Seriously, New York City needs to screen Nacho Libre for our cops. That’s the implication of today’s news that an immigrant arrested in May while wearing a mask at a protest march was just vindicated in court. The case has been covered by the Spanish-language paper El Diario, but ignored by the mainstream media. That’s too bad, because it’s a textbook lesson not just in the city’s changing socio-culturality, but also in the blowback that can happen when liberals and lefties – misguidedly thinking they’re being progressive – comply in denying First Amendment rights to people and movements they hate.
It all started at this year’s immigrants’ rights march on May 1. Some 20,000 people showed up around Broadway and Astor Place. Lots were Mexicans – no surprise, since they’re the city’s fastest growing Latino immigrant group, and most are undocumented. One attendee, 25-year-old Rosendo Bonifacio, came with a few family members, including his brother. Some were wearing Lucha Libre masks similar to the one I’ve posted here.
The fellow in the picture is Fishman, one of Mexico’s big lucha champs. Everyone interested in pop culture should know already about people like him. And I don’t mean just culture south of the border, but also as expressed and enjoyed by Latinos and even gringos in the US – they love this stuff (click here). So does the S&M, B/D crowd, which lately has immigrated right along with Nacho to the big screen, a la The Notorious Bettie Page (a film so acceptable that I saw it for rent in the Atlanta airport DVD store yesterday).
OK, so Rosendo and some kin wanted to wear lucha libre masks at the demo. How come? Because over the last couple decades in Mexico, it’s become de rigueur for clever, showy community organizers to do the same while campaigning for their various movements. There’s Super Barrio, champion of the rights of the poor; Super Ecologista, fighter for the environment; Super Gay, hero for civil rights for homosexuals, and Super Animal, who works to outlaw cock fights and bull fights. Along with the masks, they wear Batman-style capes and spandex tights. They look like Clark Kent on acid right out of the phone booth, crossed with a Kiss concert. They’re nutty and dopily sexy looking and above all, sweet; they help turn politics into carnival, which in turn makes better politics. For more information on this longstanding and hopefully viable phenomenon, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing In the Streets. And check out the documentary film SuperAmigos. (The guy above, in case you’re dense, is Super Gay.) For Mexicans the lucha libre fighter has become emblematic of their struggle to endure, in their homeland and up north. Brooklyn artist and Mexico native Dulce Pinzon has a brilliant takeoff on the theme, in her photo series of nannies, deli countermen and other New York workers decked in superhero garb.
At Astor and Broadway, Rosendo was apparently donning his lucha gear, as were his relatives, when some of NYPD’s finest ordered him to nix the mask. According to police, Rosendo got physical about the prohibition. The whole thing turned into a nasty rout (click here for depressing YouTube documentation). That’s why Rosendo ended up in court.
But why a ban on masks in the first place?
Believe it or not, there’s a state law which says that unless they’re involved in something politically innocuous like a Halloween parade or Brazil night, no more than two people can congregate on the street in masks.
“Oh,” you’re probably saying, “there’s likely some righteous historical reason. Probably about combating the Klan, back when they were riding around with their faces under sheets so they could murder blacks.”
Nope. At least, not in New York. The current law actually evolved from a statute enacted in 1845, when it was used by rich estate owners to oppress impoverished tenant farmers in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. A few decades after the American Revolution, mega-landlords – who had been lax until then about collecting rent – started suing tenants for the money and evicting them en masse. By the early 1840s, thousands were fiercely fighting back. Tenants signed petitions, started a newspaper, lobbied the legislature, and held dances and meetings. Their goal was to end landlord control over estates and redistribute land to the tenants so they could be independent farmers. The ideal was Jeffersonian and maybe more.
Many tenants also bore arms to drive sheriffs off the estates and intimidate “scabs” who continued paying rent. They performed mummery while doing this, dressing as “Indians” in calico gowns and masks of sheepskin or painted muslin. Landlords responded by pressing for enactment of the 1845 anti-masking law. With modifications from the mid-1960s (which also ban men from cross dressing in public), it’s still on the books today.
The anti-masking law was almost overturned in 1999. That’s when the KKK tried to hold a rally in Manhattan, but Bernard Kerik – the Giuliani-era police chief – tried to get it canceled by invoking the old law. The New York chapter of the ACLU defended the Klan’s right to wear their sheets, amid scathing disagreement by many progressives who rightly abhor these scum but weren’t looking past their noses when it came to the First Amendment — which everyone deserves to the fullest extent possible, regardless of how revolting their ideas are — and that should include whatever they stick on their faces. In 2002, the law was deemed unconstitutional on appeal by judges who said it put unacceptable limits on free speech. But two years later, it was reinstated by yet another court, which ruled that the Klan already had white robes to convey its racist message, so it didn’t need hoods as well. The anti-masking law still stands. Legal reasoning today is: If you and your friends have on other clothing that makes your political point, you have no right to masks.
It’s pretty stupid and potentially pernicious, especially when you imagine a political protest of the future, with burka’d women ordered to de-veil under threat of arrest, since their long, body coverings already convey Islamic “messages.” According to the law, this could happen. People wearing hoods to protest Abu Ghraib and the war in Iraq might also be at risk. Use your imagination and I’m sure you’ll come up with more examples.
(Left: This is the mask of Mexican lucha fighter Judio — Spanish for “Jew.”)
El Diario didn’t say why Rosendo got off yesterday. I assume it was at least partly because a judge decided that for people in certain cultures, spandex over thighs and belly just isn’t enough to convey yearning for immigrant rights — the mask is needed, too. So the Mexican walked. But like I said, who knows what will happen to the next batch of ethnics who dare dress for protest success?
Meanwhile, can we get the cops to a theater to see Nacho? And maybe eat nachos, but give them popcorn, too. The word in Mexican Spanish for that movie munchie is palomitas, meaning, literally, “little doves.” Diminutive signs of peace – paz, as they say in Spanish. As common and vital to the city as pigeons, and often as little tolerated, much less loved.