Hispanic Heritage Month - Latinos in American Cinema

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 26, 2009 01:51pm | Post a Comment

Aside from a brief fetish for Latin Lovers in the silent era, roles for Hispanics and Latinos in American silent film were few, far between and generally quite minor. In the sound era, images of Hispanics and Latinos in Hollywood began to increase in number, although Latino characters were at first usually portrayed by non-Latinos in brownface whilst real Latinos were frequently used as all-purpose ethnic types.

          Ramon Novarro and Lupe Velez (as Navaho) in Laughing Boy                                Leo Carrillo and Duncan Renaldo

In the first decade of sound, there weren't many roles for Hispanics or Latinos aside from in popular, long-running series like Zorro, The Cisco Kid and The Mexican Spitfire series, the latter a vehicle for Lupe Velez. Pedro Armendáriz mostly starred in Mexican films; when cast in American ones, he invariably had to exaggerate his accent sufficiently. Throughout the '30s and the following decade, Arizona-born Chris Pin-Martin appeared in almost eighty films, invariably as a heavily-accented, broken English-speaking Mexican in small roles and as sidekicks, like Pancho in the Cisco Kid movies and as Gordito in the Zorro series. The Zorro franchise, begun in the 20s, continued to be popular throughout the era. The Cisco Kid series dated back to the teens. In them, unlike with Zorro, Hispanic actors like Leo Carrillo, Duncan Ronaldo and Cesar Romero were usually cast in the lead. Hispanic actress Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Cansino) was initially billed as Rita Cansino in a series of unrelated B-movies. In them, she usually played a variation on the fiery Mexican maiden in need of an honorable Anglo's protection and love.


Gay Desperado and Rebellion (both 1936), Trouble in Texas (1937), The Renegade Ranger (1938), The Girl from Mexico (not pictured) (1939)

1940s - After undergoing an intensive, appearance-altering de-hispanization process, Rita Cansino is reborn as a ginger sex goddess. Most Hispanic and Latino actors continue to appear in the background, usually as foreigners, helping perpetuate the perception of their (like Asians) inextricable foreign-ness, despite actual origins. Lusitanic (as opposed to Hispanic) actress, Carmen Miranda appeared in a number of films, famously wearing her fruit hat.


Springtime in the Rockies (1942), Gilda (1946), Copacabana (1947) and Border Incident (1949)

1950s - The Ring, with Rita Moreno and Lalo Rios, portrays Mexican-Americans in East L.A. and may be the first American film to star Latinos as Latinos in a story about Latino issues. On TV, Cuban-born Desi Arnaz stars alongside his Anglo wife in I Love Lucy. Brownface continued to be the normal practice in Hollywood, however, and Charlton Heston turns in a hilarious, over-the-top performance as swarthy Mike Vargas in Orson Welles' entertaining Touch of Evil.


Right Cross and Lawless (both 1950), I Love Lucy (1951), The Fabulous Señorita (not pictured), My Man and I and The Ring (all 1952), …And Now Miguel and Ride Vaquero! (both 1953 - former not pictured), Salt of the Earth (1954), The Seven Cities of Gold and The Trial (both 1955, latter not pictured), Forever Darling (1956) and Touch of Evil (1958)

1960s - Although often heralded for its progressiveness, the 1960s seems to be the point when Hollywood expressed the least interest in telling stories about minorities and Latinos were no exception. Tellingly, there was worry that people would feel uncomfortable lusting for Jo Tejada unless she adopted a less Latina pseudonym, Raquel Welch. Whilst Latino Hollywood practically died, Latino Theater was born when Luis Valdez's play, "The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa" debuted in 1963. Two years later he founded El Teatro Campesino.


West Side Story (1961), Requiem For a Heavyweight and Strangers in the City (both 1962), and 100 Rifles and Popi (both 1969)

1970s - In the '70s, to counter the near complete absence of Latinos in Hollywood, Latino Cinema first appears on the margins, in independent films -- although tellingly the films are generally made by Anglos and, as in Walk Proud, continue to employ Anglos in brownface, a practice which, like yellowface and redface, far outlasted blackface.


R.P.M. (1970), Badge 373 (1973), Chico & the Man (1974), Alambrista! (1977), Up In Smoke (1978), Boulevard Nights and Walk Proud (1979)

1980s - In many ways the '80s were a continuation of the '70s in regard to depictions and roles for Latinos in American film. Aside from Edward James Olmos, few of the depictions in film of Latinos rose above the level of exploitation or starred Latinos in the main roles. Asian/Euro/Native mixed actor Lou Diamond Phillips continued in the Hollywood tradition of all-purpose ethnic, several times playing Latino characters in the years to come. Meanwhile, in theater, Culture Clash and the Latino Theater Company formed in 1984 and '85.



Zoot Suit
El Norte, Heartbreaker, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (all 1983), Born in East L.A. and La Bamba (both 1987), Milagro Beanfield War, Stand & Deliver and Salsa (all 1988), and East L.A. Warriors (1989)

1990s - In the 1990s, the quantity of Latino characters increased in American film and on TV, although most Latino-centric films were still made by Anglos. As always, the number of actual Latinos cast in Latino roles was still outnumbered by those played by Anglos, exemplifed by The Perez Family, which starred two Italian-Americans and a Brit.



Lambada (1990), La Pastorela (1991-not pictured), Mambo Kings and American Me (both 1992); Blood In, Blood Out; Carlito's Way (all 1993) Mi Vida Loca and I Like It Like That (both 1994); My Family and Perez Family (both 1995); Down for the Barrio, Lone Star (both 1996); Selena; Fools Rush In and 187 (all 1997); Luminarias and Dora the Explorer (both 1999)

- It's only in the 2000s that true American Latino Cinema has really begun. As with Asian American Cinema, Black Cinema and Gay Cinema, Hollywood has made clear that it has little interest in producing Latino-related films for the foreseeable future. As with those other minority groups, Latinos have as a response increasingly taken charge in the production of TV programs and films addressing or depicting Latinos.



For Love or Country, Bread & Roses, Resurrection Blvd, Before Night Falls and Price of Glory (all 2000), Pinero, Tortilla Soup, Living the Life and Price of the American Dream (all 2001), Real Women Have Curves, Frida, George Lopez Show, American Family, King Rikki and Raising Victor Vargas (all 2002), Chasing Papi, 187 Shadow Lane and Latin Kingz (all 2003), Day Without a Mexican, Voces Innocentes, Spanglish and East L.A King (all 2004), American Fusion, Wassup Rockers, Cayo, El Cantante, Quinceanera, Go Diego Go, Sueño, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, Mind of Mencia (all 2005), El Cantante, Yellow, Spin, Ugly Betty and Walkout (all 2006), La Misma Luna, The Take, Como Ama Una Mujer, Bordertown, Cane, Feel the Noise and Mexican American (all 2007), and Chicano Blood (2008)

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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Hollywood (86), Latino (8), Hispanic (5), Hispanic Heritage Month (34), Latino Cinema (7), 1930s (19), 1940s (23), 1950s (25), 1960s (49), 1970s (45), 1990s (46), Latino/spanish Cinema (9), 2000s (40), 1980s (52)