Latinos and Cinema

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Latinos and Cinema


Latinos/Hispanics are people with ancestry in Latin-American countries or the US Southwest, which was part of Mexico prior to 1848. The term "Hispanic," which has been used by the US government since the 1970s, includes people whose ancestry can be traced back to Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries; it tends to emphasize European ancestry. Because many people choose not to trace their ancestry back to Europe, or hail from Latin-American countries that are not Spanish-dominant, the term "Latino" is increasingly a preferred term for individuals of Latin-American heritage. "Latino" also is written as "Latino/a" or "Latina/o"; this designation combines the male designation of Latin o in Spanish with the female designation of Latin a to emphasize reference to both women and men. For the sake of clarity, the term "Latino" is used here to refer to both women and men.

As individuals with ancestry in countries with radically different histories, cultures, and relationships to the United States, Latinos are a diverse group. These histories contribute to widely varied situations for Latinos in the United States in terms of class, education, and citizenship. Latinos also span a range of races as defined by the US census. Mexican Americans made up the largest group of Latinos in the United States in 2000, comprising about 58.5 percent of all Latinos, followed by Puerto Ricans (10%), Cuban Americans (3.5%), and smaller but rapidly increasing numbers of Latinos of Central and South American descent. While Spanish-language usage is at times a commonality among Latinos, that is not always the case, as US Latinos may or may not speak Spanish.

Latinos have undergone an eventful evolution both behind the scenes and on the screen in American film. The participation of Latinos in American film is increasingly important to film scholarship, as the Latino population in the United States continues to grow rapidly. Latinos currently are the largest nonwhite group in the United States, comprising an estimated 13.7 percent of the population in 2003, according to the US Census Bureau.


Historically, Latinos have seldom been the protagonists of Hollywood film stories, and their characters typically have been marginal and underdeveloped when they do appear. The use of stereotypes has been a major facet of Latino film representation, particularly in the era of classical Hollywood. In past decades, Latino characters often were presented as especially sexual, childlike, or aggressive. Although some films exhibited more positive or complex imagery of Latinos, the overall history is not fully known because scholarship in this area is relatively new. Prominent scholars of Latino film representation include Chon Noriega, Charles Ramírez Berg, Ana M. López, Clara Rodríguez, and Rosa Linda Fregoso.

The early negative stereotyping of Latinos in film has a direct relationship to the history of Latinos, and specifically Mexican Americans, in the United States. Mexicans and, later, Mexican Americans were often seen as impediments to the move westward by European settlers in the 1800s; notions of "Manifest Destiny" circulated in frontier literature, and other artifacts of popular culture tended to pose Mexican Americans as inferior in intelligence and integrity and thus unworthy of the rights of citizenship. Early films merely rearticulated these "American" stereotypes in their imagery of Mexican Americans and Mexicans. Films of later decades extended such stereotypes to Central and South Americans.

In the first few decades after the birth of American film in the late 1890s, a few Latinos in fact were involved in filmmaking or appeared as actors in films. These individuals were all from economically privileged backgrounds and had predominantly Spanish ancestry, however. In this time period there was no centralized film industry; rather, filmmaking consisted of entrepreneurs scattered around the country making silent motion pictures. A few Americans of Latino descent who made early silent films in this capacity included the actresses Myrtle Gonzalez (1891–1918) and Beatriz Michelena (1890–1942), who also produced the adventure films she starred in. As a small number of film production companies rose to dominate the industry in the 1910s and 1920s, Latinos working behind the scenes in film production virtually disappeared, however. They did not reappear in substantial numbers until the 1970s.

The earliest Latino characters appeared in silent westerns; they often played the villainous "greaser" opposing the white hero. Films that capitalized on this storyline included Tony the Greaser (1911) and The Greaser's Revenge (1914). The term "greaser," which was in popular usage at the time, was then used to describe Mexican bandits and other lazy, untrustworthy Mexican characters. Such representations began the Hollywood pattern of establishing Latino characters as "others" in contrast to whites. These images were not exported to Latin-American countries without protest, however. Complaints and a boycott of Hollywood films by the Mexican government in the early 1920s eventually led film producers to take care to disassociate negative Latino characters from identification with any particular country, leading to pan-Latino representations that typically still were denigrating.

In the mid-1920s there was a boom in opportunity experienced by a few, light-skinned Latino actors and actresses. Inspired by the immense popularity of the Italian actor Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), the original "Latin Lover," film producers provided opportunities to a few Latinos, including Mexican-born Ramon Novarro (1899–1968), Dolores Del Rio (1905–1983), Gilbert Roland (1905–1994), and Lupe Velez (1908–1944). These actors and actresses were cast in major roles, often as passionate, sensuous Latin Lover types, and became international stars in silent films of the mid- to late 1920s. The Latin Lover image capitalized on notions that Latinos were innately passionate and sexual, particularly in comparison with their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, with this sensuality at times paired with more negative traits of aggression or sadomasochism. These often were actually not Latino roles, moreover, but in fact characters of other ethnicities and nationalities. Latino film characters still were typical villains or servants in this era.


The intense popularity of the Latin Lover ended in the early 1930s. In this period, the transition to sound film and shifting American ideologies after the onset of the Great Depression resulted in Latino actors and actresses generally losing the chance to be promoted as stars equal to white Americans. "All-American" stars were favored over foreign or ethnic actors, while Latino actors suffered in relation to American scapegoating of Mexican Americans during this period of unemployment crisis. Now that accents could be heard, Latino actors and actresses generally found themselves marginalized in minor roles or exaggerated their accents to comic effect, as was the case for Lupe Velez in such roles as that of the daffy "Mexican Spitfire" in a popular early 1940s film series. In addition, Latinos typically were not cast in "white" roles, regardless of how fair-skinned they might be. This Hollywood standard reinforced an imaginary racial hierarchy that deemed Latinos nonwhite and non-American. Hollywood film roles for Latinos in the sound era often included only violent and shiftless Latino bandits and cantina girls in westerns. The Latino actors who were cast in more challenging roles and maintained the busiest careers in the studio system–dominated decades of the 1930s and 1940s included former silent film stars Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez, Cuban actor Cesar Romero (1907–1994), and Mexican-Irish newcomer Anthony Quinn (1915–2001).

The few leading Latino roles in films often were cast with Anglo actors, a Hollywood tradition that has continued (but decreased) in recent years. Cases of Anglo actors in "brownface" over the decades have included Paul Muni as a hotheaded Mexican American lawyer in Bordertown (1935), Marlon Brando's turn as Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! (1952), Natalie Wood's role as a young Puerto Rican woman in West Side Story (1961), and more recently, the casting of non-Latinos in multiple Latino roles in The House of the Spirits (1993) and The Perez Family (1995).

Some new opportunities arose in "Good Neighbor" films of the 1940s, however. This cycle of films, with story lines set in Latin-American locales, was released just prior to and during the war years of the early 1940s. During this period of the US government's Good Neighbor Policy, the United States sought to encourage ongoing political ties with Latin-American countries. In support of these efforts, Hollywood studios produced and exported films that emphasized the celebration of Latin-American cultures and themes of friendship and cooperation. They also hoped to recoup some of the financial losses they were incurring while European markets were closed to US film exports. The films produced as a part of this cycle included biographical dramas and Latin-themed musicals, such as Disney's animated film The Three Caballeros (1945) and the Twentieth Century Fox musical Weekend in Havana (1941). Actors such as Cesar Romero, Lupe Velez, and Ricardo Montalban (b. 1920) found opportunities in this cycle of films, although generally only in minor Latin Lover roles, playing second fiddle to white American leads. Several stars with musical abilities were imported from Latin America to perform in musical numbers and play supporting roles in Good Neighbor musicals. Among the most successful were Cuban performer Desi Arnaz (1917–1986) and singer-actress Carmen Miranda (1909–1955), who was born in Portugal but had grown up in Brazil. Miranda, known for her exaggerated costumes and performance style, appeared in many musicals of the cycle. In musical numbers such as "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat" Miranda came to symbolize the comic, tropical Latina, a stereotype that is widely known today.

A new genre of films that at times represented US Latinos and their social issues, the social-problem film, also appeared in the late 1940s and 1950s. This postwar cycle of films strove for realism and emphasized exposing real-life social inequities. Some of the social-problem films that addressed discrimination faced by Mexican Americans in their communities included A Medal for Benny (1945) and The Ring (1952). The genre began to wane with the federal government's hunt for communists in Hollywood in this same period. This had a chilling effect, particularly as the film industry blacklisted film professionals whose political beliefs were considered too critical of the United States. The best-known social-problem film with a focus on Mexican Americans, Salt of the Earth (1953), in fact was made by blacklisted filmmakers. It related the true story of Mexican-American miners and their wives who had managed to successfully strike against a zinc mine company for unsafe and exploitive working conditions.

As studios became disinterested in making Latin-themed films and social-problem films, Latino actors and actresses again had fewer opportunities. Some, in attempting to maintain their careers, downplayed their Latino heritage. Actors such as Anthony Quinn and the Puerto Rican actor Jose Ferrer (1909–1992) often did not address their heritage in their publicity during these years. Similarly, in later decades actors such as Raquel Welch (b. Jo Raquel Tejada in 1940) and Martin Sheen (b. Ramon Estevez in 1940) changed their names to avoid Hollywood typecasting. Others, such as the Puerto Rican performer Rita Moreno (b. 1931), who began her Hollywood career in 1950, tried to stay true to their ethnic roots, but they struggled with limited opportunities and roles that continued to play on previous stereotypes. Beginning in the 1960s these roles included juvenile delinquents and gang members in urban dramas such as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and West Side Story (1961), and new versions of the bandit role in Italian and Hollywood westerns, such as Sergio Leone's Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 1966) and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969).


In this same time period, Latinos were beginning to take matters into their own hands with respect to filmmaking. Latino feature filmmaking has its roots in political activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in particular the Chicano and Puerto Rican civil-rights movements. In the 1960s many Mexican Americans and other Latinos became involved with civil-rights activism, fighting for equal rights and respect for Latinos in US social institutions, including the mass media. It was during this period that the term "Chicano" began to be embraced as a label of pride by many Mexican Americans.

The fight for more positive film representations was fought on two main fronts by Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other Latino activists. On one front, Latino media-advocacy groups such as CARISSMA and JUSTICIA protested images that were seen as negative stereotypes and demanded training opportunities and employment for Latinos in the US television and film industries. On another front, some Chicano and Latino activists began producing short films in conjunction with their activism. These films are generally considered the first wave of Chicano, Puerto-Rican, and Cuban-American cinemas. These early activist-filmmakers included Moctesuma Esparza, Sylvia Morales, Jesus Salvador Treviño, Susan Racho, and Luis Valdez (b. 1940). Some were also among the first Latinos to be able to enter film schools and receive formal training.

These films of early Chicano and Latino cinema are notable for their anti-Hollywood and pro-movement ideals of promoting ethnic political consciousness and pride. Manifestos written by proponents and practitioners of early Chicano cinema, for instance, note its aim to serve as an antidote to how Latinos historically had been represented and employed in film. To this end, the tenets of Chicano cinema included a focus on education and uplift of Chicanos and the aim to serve as a countercinema to Hollywood. Many early Chicano films in fact were documentaries produced on shoestring budgets that highlighted social issues and celebrated Mexican-American culture and identity. Such films included Valdez's I Am Joaquin (1969), Treviño's Yo Soy Chicano (1972), David Garcia's Requiem 29 (1971), Racho's Garment Workers (1975), and Morales's Chicana (1979).

b. Delano, California, 26 June 1940

Writer-director Luis Valdez has often been described as the father of Chicano theater and cinema; he also is notable for creating bridges between these creative worlds and Hollywood cinema. The son of migrant farm workers in California, Valdez began his creative career as a playwright while a student at San Jose State University in the early 1960s. When a boycott of California grapes in support of Mexican-American farm workers began in 1965, he returned to his childhood home to participate in the efforts of the United Farm Workers (UFW). In support of the UFW he founded Teatro Campesino (the Farmworkers Theater) in 1965. The theater group served to inform, encourage, and entertain Chicano farm workers with its humorous and socially incisive skits called "actos," often performing on flatbed trucks in the fields. He also produced the short film I Am Joaquin (1969), based on an epic poem by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales, which celebrated Chicano identity and became an anthem of the Chicano movement.

Several of Valdez's theatrical projects made their way to film and television over the years. The first was Zoot Suit, a retelling of the early 1940s "zoot suit riots," during which Mexican Americans suffered injustices at the hands of white American servicemen in Los Angeles. Drawing from interviews and archival research on the related 1942 trial of Henry Leyva and eight other Mexican-American youths in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, Valdez crafted a play that foregrounded Chicano voices and experience in regional and national theater. Zoot Suit was the first play by a Mexican American to be produced on Broadway. As a film, Zoot Suit (1981) starred Valdez's brother, Daniel, and costarred Edward James Olmos in one of his first starring roles. Shot in just two weeks on a low budget, the film deftly brings the energy and theatricality of a full-scale musical to the screen. It is seen as a masterpiece of Chicano cinema and has served as an inspiration to a new generation of Latino filmmakers.

The critical success of Zoot Suit led to Valdez's second feature film, La Bamba (1987), about the 1950s Mexican-American rock singer Ritchie Valens. La Bamba was one of the first films distributed by a major studio in an effort to reach the Latino audience; both English- and Spanish-language versions were released by Tri-Star Pictures. Both Zoot Suit and La Bamba were instrumental in the growing interest in and openness to Latino filmmakers, actors, and film projects.

Valdez continues to live and work with Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, California. He also teaches at California State University, Monterey Bay.


Los Vendidos (1972), Zoot Suit (1981), La Bamba (1987), The Cisco Kid (1994)


El Teatro Campesino. (accessed 2 May 2006).

Fregoso, Rosa Linda. "Zoot Suit: The 'Return to the Beginning."' In Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas, edited by John King, Ana Lopez, and Manuel Alvarado, 269–278. London: British Film Institute, 1993.

Reyes, Luis, and Peter Rubie. Hispanics in Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of Film and Television. New York: Garland, 1994.

Valdez, Luis. "Zoot Suit" and Other Plays. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1992.

Mary Beltrán


The 1980s and 1990s brought new opportunities for Latino filmmaking and Latino film representation. These shifts took place because of the rising cadre of Latino film professionals entering the mainstream film industry, many of whom had gotten their start in Chicano and other Latino cinemas, as well as the industry's rising interest in the Latino audience. A substantial number of feature films directed by Latino filmmakers were distributed by the major studios in the 1980s; these films were by and large critically acclaimed and earned respectable box-office profits. They included Valdez's Zoot Suit (1981) and La Bamba (1987), Gregory Nava's

(b. 1949) El Norte (1983), Crossover Dreams (Leon Ichaso, 1985), Born in East L.A. (Cheech Marin, 1987), and Stand and Deliver (Ramón Menéndez, 1988). (Latina filmmakers, while they did exist, tended to produce short films outside the Hollywood system during this time period.)

The visibility of Latino-themed feature films led the news media to dub the 1980s the "Decade of the Hispanic" late in the decade. While the period did witness the breakthrough of Latino filmmaking in Hollywood, it did not necessarily amount to long-term change on the part of the studios, as filmmakers continued to struggle mightily to secure financing and distribution of Latino-themed feature-film projects. But the few films that did get made offered Latino actors and actresses some of their most interesting and well-developed roles ever, catapulting several to stardom. Actors and actresses who were showcased in Chicano and Latino films in the 1980s and 1990s included the Mexican Americans Edward James Olmos (b. 1947), Lupe Ontiveros (b. 1942), and Elpidia Carrillo (b. 1963). A number of Latino actors of a variety of nationalities also broke into the mainstream in this decade, playing both Latinos and non-Latinos; they included the Cuban actor Andy Garcia (b. 1956), the Puerto Rican Raul Julia (1940–1994), the Irish-Cuban Mercedes Ruehl (b. 1948), and Maria Conchita Alonso (b. 1957), a Venezuelan of Cuban descent.

With respect to Latino filmmaking, an even greater diversity has been seen in Latino-themed film projects since the 1990s, reflecting the divergent interests of the newest generation of Latino filmmakers. Successful films with Latino themes since the 1990s include American Me (1992), directed by Olmos; My Family/Mi Familia (1995) and Selena (1997), both directed by Nava; and Real Women Have Curves (2002), directed by the Colombian filmmaker Patricia Cordoso. Perhaps the most successful Latino filmmaker today is the Mexican-American Robert Rodriguez (b. 1968), who has established a busy and fruitful career working from his studios in Austin, Texas, on projects that include Latino themes and actors but also aim to appeal to a broad US and global audience. His films have included El Mariachi (1991), Desperado (1995), Sin City (2005), and the family-friendly Spy Kids series beginning in 2000.

The rising visibility and status of Latinos in the industry, combined with increasing desire on the part of film studios to court the Latino audience, has created a virtual "Latinowood" within the traditionally white Hollywood star system. Since the 1990s the roster of Latino actors with name recognition among non-Latinos and Latinos alike has grown exponentially, and these stars often have greater status and opportunity than Latino actors of previous eras. Contemporary Latino stars include Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Jay Hernandez, Rosario Dawson, Benjamín Bratt, and Michelle Rodriguez. The most powerful and highest-paid Latina in Hollywood today is Nuyorican (New York–born Puerto Rican) multimedia performer Jennifer Lopez. Having found her first opportunities in film and television products helmed by Latinos and African Americans, including the sketch-comedy series In Living Color (1990–1994) and the films My Family/Mi Familia and Selena, Lopez has risen in status to headline her own film projects, often breaking through former ethnic barriers to play roles written for non-Latinas in such films as Out of Sight (1998), The Wedding Planner (2001), and Angel Eyes (2001).

Despite the stardom of a handful of Latinos, the majority of Latino actors continue to face particular challenges, however. A number of factors play into a Hollywood mindset that still puts Latinos at a disadvantage. These include the dearth of Latino film executives and talent agents, and a corresponding lack of Latino creative professionals who might create more complex and positive roles for Latinos to portray. As was documented by a 1999 Tomás Rivera Policy Institute study commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), most

Latino actors and actresses find it extremely difficult to secure talent management or find employment in film or television. In 1998 Latinos comprised only 4.3 percent of total SAG membership, and worked on average only 2.9 percent of actors' work days. Latino actors also were generally cast in supporting rather than leading roles, particularly in comparison to white and African American actors. In addition, Latino film stars still tend to be promoted in ways that echo former stereotypes. This includes an emphasis on a supposed, inherent sexiness and passion and the use in publicity of descriptors related to tropical climates, such as "heat" and "spice." Latino actors and actresses thus often still cannot escape age-old patterns of representation, despite their growing status and the wide diversity among them.

Focusing on all of these fronts, several advocacy groups continue to lobby for more positive and complex portrayals of Latinos in film and television and increased Latino employment and promotion in acting, production, and executive roles. These groups include the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Imagen (image) Foundation, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. The actors' group Nosotros (us), founded decades ago by the actor Ricardo Montalban, also serves to provide support to Latino actors and actresses in Los Angeles. In addition, a number of industry professionals have emerged as strong advocates for Latino opportunity in film, including the producer Moctesuma Esparza, writer-director Gregory Nava, and actor-producer Edward James Olmos, who are among the handful of Latinos who have the ability to spearhead large-scale feature films today.

SEE ALSO Mexico;Race and Ethnicity


Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1994.

Berg, Charles Ramírez. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Fregoso, Rosa Linda. The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Noriega, Chon A.. Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

——, ed. Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance. New York: Garland, 1992.

——, ed. The Future of Latino Independent Media: A NALIP Sourcebook. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 2000.

Noriega, Chon A., and Ana M. López, eds. Ethnic Eye: Latino Media Arts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Reyes, Luis, and Peter Rubie. Hispanics in Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of Film and Television. New York: Garland, 1994.

Rodríguez, Clara E., ed. Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the US Media. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Woll, Allen L. The Latin Image in American Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Mary Beltrán