Latinos are one of the largest minority groups in the United States, making up a large portion of the population. Still, the community is hugely lacking in the media. The few Latin characters provided are often categorized within certain clichés or stereotypes. Researches of all nationalities have tackled this topic from the standpoint of creators and observers. This paper will discuss those main stereotypes and what such portrayal is doing to the media viewers perception of the Latin community and what the repercussions within the Latin community itself are.
Bad Hombres and Spicy Senoritas
Telenovelas, or Spanish soap operas, are synonymous with overly dramatic acting, passionate dialogue, and intense storylines. Their characters are diverse in appearance, background, and behavior. In American media, this is not the case. The already small amount of Latino characters seen in mainstream film or television are often portrayed with a certain template in mind. The women must be fiery and promiscuous salsa dancers, or cleaning maids, or both. The men must be violent drug dealing criminals or garden maintenance, or both. Both sexes must be sassy and sexual entities. Although sometimes comical that the characters are predictable, the fact that those attributes are contributing to a nationwide mindset is a much larger issue at second glance.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Such characters have been used since the 1920’s. Social psychologists have categorized those attributes into six distinct male or female character archetypes. There is the bandito, the harlot, the male buffoon, the female clown, the Latin lover, and the dark lady. These can be seen still on both the small and silver screens.
For example, Sofia Vergara character Gloria on Modern Family could be categorized somewhere as a combination of the harlot, female clown, and dark lady. Still, modern Latino characters on television have made huge strides towards breaking that old cycle. During the 1960’s there were three waves of Chicano, or American born Mexicans, that sought to break those stereotypes through the use of costume, language, and even subtleties like posture to portray more than audiences had seen from Latino actors and characters alike (Ascarate, 2003).
Members of the stereotypes group often overlook the idea of a stereotypes character, but rather identify with the character’s experiences. The problem usually presented itself in Western or Sci-fi films. In Westerns, Mexican banditos usually were the antagonists. In Sci-fi, attacking aliens had the underlying tones of immigrants. Viewers would see all aliens like the Terminator and the Replicants alike. In the same manner, people in real life see documented and undocumented characters the same or all Latino actors as Mexican. In 1988, the film Graham Baker Alien Nation blatantly portrayed Latino immigrants as invading aliens (Ascarate, 2003). Some may say, “Its just a movie”, but research shows that films have an impact on real life society.
In the documentary, Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities on Television (1977) commissioned by the US Commission on Civil Rights it was pointed out that portrays of Latinos as welfare workers or truck drivers serve to justify racism in real life and do have varying degrees of realism. The displayed imagery inclines viewers to create such mindsets and are more likely to discriminate Latinos in everyday life (Mayer, 2004). In another documentary, Latinos Beyond Reel by Miguel Ricker and Chyung Sun, characters like banditos and greasers instill phobia of immigrants. Even video games contribute to such stereotypes when they portray immigrants as villains in children’s games. In one game the objective is to shoot immigrants as they cross the border and in another you must track down Mexican drug dealers and kill them. It is no wonder that when children ages 6 to 11 are asked who their favorite Latino heroes are, they cannot think of one (Fojas, 2014).
Superhero films have become the largest grossing genre of film in the last couple of decades. In the past few years, only four Latinos have been leads in these films. Zoe Saldana, a Dominican actress, plays Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. Gamora is a feared assassin throughout the galaxy and teams up with four other criminals she met in jail to fight crime in space. Oscar Isaac, a Guatemalan actor, plays Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse. “The movie is named after him! That’s got to be progress” some might say. Apocalypse is an ancient mutant who creates a gang to take over the world and is ultimately killed by the good mutants. Jay Hernandez, a Mexican-American, actor plays El Diablo (Spanish for “the devil”) in Suicide Squad. Suicide Squad is a film by DC Comics about criminals who are forced to form a team to do the bidding of the government. He is the perfect embodiment of a Mexican gangbanging stereotype. He has tattoos covering his body, wears a wife beater, hides guns and drugs in his house, and fights with his wife. He does show an interesting development, as he is the only character on another rag tag team of villains to learn from his past sins and refuses to hurt anyone else again, after he kills his family and a courtyard of criminals. He ultimately turns into a Mayan like shaman figure and sacrifices himself. Becky G, a Mexican American singer and actress, recently broke ground as the first openly gay superhero when she portrayed Trini in the 2017 reboot of Power Rangers. Aside from the characters full name, “Trinidad”(Spanish for Trinity) and the actress’s background, there is no outright proclamation of her race. Although she was a powerful and formidable warrior, she was still portrayed as the outcast of the team. Such films beg the question: Are these actors helping or hindering the progress?
In the 50’s, Latinos comprised 3% of all television characters. By the 80’s, that number had dropped to 1% and in the 90’s had risen to 1.1%. In 1999, there was a so-called “brownout” where there were little to no ethnic characters created. Still, these small percentages of characters were all secondary or non –recurring (Mastro, 2005). In 1922, psychologist Dr. Lippmann described stereotypes as cognitive categorization of alternative representation. Another psychologist Charles Ramirez Berg concluded that facially neutral Latino actors were more likely to be cast (Mayer, 2004). This was studied with 8 decades worth of Latino actors and actresses, both US and foreign born with ambiguous and indigenous features (Valdez, 2011). In other words, actors with less prominent Latino tells like brown skin or heavy accents are preferred by casting directors. For example, Jessica Alba is a Mexican American actress and is often cast in Caucasian roles and Rosario Dawson, a Puerto Rican actress, is often cast in black roles. Because they are not traditionally Latina looking, they are given the opportunities of other ethnicities.
Mary Beltran’s Latino/a Stars in US Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom she differentiated the increased participation by ethnic actors with the real progress of equality in the industry. Entertainment is scared to defy stereotypes. The actors aren’t always contributing just by being present in the shows or films; sometimes they even contribute to devaluing the image of the Latin community (Valdez 2011). Rita Moreno is one of the most distinguished actors ever. She is one of the only performers to win an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, and Grammy in history. She was born in Puerto Rico. She is most known for her role as Anita in West Side Story. She played Latina in that role and has since played many more Latina roles. Some argue that because she is such a staple in the Latin acting community and plays white roles, she is giving more opportunity to only white Latinos, therefore burdening the culture (Valdez, 2011). In other words the goal isn’t the equality in the industry but the “re orientation of a mindset that has contributed to the cultural, psychological, and political subjugation of millions of people…Movie stereotyping of Latinos has been and continues to be part of an American imperialistic discourse about who should rule the hemisphere”(Ascarate, 2003).
Many Latin comedians actually benefit from the Latin stereotypes. American born Mexican stand up comics like Anjelah Johnson and Gabriel Iglesias like to cash in on the idealistic Mexican family structure and accents. Others have struck gold with these comedy methods and gotten their own sitcoms. George Lopez starred in George Lopez for 5 years from 2002-2007, defying the stereotype by not only having his own self-titled show but by also playing a family man who rose to the top of the airplane part manufacturer. His character wanted more for his kids that he had as a child, portraying a more honest version of Latinos in America. Cristela Alonzo also had her own self-titled sitcom that lasted for one season called Cristela. She plays a prospective law intern with a boss that constantly bombards her with racist comments, yet she rises above it. Her mom tells her to get a more stable job rather than spend all her time at the internship, but she eventually chooses the internship knowing it will benefit her and her family in the long run. The sitcoms provide a perspective to a modern day Latin family (Fojas, 2014). Comedians are just one outlet of the industry that are taking on stereotypes, actors and directors are also working together.
Robert Rodriguez is a Mexican American director. He directed El Mariachi and often films in Mexico or his home state of Texas. He is a proponent of increased Latino representation in Hollywood. He likes to make more complex characters for viewers to relate to (Ascarate, 2003). According to the social cognitive theory, people see models of behavior and they relate to it and mimic it. Contrasting, the cultivation theory states that people make beliefs based on race from the media. Similarly, mainstreaming is the idea that TV creates ideas. Because of those two theories, people create prejudices. Young Latinos see little to no characters to resonate with which makes them believe they are unimportant (Katzew, 2011). That is, until they see characters they can resonate with.
In 2006, ABC aired the primetime dramedy Ugly Betty. The show starred America Ferrera, a Honduran actress, as a 22-year-old Mexican American from Queens, New York named Betty Suarez. She feels lost in the world until she lands a job at a prestigious fashion magazine. Although her job was glamorous, Betty was not so fortunate. Her braces become iconic in pop culture. She was oddly dressed and was the ultimate geek. The show was based on a Columbian soap opera Yo Soy Betty, La fea (“I am Betty, the ugly girl”) with elements of a Mexican soap opera La fea mas bella (“The most beautiful ugly girl”). The whole idea was don’t judge a book by its cover. Betty was beautiful on the inside regardless of her exterior. The show was critically acclaimed with a whopping 16.3 million viewers during its premier and its ultimate accomplishment of two Golden Globes.
The show was one of the first to not only portray a thriving Latin family, but also a positive family at all. The show spoofed those Latino stereotypes like the dark lady, evening enlisting the help of Mexican beauty, Salma Hayek. She played Sofia Reyes the sexy nurse on a telenovela played throughout the first season. Not only did the show challenge race ideals, but also gender and beauty. Justin Suarez was Betty’s teenage nephew on the show. He was one of the first openly gay characters on primetime television, never mind the fact that he was a Latino. Regardless, his family accepted him. While Latinas are often thought of as beautiful by American standards, the character Betty was called out for not matching the US ideals of beauty (Katsew, 2011). Isn’t that the point?
A study was conducted in which groups watched shows on five networks from 7 to 10 PM on Sundays and 8 to 11 on Mondays through Saturdays for two weeks. Sixty-seven programs were studied with a total of 1148 major characters. 80.4% of these characters were white, 13.8% were black, 3.9% Latin, 1.5% Asian, and 0.4% Native American. For all of these percentages the majority of characters were men except for Asian where men and women were in equal quantity. Black characters were mostly in crime shows and Latinos were often in sitcoms. The Latino characters were usually good looking with accents (Mastro, 2005).
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? The only problem is that stereotypes are not always this good. The races aren’t given a choice of which stereotype they are going to be given in the media. Will black characters be talented athletes or crack heads? Will Asian characters be antisocial and awkward or math geniuses? Will white characters be hillbilly rednecks or higher class aristocrats? Will Latino characters be sexy and smooth or beer bellied and drug dealers? Jane the Virgin on the CW is the newest incarnation of Latino actors fighting back against stereotypes. The show stars Gina Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican actress, who openly advocates for the progression of Latinos in her industry. Not only does she star in the show, but also she writes and has sometimes directed. Her character is a young Catholic single mom in an interracial relationship with aspirations of being a famous novelist. Although her child is her life, she knows that having a career that she loves is important. Her pregnancy in the show was somewhat of a miracle, but will the eradication of stereotypes also be a miracle? Keeping a close eye on Hollywood will be the only way to find out.
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