Themes and Meanings
“I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” dramatizes the conflict Mexican Americans (and by implication all Americans) suffer in their pursuit of the homogenizing American Dream: How does one achieve material success as American culture defines it without sacrificing one’s ancestral heritage? This conflict is most acute in the play’s protagonist, Sonny, who experiences a classic identity crisis. Sonny is trapped in a life “on the hyphen,” the son of Chicano parents, at home neither in the Anglo culture of Harvard Law School nor in the indigenous Mexican culture to which even his parents pay little respect. In this sense, then, the play explores Sonny’s longing to recover a sense of the past and to establish a historical consciousness as the foundation of an identity. However, for all Sonny’s efforts, which have included a trip to the sacred grounds in the Mayan jungle, he can root his identity only as far back as a single generation. When his father asks him whether he has found out who he is, Sonny can only reply, “Your son—for whatever that’s worth.”
Sonny’s failure to restore a history to his family forms the basis of the play’s satiric indictment of both the “televisionized” American culture and people such as the members of the Villa family who yield to it. The ultimate responsibility, however, may be personal, for the ersatz Aztec calendar stone that hangs from the Villa fireplace symbolizes the family’s numbness to their own heritage. Indeed, Buddy, Connie, and Sonny Villa can speak in little else except metaphors drawn from television and films.
Stasis permeates the play, so that at the end all arrive at the point where they began: Buddy and Connie are still the Silent Bit King and Queen who believe in their own happy ending, and Sonny is returning to Harvard to renew his pursuit of material wealth and power. While Anita does make progress toward her goal, it serves dramatically to emphasize Sonny’s regression. Even the flaunting of Anglo authority that is expressed in the play’s title is presented as an empty—and purely fictional—gesture on Buddy’s part. In the tradition of social satire, this play holds up the mirror to an element of American society not usually visible—the immigrant bourgeoisie—and in so doing reveals a culture whose values have been corroded as a result of accepting Hollywood’s version of reality.