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Bless me Oprah, for I have sinned: mainstreaming Father Alberto

20 July 2011

Although the largest religious denomination in the United States is the Roman Catholic Church, and the United States — depending on how you measure these things — is one of the five largest Spanish-speaking nations, what is broadly defined in the United States as “Hispanic” culture really doesn’t influence the culture there as much as it is influenced by it.

Case in point.  “Father Alberto”, another TV chat show now being tested in a few U.S. markets, through the auspices of the Oprah Winfrey Network.

As “Padre Alberto,” Alberto Cutié — at the time a Roman Catholic priest — had a highly successful chat-show produced for Telemundo, the Spanish-language U.S. television network, and distributed widely throughout Latin America.  The  Florida priest’s television career came to a crashing halt, after exposure (not in a U.S. gossip rag, but in a Mexican one) of his affair with a woman.  As scandals go, this wouldn’t be all that big a deal in Latin America (where there is a long tradition of priests having discrete relations with women) but, coming on the heels of scandals involving Roman Catholic clerics and minors (usually of the same gender) it received more coverage in the English-language press than most Latin American television star scandals.  And, of course, Padre Cutié, being a public figure, made it difficult to ignore the scandal.

Alberto Cutié left the Roman Catholic Church, and was ordained in the Episcopal Church (and made an honest woman of his girlfriend, in a wedding officiated at by the Cuban-born Episcopal Bishop of Miami, with the retired Episcopal Bishop of Venezuela — who resides in Miami — assisting at the altar.  And, having moved theologically to an Anglo community (they don’t call them Anglicans for nothin’) has moved linguistically to be born again as “Father Alberto” on English-language television.

I really have very little interest in “Father Oprah” (as the U.S. press has started calling him), but his career is an perfect example of assimilation, and why I often point out that “Latinos” and “Latin American” (and, by extension,  Mexican and Mexican-American) are very different groups of people.

Cutié is not an immigrant, not in the political sense.  His parents were Cuban, but he is a native of Puerto Rico, thus a United States citizen by birth.  Linguistically and culturally, moving to the “mainland”, even in Spanish-speaking majority south Florida, he is an immigrant by culture … and, as with every other immigrant, is expected to adapt to the majority expectations, and is hard-pressed not to.

Assimilation: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be

There’s nothing particularly sinister or coercive in assimilation… it just happens… by assimilation, I suppose.  The culture of the United States has been set by its original ruling class[i], English-speaking Protestants.  It wasn’t unusual when I was in south Texas to run into third, or fourth, or sixth generation Tejanos who were Methodists or Episcopalians or even Southern Baptists, and spoke little, or no, Spanish.

Catholicism in the United States — “mainstream” Catholicism at any rate, whatever the theological similarities (and I’m not qualified to say anything about that, so I won’t) doesn’t have the “look and feel” of any other “mainstream” U.S. religion.  A friend of mine, who might be called a retro Catholic, has no problem with guitars and even ukeleles at Mass, but he did draw the line at trumpets.  When I pointed out that they were common in Mexican churches (and accordians and sometimes a tuba, at least around here) his response was “well, I wasn’t thinking of Hispanic churches”.

Liberace wasn't the only one with a candalabra on the set

And, while the first televangalist was a Roman Catholic priest (Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen), religious television, was more or less a Protestant (and, perhaps in a bow to Bishop Sheen, and his fellow star of the 50s and 60s, Liberace) flamboyant… and somewhat “ghettoized” as lower class or, at least, appealing to what most Americans would consider unsophisticated people.

Emotionalism doesn’t fit the mainstream American image, and even some of the more flamboyant and outre religious figures (like Pat Roberson) developed a more “mainstream” format, more comforting to the U.S. middle-class audiences, who expected their churches, and their televisions, to non-threatening, sympathetic authority figures (I’m talking about the image, not the message.  Pat Roberson was, is, and always will be a scary dude). And, being addicted to quick fixes, whether sitting in a pew, or in front of a television, people in the United States expect a quick resolution to “issues”.  Preferably other people’s issues.

Jimmy Swaggert, and the colorful faith-healers, as well as Jerry Springer, gave the quick fixes people want, but it was Oprah who broke through the barrier to respectability and middle-class respectability …  I don’t know how she did it, but for a heavy-set black woman she just had the right — something — to project the sympathetic, non-threatening authoritative problem-solver that television audiences wanted.

While Latin American television has developed similar programming, such programs are culturally based in our own expectations.  Laura en America owes as much to Sabado Gigante as it does to Jerry Springer.  And, of course, being in

Laura Bozzo, Peru's answer to Jerry Springer

Spanish, the market is limited in the United States.  And “Padre Alberto” could only exist on Latin American television.  Since Fulton Sheen went off the air, the image of the Catholic priest has changed dramatically in U.S. mainstream culture, and the nuances of Roman Catholicism, that are part of Latin culture (even for the Protestants, religiously indifferent and militant anti-clerical), aren’t likely to be stressed or accepted, except by the retro Catholics that have their own television programs and niche network.  As a Episcopal priest, I don’t know that he’ll lose all that much of the Latin audience that understands English (Latins … and this is a stereotype I know… tending to accept that clothes make the man… or the collar makes the priest).

Although Cutié starts out with a few advantages over Oprah (he’s male, and he’s…er… blessed with being conventionally handsome), and his slight accent is unlikely to turn off mainstream viewers whether the mainstream is ready for a talk-show problem-solving authority figure with a Roman collar is a question.  Marketing for the program seems to depend on both the novelty of having a priest as host.  The marketeers in selling Cutié’s notoriety are trying to both capture the market for other talk show hosts initially famous for falling from grace (Jerry Springer was a Ohio politician until he paid for a hooker by check,  and it  bounced) and those who seek a more “spiritual” authority, one that can, though, provide absolution and forgiveness, not for our sins, but vicariously for other people’s social failures.

Scott Fitzgerald in WASP drag

Scott Fitzgerald may have believed “there is no second act in American life,” but then Scott … having reinvented his lace-curtain Irish self as a WASP … never had a television show, and never talked to Oprah.

[i]Having become interested in why the English and Spanish (and, by extension, English and Spanish-speaking Americans) have been at odds since the 16th century, I’ve been reading back through Spanish history  — which leads to the Reconquista, which leads to al Andalus, which leads to Albert Hourani’s “A History of the Arab Peoples” (Faber and Faber, 1991).  Writing of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the  French “mandates” in Lebanon and Syria after World War I, Hourani  notes that  Roman Catholicism absorbed a good number of Christians, who left traditional Arab Christian sects, as they also adopted French as their language.

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