Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Be Italian?' No, be a Mexican (Video)

I'll confess that I've never seen the film or stage versions of "Nine," so I had no idea what "Be Italian" sounded like when a colleague sent me this video of a local singer who tweaked the lyrics. Which is fine, because her version of it, "Be a Mexican" is brilliant in its own right.

The singer is Elysa Gomez, a contestant in the "Cabaret Idol" show at the Hollywood Studio Bar and Grill. The weekly show, a cabaret mini-version of American Idol, has been running since Jan. 23 and will conclude this Sunday.

The backstory to the lyrics: Gomez, whose day job is substitute teaching, grew up third-generation Mexican American in a relatively affluent Glendale family, the child of artists who had grown up in East Los Angeles and gradually moved west.

"I always hated to talk about growing up not knowing how to speak Spanish, and how the kids called me a fake Mexican," Gomez said by phone the other day. "I even had my Spanish teachers making fun of me. This has been a constant theme, that I was a sellout, an American Mexican princess, whitewashed, all these different things they would say."

Last month, the cabaret show assigned the contestants to come up with a humorous song. Gomez was listening to music on her iPod when "Be Italian" came on. "I thought, 'Be a Mexican!' At work during my break, I started rewriting all the lyrics. I started thinking, what are the things that would make me a real Mexican?"

Hence the references to everything from telenovelas to Frida Kahlo and arroz con leche, all tongue-in-cheek seals of authenticity that make one wonder, what constitutes ethnic authenticity, anyway?

Gomez is one of five finalists in the cabaret contest. The winner will be decided Sunday.

UPDATE: Gomez didn't win the Cabaret Idol contest, but as one of the runners-up, she'll get to perform again at the club in the future. The date hasn't been determined yet.