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By Allison McCarthy
A sketch from Monday night’s episode of Lopez Tonight is grabbing entertainment headlines. Comedian George Lopez claimed to have a world exclusive satellite interview with Mildred Patricia Baena, the 50-year old former housekeeper for Arnold Schwarzenegger and mother of the former California governor’s fifth child. Baena has thus far declined to make a public statement concerning her relationship with Schwarzenegger or her sudden retirement in January from a position she held for twenty years as a part of the Schwarzenegger/Shriver household staff. But this wasn’t going to stop Lopez from getting his “scoop” on a newly-famous Latina thrust into the public spotlight.
Before the show, Lopez tweeted a teaser photo for the segment: “Just hired new girl for my house – she does floors, windows, takes care of your kids AND you.” The actual interview featured Lopez in drag. “Aye, por favor, call me Patty,” she intones, before asking Lopez, “Are you looking for a girlfriend? Housekeeper, maybe?” Throughout the interview, which was highlighted by ET Online, Lopez’s caricature of Baena sips from a martini, points to her posh living quarters and a pricey Van Gogh print, then brags about a Choco Taco ice cream bar bitten “by Enrique Inglesias in his last tour.” The jokes are meant to reinforce Baena’s perceived lower-class status, supposed gold-digger motivations and position as the stereotypical flirtatious Latina. At the end of the interview, Baena claims her nickname was “iron” and that any time “Señor Arnold” told his wife, Maria Shriver, that he was “pumping iron — he was telling the truth!” Another hyper-sexualized and uncouth construction of the Latina woman garners laughs from the audience. Cut to commercial and let the television ratings soar!
Through his routine, Lopez has joined a long-standing tradition of male comedians who impersonate women of color and use comedic drag performance as a gendered tool of oppression. Chuck Knipp dons blackface for his portrayal of Shirley Q. Liquor, a Black female “welfare recipient with 19 chirren,” a travelling act which has been protested by LGBT-affiliated organizations since 2002. Martin Lawrence is the star of an enduringly popular film franchise Big Momma’s House, in which Lawrence goes undercover as an overweight, elderly Southern African-American woman. In the same decade, Eddie Murphy’s Mama Klump emerged as matriarch of The Nutty Professor film franchise (along with a randy grandmother and an assortment of family members). Yet as his career took a steep nosedive at the box office, Murphy followed up The Nutty Professor in 2006 with Norbit, which featured Murphy as (among others) an obese African-American wife and a yellow-tinted Asian man who adopts the title character and speaks in broken English. In light of this history, perhaps it might have been better for Lopez to present his comedic material on the subject without portraying a fictionalized version of Baena. His drag performance of Baena, however, is particularly cutting when contrasted with the media portrayal of Baena as an old, unattractive and undocumented worker.
Although Baena’s identity was initially kept anonymous, her name was first reported on May 19 by gossip rag Radar Online; other news outlets, including The New York Times, soon followed Radar’s lead and tracked down Baena’s friends and family members as anonymous sources for the story. Photos from her MySpace profile were released last week by the American media without Baena’s permission, which has opened the floodgates for commentary on her physical appearance and perceived attractiveness. Inadvertently, her story has also drawn commentary on whether she is an undocumented worker. Marc Chamot of San Francisco Conservative Examiner speculates on the legitimacy of Baena’s citizenship status, arguing that “some suspect that Mildred Baena, a Guatemalan, got her immigration papers through the Reagan 1986 amnesties.” If Baena was a white former employee for the household, would anyone even be asking to see her papers? Probably not.
Baena, who has a MySpace photo album entitled “My Sexy Self” dated October 18 2008, has clearly taken a stand for her own physical attractiveness. But some in the media would say otherwise. Forbes.com blogger Kiri Blakeley refers to Baena as a “baby mama,” a slur demeaning single mothers (often of color) which was famously hurled at Michelle Obama during the 2008 presidential election. Blakeley then goes on to declare that Baena “would never appear on the cover of Maxim magazine” and negatively compares Baena to other “voluptuous” women such as Kim Kardashian and Sofia Vergara. Baena has even been dehumanized on her own MySpace page: commenter “The Happy Newlywed” remarked, “I cannot believe that with all of the beautiful women in Hollywood, he slept with THAT creature.” And that was just among the printable insults. It would seem that the tired tropes of the “voluptuous,” curvy and fiery Latina are discarded because of Baena’s age and working-class status.
However, there is some respite from the beauty myth sludge being dredged up because of Baena’s age, ethnicity and social class. Fox News Latino reports that Latino-identified MySpace users have turned Baena’s now-public page into a “gathering place… to defend [Baena].” This online community has posted numerous supportive comments on Baena’s page in “English, Spanish, or sometimes both in a single post — words of encouragement or advice,” including El sabor y encanto latino no se puede comparar con ninguna otra raza (“The Latino flavor and charm cannot be compared with any other race”).
By refraining from interviews or public comment, Baena has shown a great deal of media savvy and that she is certainly no Choco Taco-chomping twit. Baena has even hired a Los Angeles legal firm (Jacobson, Russell, Saltz & Fingerman) to represent her in challenging “unflattering reports” published about her in various print and online outlets, including Radar Online. George Lopez and the rest of the media are skewering Baena over the proverbial coals for being a middle-aged Latina and the divorced single mother of a popular entertainer and former U.S. governor’s child out-of-wedlock. But even with reporters camped out on the front lawn of her Bakersfield home, Baena can take comfort in knowing that a community of supporters exists – people who will respect her silence on the issue of Schwarzenegger’s paternity and shield her from any unnecessary derogatory insults. Most importantly, it seems, Baena can take care of herself.
Allison McCarthy is a regular blogger for Ms. and a freelance writer. Her work has been featured in magazines such as Girlistic, Global Comment, ColorsNW, The Baltimore Review, Hoax, The Write Side-Up, Scribble, JMWW and Dark Sky, as well as in the anthologies Robot Hearts: Twisted and True Tales of Seeking Love in the Digital Age (Pinchback Press, 2010) and Dear Sister: Letters to Survivors of Sexual Violence (forthcoming). She is a graduate student in the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University and currently resides in the greater Washington, D.C. area.