BLOG # 4
April 29, 2023
Latinos Performing Shakespeare: The Golden Girls Episode
The Golden Girls (1985-92), a sitcom starring four middle-aged /older women sharing a home in Miami, was one of my favorite sitcoms as a child. When I refer to the characters as middle-aged, I mean Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche were in their 50s and Blanche’s mother Sophia was 80. Three of the women were widows (Blanche was a divorcée), and much was made of them being in the “winter” of their lives. What brings me to The Golden Girls in this context is an episode from Season Four called “Fiddler on the Ropes.” It aired on March 4, 1989, and I vaguely recalled there were references to Jewish culture, Shakespeare, a Cuban boxer, and it included some dialogue in Spanish. I recently revisited the episode and was amazed by what I saw and heard.
The episode centers on a plot for the women to regain some money they tried to invest. Sophia was supposed to purchase a CD at the bank in the amount of $3000 ($7,400 today), but instead she “bought” a Cuban boxer who speaks no English and who will receive $10,000 if he loses his fight and $20,000 if he wins. The night before the fight, Pepe disappears, and they track him down and find him playing classical violin in a rehearsal with his music teacher. Pepe reveals that he speaks excellent English (with no Spanish accent) and tells the women that he is auditioning for Julliard in two days. When Dorothy asks why he pretended to only know Spanish, Pepe replies:
PEPE: It’s part of the image. Cuban boxers are supposed to know their right from their left. Not much else.
DOROTHY: And you think that we are that narrow-minded and prejudiced that we actually felt that way?
PEPE: You bought into it, didn’t you? (silence from all)
PEPE: Hey, I didn’t invent Kid Pepe. I just conformed to your image of a simple-minded Hispanic fighter.
Immediately after he says this, he launches into Shylock’s “I am a Jew. Hath / not a Jew eyes?” speech (The Merchant of Venice, III.i.60-68), inserting “Cuban” where Shylock says “Jew.”
After he finishes the monologue, Pepe says, “I also considered auditioning for the Actor’s Studio,” and the immediate sounds of the laugh track tell us that a Latino actor speaking Shakespeare would be a joke at such an audition. Even Pepe’s use of a word in its early modern / Shakespearean meaning is enough to cause confusion, and gain a laugh. When Pepe says he entered the fight because he will need “a purse” if he gets into Juilliard, Rose replies, “You need a purse to go to Juilliard?” (laugh track), and Dorothy quips, “You understood more when he spoke Spanish, didn’t you Rose?”(much laughter) Pepe’s reference to the money in prizefighting as "the purse" intersects with his understanding of Shakespeare, which extends beyond his performance; he has integrated both his work jargon and Shakespearean meanings into his everyday usage. If he speaks only Spanish, he is considered lesser-than by the women; if he speaks Shakespeare (or the language of sports), they are confused.
The music teacher expresses concern that if Pepe fights, he will hurt his hands, and therefore his chances to get into Juilliard. The ladies later try to convince him to throw the fight, which Pepe finds to be immoral. Once in the ring, the other fighter taunts Pepe at the outset, “Hey, Pepe, your mother’s a tramp.” Pepe responds, “I’m gonna kill you, González.” Here Pepe proves to have a greater ethical code than the women, but then he and the other Latino fighter (who we never see) succumb to a trope of Latinx masculinity. It results in Pepe getting knocked out immediately without even throwing a punch.
When Pepe later auditions, he does not recall playing the violin; he is suffering some memory loss due to the blow he took to the head. Dorothy prompts him, “They are not going to give you another chance because you’re Cuuban.” Pepe is confused, and the women repeat, “Because you’re Cuban.” This prompts Pepe to deliver his “But hath not a Cuban eyes?” monologue, and he is immediately accepted to Julliard. Blanche notes,
BLANCHE: I’m so glad Pepe has this opportunity to be an actor.
SOPHIA: Why, when was the last time you saw a Cuban Macbeth? (laugh track) He’ll get out of school and spend his whole career getting arrested on TV cop shows.
The show ends on this note, with Sophia faking a smile to congratulate Pepe. Pepe never got to audition with what he studied, classical violin. Instead, Sophia’s prediction for the roles open to a Latino actor in the 1980s results in laughter because it was unfortunately true. A commenter on IMDB noted that the actor who played Pepe, Chick Vennera, had a career spanning more than three decades and took numerous roles, including a recurring character on The Golden Girls named “Enrique Mas.” But Vennera was Italian, not Latino, and even still, never garnered any Shakespeare roles. With so few mainstream Latino celebrities, Rose analogies Pepe’s ability to speak English as better “than Sylvester Stallone;” the only point of comparison she has is to an Italian actor and Stallone’s character of an Italian-American boxer in the Rocky films.
The show’s title is a riff on Fiddler on the Roof, a famous piece of musical theatre about generational changes within a Jewish family, and Dorothy analogizes Pepe’s interaction with his music teacher to Golden Boy, a Clifford Odets play. The crossover of long-standing prejudice against Jews is now placed onto Latinx, a group positioned as potentially able to become acculturated—though not assimilated—into whiteness. And it is Pepe’s delivery of one of the most famous monologues about Jewish positionality and humanity that gets him into his career. But it is in fact not his desired career. Despite all his training in classical violin, his financial precarity causes him to take a risk, which ultimately results in his inability to remember how to play music. He sways the women, and the judges, with his acting and voice, but as Sophia jokingly notes, his future will be determined by his looks and ethnicity.
The episode includes elements that run throughout the series, including Sophia beginning a story, “Picture it. Sicily…, ” and tropes about gay men and fashion. But it also includes an acknowledgement of the position of people of color in white society, often used for humor. For example, “Kid Pepe” doesn’t speak English, and when Sophia wants him to leave the room, she barks, “Immigration Pepe, Immigration,” and he bolts out of the room as the laugh track comes on. Sophia met Pepe at a bus stop, and she brags to the other women that the 20% she will give Pepe is standard for a prize fighter “if he doesn’t speak English.” The women initially take part in the capitalist and cultural hierarchies that maintain themselves in a higher position than Pepe, and although they grow to realize their own culpability and ultimately help him to gain success, they and the laugh track that is the audience signal that Pepe will ultimately have a tough time succeeding. The episode is a mixture of social commentary and 1980s sitcom, and watching it again, I realized that over thirty years later, I still have never seen a Latino actor play Macbeth.
CARLA DELLA GATTA
 It is strange to think that the four actors and their characters (save Estelle Getty’s Sophia) were the same age as the women of And Just Like That (2021-present), the belated sequel of Sex and The City. Our ideas about women in their 50s have changed significantly in thirty years.
 Less than a year after this episode aired, Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá played Macbeth at The Public Theater. Garnering only mild reviews, it is the exception compared to the exuberant responses to his numerous other Shakespearean roles.