Michelle Rodriguez does not fit the cliche of all-American-but that cliche is giving ground with an unsentimental momentum that made the film a standout at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But Diana’s growing confidence as she carves out an athlete’s discipline, not to mention her phenomenal strength, cannot help being inspiring. Women who have seen Girlfight at Sundance or at Cannes, where it played in the Director’s Fortnight, tend to walk out of the theater with the kind of tingly physical awareness they rarely get watching a story about male athletesI remember feeling my center of gravity, the bounce as I strode down the street, my potential power if I had to throw a punch to defend myself.
Diana Guzman may be the boldest role model since the soccer player Brandi Chastain dropped to her knees and showed the whole planet her bra. All the more meaningful, then, that the young actress portraying this new symbol of American girl power was raised in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as well as Texas and New Jersey. Michelle Rodriguez does not quite fit the cliche of what it means to be all-American-but no matter, because slowly that outdated cliche is giving ground. After the last couple of years, after Jennifer Lopez’s tough-dance moves, Ricky Martin’s bleached smile, and Christina Aguilera’s overexposed singsong, it may seem strange to declare that yet another Latino moment has arrived.
But so it hasa post-p.c. moment, in which politics and earnest rhetoric and even, paradoxically, ethnic identity are taking a backseat. Driven in part by the gung-ho economy, it arrives roughly ten years ahead of schedule. According to demographers, by the year 2010 Latinos will replace African-Americans as the country’s largest minority. This prediction, frequently trumpeted in the media and closely watched by nervous politicians, is an utter abstractionand everyone knows it. Latinos remain a far-flung group of vastly different ethnicities, skin tones, and histories. On the other hand, what defines the past decade better than hype morphing into unexpected reality?
The rush in the nineties to identify and tap the Latino market laid the groundwork for Martin, who had in fact already sold more than a million CDs in the United States before he suddenly “made it” by crossing over into the Anglo consciousness. The Latino market also gave the first big break to Jennifer Lopez, who came to stardom by playing the murdered Tejana singer Selena Quintanillawho had millions of devoted Mexican-American fans before her tragic death made the rest of the country aware of her existence. Still, an expertly packaged neo-Elvis and a brilliantly produced pop diva don’t necessarily add up, by themselves, to a lasting impact on the broader culture. The new Latino moment may have less to do with marketing than with good, old-fashioned human interest. The strong response to Girlfight suggests that America is opening up to stories about Latinos in all their authentic specificity, without any watering down. At the same time, we’re greeting these stories as American on a level that can no longer be treated as a passing fad.
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