His swagger is obvious as he strides in from the parking lot into Cleveland’s spring training facility. He is shirtless wearing just a thick necklace with a cross underneath a long stylish coat. His chiseled physique immediately draws the attention of the Cleveland Indians staff—and viewers.
“Who is that?” newly hired Indians manager Lou Brown asks. “Must be Cerrano, he defected from Cuba—wanted religious freedom,” answered the team’s general manager. “What’s his religion,” Brown inquired. “Voodoo,” the general manager replied.
Pedro “Pete” Cerrano’s entrance sets up an exaggerated portrayal of a Cuban baseball defector in “Major League.” Cerrano, played by Dennis Haysbert, is an Indians roster hopeful. He is the team’s lone Afro-Latino who is superstitious and practices Voodoo. His outlandish behavior makes him memorable for some, forgettable for others.
“Major League,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, often ranks well in lists of favorite baseball movies. The Cerrano character is the main reason the film doesn’t make mine.
Cerrano, like others before him, made the Afro-Latino experience in baseball something to laugh at instead of expanding cultural understandings.
Exaggeration of the Familiar
Cerrano is a slugger struggling to establish his place in the major leagues. The curveball is his weakness. He turns to the fictitious Voodoo god Jo-Bu to help him conquer the breaking pitch. He offers tribute of cigar and rum to Jo-Bu. “Jésus, I like him very much. He no help me hit curveball,” he explains to teammates.
Eduardo Pérez, ESPN broadcaster and son of Hall of Famer Tony Pérez, found Cerrano’s antics comical. Haysbert’s ‘Cuban’ accent made it obvious Cerrano wasn’t a real Cuban. This made Cerrano a character that wasn’t to be taken seriously.
Accents influence how individuals are perceived. How words are pronounced can make people laugh, but for different reasons.
“Baseball has been very, very good to me” was made popular by Chico Escuela, a fictitious Dominican player. Escuela appeared as the sports correspondent for the Weekend Update segment on “Saturday Night Live” in episodes that aired in 1979 and 1980. He spoke broken English and often said his now famous line during his appearances.
Like Cerrano, Escuela was an exaggeration of an Afro-Latino ballplayer. Their English was hard to understand. Their antics revealed their foreign-ness and that they were not yet culturally assimilated.
Part of the inspiration for the Escuela character was Dominican ballplayer Manny Mota, African American comedian Garrett Morris shared in a 2012 interview.
Morris’s declaration showed how perceptions of actual Latino players were partly the basis for creation of fictional Afro-Latino characters.
“I took it with a grain of salt,” said Amaury Pi-González, long-time sports broadcaster whose family fled Cuba in 1961. “Cerrano is a fictitious character.”
Cerrano could be easily dismissed due to being such an exaggerated character, Pi-González noted. Tony Montana, central protagonist in Brian De Palma’s 1983 movie “Scarface,” cannot.
De Palma’s film influenced how many Americans perceived Cuban refugees. Montana proclaimed himself a Marielito in the film—nearly 125,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s rule during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. The violent drug kingpin’s declaration in the now cult classic contributed to the perception of Marielitos as criminals and as people not to be trusted as ‘true’ refugees fleeing political persecution.
The scene in “Major League” where Cerrano is introduced also calls into question the authenticity of Cuban refugees arriving in the 1980s. His flight from Cuba for freedom of religion is diminished when it is stated his religion is Voodoo.
Out at Home
On-screen portrayals of Afro-Latino ballplayers were rare in film and on television shows. Their purpose was to entertain when they did appear. Fictitious players like Cerrano and Escuela were not created to be like Roberto Clemente. They were not insistent that all Latinos were worthy of respect or determined to educate others about the challenges Latinos faced.
Clemente refused to be reduced to simple stereotypes. The proud Puerto Rican bowed out of a scene in the 1968 movie “The Odd Couple.” The script called for him to ground into a triple play. Not realistic, Clemente protested. He would never be thrown out at first on a ground ball triple play. The Great One also worried the scene might have been perceived as supporting the lazy Latino stereotype—their unwillingness to work hard—according to biographer Kal Wagenheim’s 1973 book “Clemente!”.
These fictitious characters take kernels of truth from the experience of Latinos in baseball and use them as the basis for comic relief. As a Latino baseball fan, there were few characters in baseball movies or on television shows that we could point to and say ‘that’s my people’ or ‘that’s our history right there.’ Rather, the experience and cultures of Latinos, especially Afro-Latinos, too often became the basis of the joke.
Cerrano hit particularly close to home—literally and figuratively. The story of Cuban refugees was familiar due to my growing up in south Florida in the 1980s. The challenges many of them faced in leaving their native land and adjusting to life in a new country was no laughing matter.
That’s why, for me, Cerrano struck out.
Featured Image: “Major League”