Silencio! - The Hispanic & Latino experience in the silent era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 19, 2009 02:26pm | Post a Comment
Like other minorities in Hollywood (e.g. Asians, blacks, gays, Natives and women, to name a few), Hispanics and Latinos in the silent film era were almost exclusively produced by people who had little or no first hand experience of their subjects. But whilst Latinos may've been almost entirely excluded from the filmmaking process, a handful of actors found work in front of the camera and in the process opened doors for the generations that followed.

In film's first decade, a few Latinos in fact were involved in American filmmaking. Before the Hollywood era, the filmmaking process wasn't centralized and films were shot around the country by wealthy entrepreneurs, a few of which were Hispanic. However, most American films in the 1890s were under ten minutes long and tended to focus on single actions like sneezing, laughing or opening a door.

Though film roles in the 1890s tended to avoid any minority issues, there were a few minorities in film. In 1903, the first version of Uncle Tom's Cabin hit the screen and went on to be the most frequently adapted story in the silent era, suggesting that there was at least concern about black issues, if not other minorities. In the teens, with films like A Woman Scorned, The Squaw Man, Intolerance and The Italian, depictions of minorities broadened considerably.


Two Latina actresses, Vera and Beatriz Michelena, were among the first to appear in film. The Michelenas were the New York-born daughters of Caracas-born opera singer Fernando Gonzalez. Like generations that followed, their "exotic looks" resulted in their sometimes being used as all-purpose ethnic types, although, in the title role of Heart of Juanita, Beatriz actually played a presumably Latina character (I haven't seen it).
Most Latino characters in the 1910s weren't afforded the occasional sympathy shown toward other minorities, with most Latinos depicted as dastardly "greasers," as in the films Tony the Greaser (1911), The Greaser's Revenge (1914) and the remake of Tony the Greaser, Tony the Greaser (1914). The latter, ironically, featured Myrtle Gonzalez as "Mary Blake." Generally, Mexicans were depicted as lazy and deceitful, which, not surprisingly, didn't go over especially well with Mexicans and when they responded by boycotting Hollywood, American filmmakers responded by carefully applying the negative stereotype to all Latinos, not just Mexicans.


For non-Latino, white, European Hispanics, race wasn't necessarily an issue. Los Angeles native Myrtle Gonzalez was billed as "The Virgin White Lily of the Screen" during her short career -- she died at 27 in the 1918 flu pandemic. Antonio Moreno was a Spanish-born actor/director. In his early films, he often played the Latin Lover, a stereotypical protrayal of supposedly exotic Mediterranean types popular at the time. Fetishizing Europeans was all well and good in the silent era, but with the coming of sound, Moreno's accent was viewed as a detriment and his career came to a halt.

In the 1920s, the vogue for Latins (as opposed to Latinos) like Moreno and Italian Rudolph Valentino proved so popular that actors actually concocted phony identities to pass, such as Jewish actor Jacob Krantz who was reborn "Ricardo Cortez." When people found out he wasn't actually Spanish, he tried to claim that he was at least French... which also proved untrue.


Actual flesh and blood Latinos, as a result of the craze, soon found work in Hollywood, including Ramon Novarro, Dolores Del Rio, Gilbert Roland and Lupe Velez. By the late '20s, they were internationally known stars, beloved for their inevitably sexually-charged portrayals, a stereotype that, some 80 years later, continues to be almost comically perpetuated on the rare occasions when Hollywood portrays Hispanic and Latino characters.

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On the margins' margins - Asian Latinos - Latasian 101

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 15, 2009 12:35pm | Post a Comment
A common misconception about Latinos they are a racially homogeneous people. In Los Angeles and elsewhere, the word "Mexican" is used to refer to pretty much anyone who looks like they may have roots south of the Rio Grande, regardless of country of origin. I assume the same goes for Puerto Ricans and Cubans in areas where they dominate, although I'm not sure. I've heard the Honduran Latino population of New Orleans described as "Mexican" by more than one person.

Habana, Cuba

This misconception is, ironically, inadvertently furthered by many Latinos themselves. Though the concepts of “brown pride” and “La Raza,” are used to instill pride in Chicanos, mestizos, or those with Spanish ancestry (depending on how they’re applied), at the same time they effectively marginalize Latinos with African and Asian ancestry, despite their being no less Latino by definition. Furthermore, in the 2006 US Census, 48% of Latinos described themselves as white/European-American. Only 6% described themselves as of "two or more races." In fact, the majority of Latinos are clearly of mixed, partially indigenous heritage. The census question may be a trick, since, as most people know, any actual white person will steadfastly self-identify as Native American, claiming a great-great-great grandparent who was (usually) Cherokee.

Japanese Brazilians

What distinguishes countries in the New World from those in the Old is that here there's no such thing as a Nation-State and no countries in the western hemisphere correspond to a single ethinicity. Just as is the case in Anglo America (The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Guyana, Jamaica, the United States and the Virgin Islands), there are Latinos whose race is Asian, black, Native, white or a combination thereof. In observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, which begins today, the focus of this blog on Asian Latinos aims to highlight just one example of the under-recognized heterogeneity of Latino culture.

Lulu Jam

Asian/Pacific Islanders have a history in what is now called Latin America that goes back thousands of years to when the descendants of paleo-Siberians crossed the Bering land bridge, headed south from North America and moved into Central and South America. Thousands of years later, Austronesians settled Rapa Nui (sometime between 300 and 1200). Although still fairly far from modern day Chile (although much closer than to their southern Chinese ancestral lands), there is strong evidence that these Polynesians traded with the Mapuche, who live in what is now Chile and Argentina. This has been surmised from several clues. One is the presence of sweet potatoes in Rapa Nui, which are indigenous to South America and in all likelihood couldn't survive a sea voyage without human aid. In addition, the Rapa Nui referred to the islet of Sala y Gómez to Rapa Nui's east as “Manu Motu Motiro Hiva,” meaning, “Bird's islet on the way to a far away land;" that "far away land" is presumably a reference to South America. Finally, in 2007 a group of scientist subjected bones of an Aracuana chicken (dated to have lived between 1304 and 1424) to be tied by its DNA to chickens in Tonga and American Samoa.

It wasn’t until the arrival of the Spanish that the concept of Latin America was created by Romance language-speaking European conquerors. From the the earliest days of conquest, the Spanish were accompanied by Asians. The first significant arrivals from Asia were Filipinos who, as early as 1565, escaped from their Spanish masters and settled mainly in Mexico. Many more Asians followed, primarily Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese laborers, the greatest number in the 19th century. In some South American countries today, the populations of Asian citizens aren't just noteworthy, they're dominant. In Dutch-speaking (so therefore not Latin American by most definitions) Suriname, the overwhelming majority of citizens are Asian. In English-speaking Guyana, a plurality are Asian. In French Guiana, 22% of the population are at least in part Asian. Brazil is second only to Japan in numbers of Japanese people.

Ana Gabriel - La Reina

Most Asian Latinos live in South America. Despite their presence in Latin America, where they number over four million, Asian Latinos are still, no doubt, the least recognized racial group among Latinos. In the US, the number of Asian Latinos of Asian ancestry alone is estimated to be around 300,000. Many more Latinos have a mix of ancestries, including Asian. The magazine Revista Oriental, founded in 1931, is still published in Peru and focuses on Asian Latinos there and elsewhere in Latin America. Many Asian Latinos have immigrated to the US, most often in cities like Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and South Florida.

Liberdade, Sao Paulo

Whereas in Latin America most Asain Latinos are Latino by virtue of their many generations of presence in the region, in the US, Asian Latino culture tends to be the product not of Latino Asian immigrants, but rather from a domestic mix of the two cultures, often in the neighborhoods of the San Gabriel Valley, Gardena, Atlanta, Milwaukee and (historically) Boyle Heights.

Anish (Nara Back)

The difference between centuries of organic fusion and more recent combinations can be seen in the differences of cuisines of Cuba and Peru and the newer, more delibarate Asian-Latino fusion common in the US as evinced by the fare of Kogi BBQ, Asia de Cuba, Cha Cha Chili, Danu, Marazul, Stingray Sushi Bar, Tamari and Asian Latino Grill and Vive

Other examples of the ongoing integration of Asian and Latino cultures in the US can be seen in the solidarity between Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in FALA, art exhibits like Tigers and Jaguars and projects like the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana’s The Ties that Bind.

Lima, Peru

Many Asian Latinos have made significant contributions to academia, athletics, medicine, politics and, of course, the arts, although, in many cases, their Asian Latino heritage goes unmentioned. In film, as with all Latinos, the notion of Latino homogeneity/interchangability almost always works in the favor of White Hispanics/non-Latinos like Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz (or Welsh and Brits like Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Alfred Molina), while brown people play background gang members and Asian and black Latinos don't exist. For example, in real life, Paula Crisostomo was a Chilipina (Chicano/Filipina), but in the film Walkout, she was portrayed by the snow white Alexa Vega.

The real Paula Chrisostomo (left) and her cinematic version (right)... the resemblence is eerie

Given their population distribution, it's not surprising that most Asian Latinos in film and TV (behind and in front of the camera) are in Latin America, although as the list shows, there are a couple of widely recognized Asian Latinos in Hollywood too.

    Aline Nakashima                                          Anderson Lau                                                      Annie Yep

   Daisy Marie 
            Barbara Mori                                         Daniele Suzuki                                           Daisy Marie

Fred Armisen   
                 Fred Armisen                                                     Jeri Lee                                          Jin Yoo-Kim

                 Kirk Acevedo                                   Marvin "Trini" Ishmael                      Sabrina Sato Rahal

                     Sergio Nakasone                                               Tizuka Yamasaki

Not pictured: Hernán Takeda

Lisa Ono

Asian Latinos in music are more often citizens of Latin American countries, although, as with those in film and TV, this list includes some Americans too. Alberto "Beto" Shiroma, Alfonso Leng, Ana Gabriel (nee María Yong), Anjulie, Arlen Siu, Brownman, Cansei de Ser Sexy’s Lovefoxxx, Carlos Galvan, Cassie Ventura, Cesar Ichikawa, Camillo Wong “Chino” Moreno, Hiromi Hayakawa, Jasmine Villegas, Jorge Peña Hen, Kelis, Kiuge Hayashida, Leonardo Lam, Lisa Ono, Lulu Jam's Nara Back (Anish) and Takaomi Saito, Melinda Lira, Menudo’s Christopher Moy, Michio Nishihara, Pato Fu’s Fernanda Takai, Patty Wong, Sum 41’s Dave Baksh and Kokeshi’s Viviana Shieh/Shuy.

Hispanic vs. Latino & Hollywood Brownface

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 15, 2008 02:24pm | Post a Comment

Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15th to October 15th is officially recognized as Hispanic Heritage Month in the USA.The dates of the observance were chosen due to the timing of El Grito, the "cry" that brought the independence of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua's independence (followed closely by Mexico and Chile.).

Some fellows celebrating "El Grito"

"Hispanic" vs. "Latino"

I suppose it's kind of interesting that whoever named the month chose the term "Hispanic" instead of, say, "Latino." Hispanic sounds old-fashioned to me, but then again, I know people younger than me who refer to themselves as just that. I still think it's like calling February "Colored History Month" or May being "Oriental Heritage month." The government's choice of "Hispanic" probably owes to the fact that the term "Latino" was in less common usage forty years ago when the observance was instigated by Lyndon B. Johnson (initially as Hispanic Heritage Week). Both terms are considered offensive by some indigenists since they disappropriate Native Americans from their origins and languages by defining people with sometimes no European ancestry with Eurocentric terms.

That being said, though Latino and Hispanic are frequently used interchangeably, they don't mean exactly the same thing.


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