Every Hispanic person in the English-speaking world gets this question. One and all, we must all eventually confront…Speedy Gonzales.
Speedy Gonzales, the fleet-footed cartoon mouse with an outrageous Mexican accent and ethnic costume who spends his time outsmarting and outrunning various cartoon gringos and peninsulares in the service of his large family.
Speedy Gonzales, that bit of Latin America amidst the classic Americana of Loony Tunes that brought at least a little of Mexico’s rich culture to American attention, however flawed.
Speedy Gonzales, who made sure that every single frigging time someone learns my last name, I hear catch phrases.
Thanks to that fifty-year-old cartoon mouse, being a GonzaleZ in the English-speaking world means hearing way too many “¡Ándale arriba!”s thrown your way and no one ever spelling your surname correctly even though it’s the original Spanish spelling minus the Anglo-confusing accent mark.
I kind of resent the little guy for that, if nothing else. But the rest of my feelings about the Speedy aren’t quite that simple.
Cartoon Network ceased broadcasting Speedy Gonzales in 1999, citing concerns that the segments were racist. After all, that accent is so heroically overwrought that Chris Tucker couldn’t do an impression of it. Speedy’s costume is arguably not even Mexican (that’s a San Fermín festival kerchief, from Spain), making his Mexican-ness clueless as well as ham-fisted. The majority of the other Mexican characters aren’t any better, either. Where some are fairly well-done depictions not at all out of place in Revolution-era Mexico, the rest are all always wearing the same filthy outfit complete with a sombrero no matter what time of day it is. And they spend almost all of their time smoking, getting drunk from clay bottles, and dancing to Mexican music. Speedy’s brother Slow Rodriguez shoots someone in the face for antagonizing him. This nonsense comes from higher up in the same well of racism that gave us Bugs Bunny’s blackface hunter, and needs to be acknowledged if we are to be critical consumers of popular culture.
But the thing is, Speedy is the hero. He spends all of his time tricking equally outrageous caricatures of white Americans and wealthy Mexican landowners into dynamiting themselves, and he does it all for the love of his friends and family. He’s determined, snarky, inventive, and virtually fearless. And he almost always wins. Is it any wonder that Mexicans in particular are awash with affection for Speedy Gonzales, who gives Americans who think they’re all lazy poncho-clad alcoholics and bandits their comeuppance? Is it a surprise that Speedy Gonzales has become a cartoon role model, held as a dependable and capable heroic ideal by thousands of Latino families?
He even sings Cielito lindo correctly. Not a garbled mishmash of Spanish-sounding syllables designed to sound familiar to Anglophone ears—he sings the actual words, in all their cloying sweetness.
If anything, Speedy Gonzales is a potent, almost tragically unsubtle commentary about class relations in Latin America. It’s an even more powerful escapist fantasy of a scrappy Latino showing some overly entitled gringos what’s what.