Tuesday, September 30, 2014

From Marianao to Mayberry

The first episode of The Andy Griffith Show aired fifty-four years ago this Friday. We asked noted writer and scholar Gustavo Pérez Firmat (one of Newsweek's 100 Americans to watch for in the 21st century”) to reflect on what the show meant to him as a Cuban exile and immigrant to the United States. His new book, A Cuban in Mayberry: Looking Back at America's Hometown, wrestles with the "irreplaceable intimacy between person and place" and explores how his addiction to reruns of The Andy Griffith Show provided an illusion of belonging to a community in which he never would have felt accepted.

We hope you enjoy this fascinating and touching tribute to a classic American cultural product from a very unique perspective.

From Marianao to Mayberry
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By Gustavo Pérez Firmat

The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS to aficionados) premiered on CBS on Monday October 3, 1960. Exactly three weeks later, on Monday October 24, I left Cuba with my parents, my two brothers and my sister on an overnight ferry to Key West called, of all things, The City of Havana. I was eleven years old. My parents were in their late thirties. That evening, as the City of Havana was crossing the Florida straits, CBS broadcast the fourth episode of TAGS, which has to do with the arrival in Mayberry of Ellie Walker, the first of Andy’s several girlfriends. As Ellie was beginning a new life in Mayberry, the Pérez family was beginning a new life in America. Ours would take me from Marianao, the Havana neighborhood where I was born, to Miami, where I grew up, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I’ve lived most of my adult life, and from there to Mayberry, the fictional town where The Andy Griffith Show takes place.

A Cuban in Mayberry tells the story of how I became an undocumented Mayberrian, the town’s resident alien, the lone Cuban coot in a flock of Southern geezers. If our work should be the praise of what we love, as John Ruskin believed, this is the story of my late-blooming love affair with an imaginary town and its citizens—call it a Mayberry-December romance.

The last episode of TAGS was broadcast more than 46 years ago, on April Fools Day, 1968, but the show has never lost its appeal. During TAGS’ last season on CBS it had a weekly audience of about fifteen and a half million viewers. In 1998 the Christian Science Monitor estimated that every day about five million people watched TAGS reruns on more than one hundred television stations across the country. Sixteen years later, TAGS is still syndicated in almost one hundred local TV markets. When the show commemorated its 50th anniversary in 2010, the milestone was observed in TAGS nation with a telethon on TVLand, a festival in Mount Airy, North Carolina (Andy Griffith’s hometown, the model for Mayberry), and the maiden race of the “Andy Griffith” stock car at the Banking 500 in Charlotte (“Andy” finished 31st). Websites devoted to the show abound. One of them, “The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club” (tagsrwc.com), originally a fan club founded at Vanderbilt University, has grown to more than twenty-thousand members and over a thousand local chapters with such names as “All Us Fifes Are Sensitive,” “Pipe Down, Otis,” “Aunt Bee’s Pickles,” “Briscoe’s Jug,” and “Ernest T. Bass Window Removers.” Offering thirty-two different "fixins," Mayberry’s Finest, a line of canned foods, made its debut in stores throughout the South in 2007. The Mayberry Ice Cream Restaurants, a chain of soup and sandwich shops, have existed in North Carolina since 1969.

For countless Americans, classic sitcoms like TAGS, Happy Days, or Saved by the Bell make up the soundtrack of their childhoods. The soundtrack of my childhood was Cuban-exile political talk and boleros. In fact I didn’t watch a complete episode of TAGS until four decades later. After teaching at Duke University for many years, I took a job at Columbia University in New York City. Once I became a part-time northerner, an unexpected thing happened. I started to miss North Carolina. I became homesick for a place that I’d never considered home. Unbeknownst to me, all those years in the Old North State had turned me into a Carolina Cuban, a cubanazo redneck, spic and hick in roughly equal parts.

To mitigate my longing for the South and its comforts, I began to watch reruns of TAGS. After a while, the two or three episodes that came on TVLand in the afternoons did not provide enough of a fix, and so I got the series on DVD—all 249 episodes of it. And when that wasn’t enough, I managed to find the 78 episodes of the sequel, Mayberry R.F.D. For as long as each episode lasted, I was no longer a Cuban exile, I became a Mayberrian. I knew as much about the Friendly Town as any of the locals. I could tell apart the Buntley twins. I knew that it was in room 209 of the Mayberry Hotel where Wilbur Hennessey got drunk and fell out the window. I knew that Sarah, the switchboard operator, takes a pinch of snuff now and then and that Barney subscribes to a men’s magazine called Love. And I discovered that Andy’s true love is not Helen Crump, the woman he eventually marries, but Sharon DeSpain, his high school sweetheart.

As I spent part of each day in Mayberry, I realized that my fascination with the show had as much to do with my status as a foreigner, and more concretely, as an exile, as with North Carolina. Unlike other TAGS fans, I wasn’t watching the show to relive the golden years of my childhood. It’s not always true that the allure of reruns depends on the viewer’s memory track, which the rerun jogs. It can be equally true that the allure of a rerun can reside in the fact that it’s not a rerun in any personal sense, that it takes us to a time and a place where we’ve never been.

I envied Mayberrians because, unlike me, they don’t spend their lives among strangers. Indeed, they do everything they can to avoid them. Following the biblical precept, Mayberrians love their neighbors—but to the exclusion of everyone else. One part of me found the townspeople’s xenophobia distasteful; another part of me wished that I was part of the club.

Someone who emigrates leaves behind many things, but none more strictly irreplaceable than the intimacy between person and place. Watching TAGS, I came to understand how it must feel to enjoy such intimacy, to feel rooted in the ground under your feet and to know that you live among people who are similarly rooted. Everyone was born someplace, but not everybody has a hometown, for the term designates an intensity of connection that not all of us have experienced. What I liked about TAGS was Mayberry and what I liked about Mayberrians was that they lived in their hometown, which was the whole of their world. For Andy and his neighbors, the town and its environs, what in Spanish is called la patria chica, the small homeland, is as far as their eyes can see.

My interest in the show as a mitigation of exile dictated the structure of the book. In the first part I look at the Mayberrian world as a whole—its geography, atmosphere, the distinction between outsider and insider, and the townsfolk’s view of history. The last chapter of this section, an extended obituary, traces the decline and fall of Mayberry as it evolves from TAGS to Mayberry R.F.D. and subsequently to the 1986 reunion movie, Return to Mayberry. In the second part of the book I draw partial portraits of the local worthies to explain how they contribute to the character of the place. If in Part 1 the discussion of the Mayberrian sense of place is motivated my own displacement, the portraits in Part 2 are underwritten by an exile’s search for community. Throughout, my aim was been to understand, on the one hand, the conditions that make possible the intimacy of person and place, and on the other, the sequence of events that leads to the erosion of this intimacy.

In “Mountain Wedding,” an episode from the third season, Barney Fife takes his leave from Briscoe Darling, the patriarch of a hillbilly clan, by saying, “Adios, amigo,” the only Spanish words ever uttered in TAGS. When Barney says this, Briscoe turns to Andy with a puzzled expression and asks: “He one of ours?” Of course, Barney is one of theirs, of that place and of those people, even if he is sometimes loathe to admit it.

Were this question addressed to me, I’d have to answer it in the negative. If nothing else, my southern accent—from the truly deep South—would give me away. Groucho Marx once quipped that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member. Unlike Groucho, I belong to a club that perhaps wouldn’t have me as a member. Mayberrian soil—red clay—is not receptive to transplants. Imagine someone walking into the Mayberry Diner and ordering arroz con pollo. He would be run out of town.

And yet I treasure what Mayberry has given me, the illusion of belonging, the sense that things could be otherwise. It may not be much, but I’m grateful to have it. The Cuban-American poet Ricardo Pau Llosa once wrote: “The exile knows his place. It is the imagination.” When I was young my imagination transported me to Cuba. Now it takes me to Mayberry. As the grandson of Spanish immigrants who later became Cuban exiles, and as the son of Cuban exiles who refused to become immigrants, I’m happy to inhabit a world whose residents will never be forced to become exiles or immigrants. That such a world does not exist only makes it more necessary.

When Andy Griffith passed away in the summer of 2012, all of North Carolina seemed to go into mourning. In addition to the normal reruns, local stations launched week-long TAGS marathons, and thousands of North Carolinians sent in testimonials about the impact of the program on their lives. Some said that they had learned from Sheriff Andy how to raise their children; others talked about the joy that the program had brought them. A woman from Greenville wrote: “Andy is my hero. He has been for most of my 49 years. Andy represented the very best of what makes North Carolina so special. My family will never forget him.” Countless others echoed this sentiment; Andy—the actor as well as the character—was a “true Tarheel.”

I was tempted to add my own testimonial, but I was reluctant to do so. As someone who was raised by people who wouldn’t know a dumpling from a duck, and, moreover, as a newcomer to Mayberry, I didn’t share the experiences of the authors of the testimonials. I felt like the stranger who shows up at a funeral and no one knows what he is doing there. Instead I wrote A Cuban in Mayberry, the belated testimonial of a true-enough Tarheel.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Gustavo- Wanna' go down to Wally's for a bottle of pop? I'm buyin'!