In most of Latin America, subaltern populations are those whose primary origins are indigenous, including lower-class mestizo people (i.e., people of mixed origins – indigenous with European) and the urban poor of predominantly indigenous background. Internal migration, urbanization, and modernization are three elements that have influenced transformations in popular communication. For instance, in Peru, television has changed due to socio-economic and political factors. Television came about in 1957 with the altruistic ideal of education, as a plan for modernization, and with UNESCO’s financial and technical aid (Perla 1995). However, within a year of the birth of television in Peru, US television networks NBC and CBS began lending money and providing content for the recently formed local stations. At that point it was clear that television would be primarily a commercial and entertainment enterprise targeting the middle and upper classes rather than subaltern groups.
For decades, subaltern populations have been excluded from the small screen. Local programming generally featured light-skinned people who spoke standard educated Spanish. In the mid-1990s, however, the advent of cable television substantially changed the face of broadcast television, as audiences with the most purchasing power switched to cable and local advertisers followed. Broadcasters were forced to cut costs in their domestic production, which helped create a space for the subaltern.
Other factors have contributed to the inclusion of subaltern groups in contemporary media. Various social and political struggles in the past 35 years have created internal migration and displacement of populations, changing the makeup of most urban areas. In the 1960s broadcast television began reflecting the realities of Lima’s lower class and of migrants. These programs, mostly comedy shows, represented different situations in tenement houses. The main characters were gossipy women, soft-core thieves, and hardworking, macho men with dominated wives (Vivas 2001). Later, the cholo (see below) character made a transition from radio to television (Gargurevich 1987; Jochamowitz 1998).
In 1963, Tulio Loza’s show introduced Nemesio, the first cholo ever on national television. Literally, cholo means mestizo. However, cholo is used in Peruvian society to degrade people whose socio-cultural background and physical phenotype are those of indigenous people. Nemesio’s adventures came to symbolize the changing social landscape of Lima (Jochamowitz 1998; Vivas 2001). The producers of this program made Nemesio into a modernized cholo who changed his ojotas (indigenous sandals) for moccasins and his huayno (an indigenous folk dance) for the twist (El Comercio Grafico, 1964, cited by Jochamowitz 1998). Nemesio spoke a broken Spanish with a thick accent from his mother tongue, It was not until 1998, however, that most networks jumped on the bandwagon and brought los cholos de la calle to the screen. Broadcasters, desperately seeking to cut costs and gain new audiences, began using popular street skits known as street theater as their primary source for new comedy shows. The networks saw in these street comedians an alternative to the economic crisis affecting their stations, and the street actors saw an incredible opportunity to have a steady salary greater than what they could ever earn in the streets. Street actors combine oral storytelling with the kind of urban street savvy required to survive the big city. This street theater represents a humorous look at the tribulations of rural migrants and their hybrid culture that has developed from mixing rural and urban cultures. Most of these skits use coarse language and mirror violent aspects of life in the city.
In 1998 Frecuencia Latina hired Juan de los Santos Castellano, also known as “Tripa” (Guts), an established street comedian. “Tripa” and his troupe created the show El show de los cómicos ambulantes. A few months later, Frecuencia Latina’s competitor, Channel 13, hired the troupe Los Reyes de la Risa. In less than six months this troupe was offered more money and moved to the second-largest network in the country, Panamericana Television, creating the show Los ambulantes de la risa, which came to be one of the most popular shows in its time.
A few other television stations created cheap popular programming. Channel 9 hired “Cholo Cirilo” and “the Poet” to create Los cómicos de la calle; Channel 4 hired Ernesto Pimentel to telecast La chola Chabuca (Vivas 2001). Other shows have appeared, but have not gained the success of the first ones and have lasted for only one or two seasons. Examples include La chola Jacinta and La chola Cachucha, a response to La chola Chabuca, where the character of the chola is less hybrid and more “authentic”.
Having subaltern people on television and representing themselves would appear to be a double triumph. Indeed, these shows have inserted indigenous and hybrid cultural backgrounds and phenotypes, mirroring the majority of the Peruvian population. These comedy shows have brought strong attention to the daily lives and vicissitudes of the poor living in Lima. However, the positive aspects of having the subaltern on national networks is overshadowed by the racist and homophobic stereotypes these shows promote. “Ignorant migrants,” “stupid cholos,” and “grotesque transvestites” are the butt of every joke. Machismo and overt verbal and physical violence against such characters are blatant, reflecting, at a deep level, Peruvian society’s attitudes toward these people in everyday life. What is problematic here is that while these shows apparently subvert the local hegemony, they use hegemonic representations of subaltern populations and thus reinforce stereotypes about them.
Perhaps it is no surprise that what the popular street actors are producing for television reflects Peruvian hegemonic ideology about the masses today, since what gets put on television comes from above and, as Martín-Barbero (1993) reminds us, “the syntax of that culture is not truly from the popular classes, but represents the disgust and disdain of the upper classes regarding the popular.” The idea of gaining a voice is somewhat false because the subaltern voices are talking, but saying what the middle and upper classes think of them. This is a central contradiction the subaltern face every day in Peru, particularly when creating popular culture that gets transferred to mass-mediated cultural industries.
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