My mother is of Mexican heritage and my father was of English heritage, making me of mixed parentage. That used to signify lower status in this country. Everybody now realizes that, if just by taking a casual glimpse at the past two presidential election cycles. Still, it amazes me anew every time I realize how things used to be.
I was reading through an old magic magazine today (Genii, the Conjurors’ Magazine, Dec. 1969, p. 173) and was reminded of it once again. The article concerned a piece of magic that can be seen here, as performed by my mentor, the fabulous Jeff McBride:
The article discussed who invented this wonderful and lovely piece of magic.
“Anyway, in this book it says that Dr. Elliott originated [the trick]. Elmer Ransom told me once that a Mexican fellow walked into one of the magic shops one day and [he stunned everybody by doing the trick]. Dr. Elliott saw it and evolved [the move] and a lot of other little moves with it, but he certainly didn’t invent the original idea.”
The author is interested in Dr. Elliott, and he’s interested in the provenance of the magic, but he’s certainly not interested in pursuing the name of the “Mexican fellow.” There’s no conjecture about his identity, provenance, or what other magical methods he may have developed. This isn’t overt racism, but instead, embedded racism–the kind that passes unremarked in the assumptions that people make about the world. From another magician, I’ve learned that the Mexican fellow’s name was Cantinflas, the fabulous Mexican clown and movie star whose given name was Mario Moreno.
The author of this musing was Dai Vernon, who was known among magicians as the greatest magician of the 20th century, an estimation that includes Houdini, even though most non-magicians don’t even know his name. He was not known as a racist, but instead, a man who was obsessed with magic above all else.
But that’s just the way it was in Vernon’s day. To be fair, his day started in the 1920s, so it’s certainly not fair to say that racism raged full bore in 1969. It is fair to say that racist attitudes were the norm among many people who were still alive in the late 1960s, such as Vernon. If a white guy did something great, you knew his name. If a brown guy did it, it was just “some Mex dude.”
One of my mentors was a fabulous magician named Robert Rodriguez, who died a couple years ago. Although I can “pass,” it was impossible for Robert to pass. He once confessed to me that when he started doing magic in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Mexicans couldn’t perform at white people’s parties in a suit. Instead, it was only proper for them to perform if they were dressed in ethnic costume, such as a mariachi costume and sombrero. Dignifying them with suit and tie gave them an equal status that they simply were not allowed.
I am so glad that times have changed. Sombreros hurt my forehead.