The Mexican-American influence in film has changed drastically throughout time, from the way Hispanics are portrayed to the amount of control they have over the content and image they wish to put out.
In Charles Ramirez Berg’s book “Latino Images in Film,” he explains that there six Latino Stereotypes: El Bandido, The Harlot, The Male Buffoon, The Female Clown, The Latin Lover, The Dark Lady. According to Dr. Manuel Flores, acting chair of the Department of Art Communications and Theatre, these stereotypes have shifted to The Gangster, The Druggie, The Gardener, The Undocumented, The Uneducated, The Little Boy/Girl Searching for His/Her Own Family, and The Migrant.
“The underlying social issues affecting Latino life in the United States have seldom been addressed in Hollywood films, and hardly ever have Latinos been portrayed as people in control of their lives, capable of standing up for their rights, or having an interest in their own future,” said Flores. “With the exception of independent films and documentaries, the portrayal of Latinos, Hispanics, Mexicanos, etc. has been pretty bad.”
The negative portrayal of Hispanics, more specifically Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, goes back to the 1907 silent film The Pony Express where the term “greaser” was introduced. This film began “Greaser films” trend Flores said.
“Greaser was a derogatory term for a Mexican or Mexican American in what is now the U.S. Southwest in the nineteenth century,” said Flores. This term most likely stems from Mexicans that greased the axles of mule carts for a living; a job that did not garner much honor.
Both Mexican women and men have been portrayed in a negative light for many years. Hispanic women in the 1930’s and 40’s were portrayed as “Spitfires.”
“The Latin woman represented a hot-blooded temptress obsessed with carnal pleasure,” said Flores.
The later years did not do much to change views on Mexicans. Filmmakers usually opted to put them in the role of defenseless people in need of rescuing.
However, in 1965, Luis Valdez founded “El Teatro Campesino in order to rally striking farm workers, developing collaborative agitprop actos that were performed on the flatbeds of trucks,” writes Chon A. Noriega in his book “Shot in America.” Valdez later went on to write and direct films such as “Zoot Suit” and “La Bamba.” The latter a biographical film on the life of Ritchie Valens, the 17 year old Mexican-American rock ‘n’ roll star that passed away in a tragic airplane crash on Feb. 3, 1959 otherwise known as “The Day the Music Died.”
The change in Hispanic and Chicano cinema came in waves according to Flores citing from a Berg analysis. “The First Wave (1969-1976) – From El Teatro Campesino and “Yo Soy Joaquin” to Luis Valdez’s “El Corrido” and Efrain Gutierrez’s “Please Don’t Bury Me Alive.” The Second Wave (1977-Present) – From Esperanza Vasquez’s “Agueda Martinez” to Jesus Salvador Trevino’s “Raices de Sangre,” Robert Young’s “El Alambrista” and John Valdez’s “The Longoria Affair.” The Third Wave (Ongoing since 1980) – The Hollywood hits from “Zoot Suit” to “Cheech and Chong” movies, the new “Zorro” and “A Better Life” and all the Robert Rodriguez films,” said Flores.
The image of Hispanic people in film is changing and it is becoming more and more controlled by Hispanics. With Robert Rodriguez in the lead now for Mexican-Americans, and more and more Hispanic filmmakers emerging, the future seems promising.
“I see more Robert Rodriguez’s, not afraid to show their artistic qualities. Oh my God he’s awesome. Not afraid of doing movies of any genre,” said Flores.
By: Leslie Villeda