs. It also tells of some of the miserable and splendid ups and downs in the lives of certain supporters and detractors of Macho Camacho’s guaracha Life is a Phenomenal Thing. Furthermore, as an appendix to Macho Camacho’s Beat, transcribed in its entirety is the text of Macho Camacho’s guaracha Life is a Phenomenal Thing, so as to afford unsurpassed delight to collectors of all-time musical hits.
(Sánchez, Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 3)
After this note, the novel is divided into 20 short sections that give readers the perspectives of the main characters: Mother/Heathen Chinky; her son, the Kid; her neighbor, Doña Chon; her lover, The Old Man/Senator Vicente Reinosa; his wife, Graciela Alcántara y Lopez de Monte frío; and their son, Benny. Each section is divided into short paragraphs that revolve mainly around a particular character but that can nevertheless include the intervention of other characters as well
THE MARTIÍN PEÑA CHANNEL
By the early 1970s one of the most notorious slums in Puerto Rico was located along the Martín Peña Channel in San Juan, The area, characterized by marshes and stagnant waters, housed more than 71,000 people in 14,000 tightly packed homes (Wagenheim, p. 178). Though the slum’s existence harked back to the Depression of the 1930s, it grew rapidly in the 1950s. Most of Martin Peña’s scrap wood and metal shacks were built illegally on public land, and most lacked indoor sanitary facilities. The area was inaccessible to garbage pickup trucks, so refuse and human waste filled the channel. Such conditions partly explain why by the early 1970s “the Martín Peña slum [had San Juan’s] highest infant mortality rate, the greatest number of welfare cases, the highest rates of tuberculosis, pneumonia, delinquency, and violence” (Wagenheim, p. 178). Three of the characters in Macho Camacho’s Beat Heathen Chinky, the Kid, and Doña Chon, live in the Martín Peña slum area.
as the narrator. Every section includes a constant play of first-person point of view, through which readers gain insight into the characters’ lives, with third-person narration that comments on the characters. Between the sections is a short paragraph that represents the voice of a radio announcer/disc jockey. Invariably the paragraph concerns Macho Camacho and his guaracha: how popular the song is, how talented the artist is, how incomparable he is in relation to other artists of the moment, and so forth. For example: “AND LADIES AND gentlemen, friends, this man sits down one day and writes a guaracha that is the mother of all guarachas, sweet, neat, a treat. And that guaracha because it’s so true is going up to the heaven of fame, into the first rank of popularity …” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 79). The overall novel has five different storylines that are intertwined throughout the book.
Storyline #1. Heathen Chinky waits for her lover, The Old Man, to arrive. Segments 1, 6, 11, and 16 present a view of Heathen Chinky’s world, including her poor house in the Martín Peña Channel, her sexual prowess, and her passion for popular culture, especially for dancer Iris Chacón and for Macho Camacho’s guaracha. This storyline discloses her perspective on her relationship with Senator Vicente Reinosa (whom she always calls The Old Man). For the last six months they have been meeting to have sex every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the afternoon. She thinks about this relationship more as a desirable business transaction than as prostitution: “The Old Man passes me pesos but people who pass me pesos are people I want to pass me pesos” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 9). Although she does not like the situation, her survival depends on maintaining it: “I’ll get out of debt and I’ll tell him to. One more month and” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 169). She dreams of becoming a rich and famous entertainer with the name of The Lobster Lady. While waiting for The Old Man, Heathen Chinky drinks cubalibres (rum and coke) and has two different erotic fantasies. The first concerns an early sexual encounter (while she was still a pre-adolescent) with her three cousins Hughie, Louie, and Dewey; the second concerns her recent accidental encounter with one of her cousins and the sexual adventures that ensued.
Storyline #2. Senator Vicente Reinosa is caught up in traffic on his way to a sexual encounter with his lover, Heathen Chinky. Through segments 2, 7, 12, and 17, readers get to know the character of Vicente, a 45-year-old Puerto Rican senator who thinks that “elegance, oratory and women are his forte” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 22). Much to his dismay, at some point Vicente finds himself humming Macho Camacho’s guaracha while stuck in traffic. What he considers to be an embarrassing moment is interrupted by news that a bomb has exploded at the Social Science Building of the University of Puerto Rico. The episode exposes the senator’s contempt for people with strong nationalist views as well as his desire for more power: he wants to become the governor of Puerto Rico.
Storyline #3. Graciela Alcántara y Lopez de Montefrío sits in the waiting room of her psychiatrist, Dr. Severo Se verino. In segments 3, 8, 13, and 18, the focus of the story is on Graciela as she awaits her psychiatric session. Not much happens during these segments. She glances at Time magazine and becomes fascinated with a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s house in Puerto Vallaría, Mexico. This photograph reminds her of how miserable she feels about living in Puerto Rico after having studied in Switzerland. She looks down upon everything outside the realm of her high-class life, especially Macho Camacho’s guaracha, a song she deems to be the lowest of the low. When she finally goes in to talk to Dr. Se verino, she asks him if he likes this guaracha. Much to her dismay, he answers “yes.”
Storyline #4. Doña Chon and The Mother talk about life while The Kid is being tormented by other children in a park. These four segments 4, 9, 14, 19—are set in two different places: The Mother’s house, where she spends time with her neighbor, Doña Chon, and a nearby park, where The Mother has left her mentally challenged three-year-old son, The Kid, sunbathing to see if he gets better. The action in The Mother’s house takes place in the kitchen where The Mother and Doña Chon talk about food, life, money, motherhood, and the injustices that poor people like them have to endure. By the end of their conversation, The Mother, who has an appointment with The Old Man, asks Doña Chon if she could go to the park and bring The Kid back. Meanwhile, in the park, The Kid is being tormented by other children who taunt and abuse him since he cannot fight back. At some point, one of the children takes a mirror and puts it in front of The Kid’s face. Horrified at his image, The Kid runs away from the park.
Storyline #5. In his Ferrari, Benny is caught in the same traffic jam as his father. In segments 5, 10, 15, and 20, the novel focuses on the senator’s son, a rich, arrogant teenager whose main concerns revolve around his new Ferrari. He contemplates the lack of good race tracks in Puerto Rico for cars like his. As he gets more frustrated with the traffic jam, Benny condescendingly thinks about the futility of studying, especially about his experience at the University of Puerto Rico, where professors want to make him think critically. Benny also reminisces about two of his evil adventures with friends Bonny, Billy, and Willy. The first involves the bombing of the “offices of the separatists, antisocial scum, the offices and workshops where they print and do their presswork, poisoning nordophilic sentiments” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 156). The second adventure involves burning a prostitute’s genitals and how that action, which landed them in court but not in jail, became the reason that his parents gave him a Ferrari (as a way of making him feel better about having had to go to court). At some point, Benny finds an opening in the traffic and starts to drive away from it by using small surface streets. Traveling 80 miles an hour on one of these narrow streets, he runs over The Kid while Doña Chon screams at the sight. The segment ends with Benny thinking about having to wash the blood of this child off his Ferrari.
The novel closes with the full text of Macho Camacho’s guaracha:
LIFE IS A PHENOMENAL THING
Life is a phenomenal thing,
frontwards or backwards, however you swing.
But life is also a groovy street, it’s coffee for
breakfast and bread that you eat.
Oh, yes, life is a nice chubby chick
spoiling herself in a Cadillac trick.
The trumpet breaking up the ball,
don’t let the maracas back down,
the drums heard way across town,
the thing can’t have any stop,
black women want sweat to mop,
black women are getting hot.
(Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 211)
In an interview Luis Rafael Sánchez explains that Macho Camacho’s Beat has “type characters … all of them physically, morally and spiritually off the wall” (Sánchez, Interview, p. 39). Roughly speaking, the novel’s six principal characters can be divided into two main groups: the Mother/Heathen Chinky, the Kid, and Doña Chon, all of whom belong to the Island’s lower class, while Senator Vicente Reinosa/the Old Man, Graciela, and Benny are part of Puerto Rico’s wealthy and powerful sector. These characters represent certain social characteristics extant in everyday life on the is-land in the early 1970s that relate to “the spiritual decomposition of Puerto Rico; a condition revealed in the inability to communicate our most inner feelings” (Sánchez, Interview, p. 39). In the novel the various ways in which each of the characters relates to Macho Camacho’s guaracha serve as markers of their social differences.
The upper-class characters. Broadly speaking, Senator Vicente Reinosa/The Old Man represents a number of disagreeable behaviors: machismo, greed, materialism, political hypocrisy, abuse of power, and colonial mentality or acquiesence to colonial perceptions of hierarchy. His fetish for black and mulatto women exposes the persistence of some of the biases inherited from Spanish and American colonialism, which explain why a powerful man like him is married to a fair-skinned woman and takes a mulatto woman as his lover.
Senator Vicente Reinosa’s political views demonstrate how reactionary he has become; he shows a preference for U.S. colonial domination. Anything related to understanding Puerto Rico as a country with its own national identity is out of the picture for him. The most difficult part of his political career has been to feign a liking for those toward whom he feels contempt: poor people. He displays his true colors in response to Macho Camacho’s guaracha (the anthem of the disenfranchised in Puerto Rico): to him, the tune is “repulsive … a tiara of vulgarity, a headdress of trash, a banner of the rabble” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 77).
The senator’s wife, Graciela Alcántara y Lopez de Montefrío, is a repressed, frigid woman whose life centers upon social appearances, the acquisition of material commodities, and an extreme hatred for anything that deviates from her social class and her education in Switzerland. Her displeasure with Puerto Rico and its lower class exemplifies her colonized mentality. Everything related to Europe or a life of opulence is acceptable to her; anything else falls out of her ideal conception of the world. In keeping with this attitude, Graciela cannot stand Macho Camacho’s guaracha, a song she calls “a street-corner hymn, a repulsive hymn, a hymn of the mob” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 185). She even prohibits her servants from playing it in her house. Although her husband agrees with her about how repulsive the song is, he reprimands her for expressing her class-conscious views out loud, since those who have elected him are, in fact, poor people who live in slums.
From the start, Benny, son to Graciela and the senator, is presented as a rich, spoiled teenager who has no respect for humankind. Acknowledging his own selfishness, Benny says, “don’t ask me for anything because I’m not the giving type” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 101). His inhumanity surfaces especially at the end of the novel, when he runs over The Kid and does not even stop to see what happened:
It wasn’t my fault to some brains splattered on the door of the Ferrari and to some eyes plopped in the gutter like the yolks of half-fried eggs. Benny doesn’t hear frights. Benny doesn’t hear laments. Benny doesn’t feel the afternoon breathing with difficulty… . Benny asks, rusty, hurried by his hurry: I mean when will I be able to wash my Ferrari?: the voice shrill and rancor hurting him.
(Macho Camacho’s Beat, pp. 209-10)
Like his parents, Benny cares mainly about appearances and material goods, especially his new Ferrari. He is obsessed with his car and totally devoid of knowledge about Puerto Rican culture or society. He wants only to “have my Ferrari to feel at home in Puerto Rico” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 106). His insensitivity surfaces in his attitude toward Macho Camacho, whom he calls “that monkey-faced nigger” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 58). The slur demonstrates Benny’s bigoted mentality and his prejudiced upbringing.
The lower-class characters. The Mother/Heathen Chinky, a poor mulatto woman, is the main focus through which readers can question issues related to marginalization in terms of race, gender, and class. Her nickname, Heathen Chinky, comes from the lyrics of the popular singer Felipe Rodriguez (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 47). For The Mother, sex and other activities that directly involve her body (e.g., eating, dancing) are vital ways of enjoying and experiencing life to the maximum: “My thing is to eat and to ball” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 146). Specifically, The Mother takes immense pleasure from hearing Macho Camacho’s guaracha: “When that guaracha says that life is a phenomenal thing, that’s when my brain goes wildest” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 91).
Doña Chon provides a counterpoint to The Mother at many levels. Doña Chon is not only older and less attractive than Heathen Chinky, but she does not like the expressions of popular mass culture admired by The Mother. Although their moral values are different, Doña Chon is always willing to help The Mother out by taking care of The Kid. Doña Chon’s life experiences as a poor woman with a son in jail for drug trafficking become the basis of her particular understanding of life. She is aware of how social class militates against breaks for the poor in matters such as getting caught selling drugs: “For the rich they look the other way. The rich selling grass under the government’s nose, offering stuff to everybody and his cousin… . For poor people, seven years in the dark” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 199). Rather than believing that “Life is a Phenomenal Thing,” as The Mother does, Doña Chon comes up with her own axiom: “Life is like a bundle of dirty clothes but it’s a bundle of problems” (Macho Camacho’s Beat, p. 147).
The novel does not provide the reader with an insight into The Kid’s point of view. Everything about him is conveyed through what other characters and the narrator say about The Kid. He is almost a nonentity, which is reinforced by the fact that in the novel no relationship whatsoever is established between The Kid and Macho Camacho’s guaracha.
The guaracha, then, serves as a fulcrum for various attitudes exposed by characters who are at times almost caricatures. Their separate responses to the guaracha help crystallize Sanchez’s conception of several approaches to life that he perceived as existing in 1970s Puerto Rico.
Sources and literary context
The publication of Macho Camacho’s Beat formed part of the larger cultural transformation that was taking place in Puerto Rico during the 1970s. Artists, writers, critics, and historians of the decade questioned the monolithic culture promoted by Puerto Rican governmental institutions. They intended instead to show the complex realities that coexisted on the island, including the views of traditionally marginalized groups such as women, gays and lesbians, members of the working class, and illegal immigrants. Sánchez sees himself as part of a group of writers who were “undertaking a complete revamping of the novel as a literary form” by legitimizing the language of the people (Sánchez, Interview, p. 41). This acknowledgment of the language of the people as grist for the artistic mill is a means of bridging the gap between “high culture” and “popular cultural forms,” also achieved by marrying the genre of the novel to the popular music of the guaracha. The novel, unlike its character Graciela, questions the boundaries between high and popular cultures in Puerto Rico, just as Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times) did this same year in regard to the two forms of culture in Argentina.
Puerto Rican scholar Carmen Vázquez Arce locates Sánchez as part of a larger generation of Latin American writers known as the novísimos (the newest ones) or the contestatarios del poder (contesters of power), terms coined by the late Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama. In respect to content, the characteristics that link Sánchez and Macho Camacho’s Beat to this generation are an examination of the often complex and contradictory contemporary realities of Latin American urban spaces; how these realities might be influenced by U.S. culture; an open exploration of the role of sexuality in society; and the impact of mass media. In respect to style, Vázquez Arce points to Sanchez’s use of humor in Macho Camacho’s Beat, especially through parody and irony (Vázquez Arce, pp. 21-28).
Macho Camacho’s Beat was unanimously praised as an important literary work in Puerto Rico and Latin America. Luis M. Arrigoitia called the novel “the literary event of the year” in Puerto Rico because of its popularity with both critics and readers, who were buying copies of the novel so fast that it was difficult to find it in stores (Arrigoitia, p. 71; trans. G. Blasini).
LANGUAGE IN MACHO CAMACHO’S BEAT.
In a very literal sense, the Spanish and English languages are both sources for the text of Macho Camacho’s Beat Language has been one of the most contested issues in twentieth-century Puerto Rican society. The U.S. takeover in 1896 brought with it the imposition of English as an official language along with Spanish; English eventually became a required second language in schools. Although it is not generally an everyday language, English has been integrated into colloquial Spanish on the island. For example, a person can be friquiao (freaking out) or jangiando (hanging out). The novel in its Spanish original reflects the mixture in lines like “Foot note sin el foot” [footnote without the foot! (Sánchez, La guaracha del Macho Camacho, p. 42). The rhythm created by the language, a conscious attempt to imitate music, is more apparent in the Spanish original than in the English version. The first sentence of the novel, for example, uses 27 “a” sounds in Spanish, but only nine in the English translation (Guinness, p. 107). Beyond its rhythm, language is used in a way that illustrates the condition of Puerto Rican society at the time. “In the novel’ explains Sánchez, “you begin to see language in a state of decay. It is an attempt to portray the spiritual decomposition of Puerto Rico; a condition revealed in many of us in our inability to communicate our most intimate feelings” (Sánchez, Interview, p. 39).
Various critics compared Sanchez’s novel to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf s Mrs. Dalloway. Like these novels, Macho Camacho’s Beat takes place in one day and includes shifting perspectives and a fragmentary structure whose separate elements are not always immediately obvious.
Although they deemed Macho Camacho’s Beat to be an important novel and a great contribution to Latin American literature, some reviewers were critical of the English version. For example, even though Jerome Charyn stated that Macho Camacho’s Beat is “a funny, mordant first novel about modern-day Puerto Rico,” he ended his review by saying, “I suspect that the music of Macho Camacho’s Beat is impossible to catch in translation” (Charyn, p. 12). Gerald Guinness echoed Charyn when he stated that “[translator Gregory] Rabassa’s English-language version of La guaracha fails to convey the feel and texture of the original” (Guinness, p. 121). These questions and comments about the translation mainly revolved around the particular localisms included in the novel. Nevertheless, as Robert Houston observed, Macho Camacho’s Beat still works for audiences in the United States for two main reasons. In the first place, “the book does that most difficult of things for novels to do. It creates, movingly and vividly, a particular time, a particular place and the people who inhabit that time and place” (Houston, p. 642). In the second place, “Macho Camacho’s Beat is full of life. And not just the kind of life that is intelligible only to a Latin or Puerto Rican audience.… The voices that sing are eminently human, are clearly recognizable, are ours, too” (Houston, p. 644).
—Gilberto M. Blasini
Arrigoitia, Luis M. “Una novela escrita en puertorriqueño: La guaracha del Macho Camacho de Luis Rafael Sánchez.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 5 (1978): 71-89.
Charyn, Jerome. “Swinging through San Juan.” The New York Times Book Review, January 18, 1981, 12.
Guiness, Gerald. “La guaracha in English: Traduttore Traditore?” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 8 (1981):107-22.
Houston, Robert. ‘“Life is a Phenomenal Thing. . Λ” The Nation 232, no. 20 (May 23, 1981): 642-44.
Manuel, Peter, with Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
Sánchez, Luis Rafael. Interview with Helen Calaf Agüera. Review 28 (1981): 39-41.
_____. La guaracha del Macho Camacho. Buenos Aires: Ediciones La Flor, 1976.
_____. Macho Camacho’s Beat. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Silvestrini, Blanca G., and Maria Dolores Lu que de Sánchez. Histona de Puerto Rico: Trayectona de un pueblo. San Juan: Cultural Puertorriqeuña, 1987.
Trillin, Calvin. “U.S. Journal: San Juan, Puerto Rico:House of Studies.” The New Yorker XLV, no. 52 (February 14, 1970): 124-29.
Vázquez Arce, Carmen. Por la vereda tropical: notas sobre la cuentística de Luis Rafael Sánchez. Buenos Aires: Ediciones De La Flor, 1994.
Wagenheim, Kal. Puerto Rico: A Profile. 2nd ed. New York: Praeger, 1975.
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