As a youngster growing up in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, Daniel Contreras, Ph.D., spent many hours with his grandmother while his parents worked. During those after school and summer vacation days, he saw abuela indulge in her one true passion—U.S. soap operas.
“She didn’t speak a word of English, yet she could tell you what was going on. I always thought that was such a weird thing,” said Contreras, assistant professor of English. “My aunt would ask her what happened in the story and my grandmother would explain it in great detail.”
His grandmother’s penchant for the drama of daytime soaps, as well as the popularity of prime time Spanish-language telenovelas, raised Contreras’ curiosity about the themes in these and other forms of entertainment.
“I was always fascinated by images and incidents of people who would suffer so much for love,” he said. “It seemed to be happening a lot in Latino literature. Telenovelas, which are an easily mocked form, are examples of people living completely passionately in a way that isn’t realistic. Our lives are generally filled with more everyday concerns, but it’s very attractive to imagine what it would be like.”
Contreras began asking himself why these stories of smoldering passion and unrequited love form such an attractive image in Latino and Latin American culture. Furthermore, are they limited to Latino and Latin American culture?
“It’s hard to talk about because you don’t want to culturally stereotype,” Contreras said. “In my first book, I was worried about suggesting that Latinos are more emotional, more passionate. That’s an available cultural stereotype, and sometimes we say it about ourselves. So there’s something to that, but it’s a mystery in a lot of ways.”
Contreras avoids stereotyping by getting to the bottom of specific novels in his book, Unrequited Love and Gay Latino Culture: What Have You Done to My Heart? (Palgrave, 2005).
Drawing on a range of material from art, theater, music and literature, Contreras argues that historical memory is embedded in these art forms and can perhaps take us “somewhere better than this place.”
Unrequited love was a sense of believing in the impossible, Contreras said. “It was a utopic urge, and I wanted to historicize and politicize it.
“Isn’t the idea of believing that change can happen, that social justice could happen, an impossible thing? Then again, if we just believe in bleakness and hopelessness and nihilism, then the world stays exactly the way it is—that the many have nothing and the few have everything. So it was a sense of being able to dream being important. And I saw that kind of faith and hope in unrequited love.”
Many of the characters Contreras researched for his book are gay.
“That was another complication—people trying to find happiness in a homophobic world,” he said.
The novel Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig combines homosexuality, unrequited love and fantasy used to deny the bleakness of reality.
“It’s about two men in a prison in Latin America—one is a revolutionary and a Marxist and very serious about social struggle. The other is this effeminate gay who’s obsessed with the movies and who’s been thrown in prison on a morals charge,” Contreras said.
“The gay guy loves movies and relates everything to them and starts telling the revolutionary stories about movies to pass the time. Movies become a way of surviving. The men have a very complex relationship—one is so masculine and the other is so feminine—so it touches on many different kinds of issues. It’s a fascinating story.”
Recently awarded a fellowship grant from Fordham, Contreras will travel to Mexico City this summer to work on his second book, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered: Latino Literature in the Cinema, to be released sometime next year.
In it, he examines Latino and Latin American novels that portray movies as central to what the characters are experiencing.
“These books feature a way of talking about how movies help us imagine something outside of ourselves,” he said. “They are about the world of fantasy, not just something that we like or enjoy, but necessary if we want a different kind of life and world. It’s in movies that, in a sense, characters find the most fulfillment.”
For instance, in Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, the author is constantly comparing her life to a movie. And in Junot Diaz’ The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead, 2007), the title character lives his life in quasi-fantasy, as his crushes take on a life of their own.
“He relates everything back to a fantasy or a sci-fi movie or comic,” Contreras said, “You almost go crazy. I wonder if it’s even like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in which Don Quixote reads so many romance novels about chivalry that he loses his mind?”