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Ethnicity and Popular Culture - Hispanics and Contemporary Hollywood

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2002 24 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Ethnicity and Popular Culture – Hispanics & Contemporary Hollywood
2.1 The passionate lover and the menace to society:
the Hispanic image in U.S. mainstream moviesp
2.2 Towards a Hispanic Hollywood:
The establishment of a Chicano cinemap
2.3 Another way? features of Chicano movies
2.4 Hispanics vs. Afro-Americans in popular culture

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

One of the image the world has of the U.S.A. is that of the ‘melting pot of nations’, the ideal of a society where different cultures live together in peaceful unity. Although critics claim that this image is not more than a utopia[1], it has ever since been appealing to people from abroad. The dream of equality, liberty, and economic success, has also been reason for thousands of Hispanics to immigrate in the U.S.A. in the last decades. In the next years the Hispanic community will overtake the African Americans as biggest ethnic group besides the Anglos[2]. This might surprise the ‘other world’, which has regarded the U.S.A. mainly as society divided into Blacks (African Americans) and Whites (Anglo). This image has been transported via popular culture, with music like the ‘gangsta rap’ of the 1980s, dealing with the social struggle of the Afro-Americans against the Anglo whites, or with novels and movies. In contrast, the Hispanics have played not more than a supporting role in popular culture so far. Although everybody has seen Western movies where a Mexican ‘bandito’ appears, or has listened to music of Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Lopez, only few people are familiar with the social struggle between the Hispanics and the white majority in the U.S.A. This struggle began on a local level, when Anglo organizations protested vehemently against Hispanic power and equal rights, in places in California and Florida, but has nowadays reached the federal level. And the fight for more Hispanic contribution and rights has affected the entertainment industry in Hollywood as well. But interestingly, the Chicano civil rights movement is not that famous as for instance the African American Civil Rights Movement; Chicano movies have often been ignored by wider parts of the audience around the world. In this seminar paper I want to put the focus on the Hispanics and their difficult and ambiguous situation in the Hollywood mainstream film business mainly since the 1980s. In this period of more than 20 years, decisive changes took place, and reasons and results will be named. Certain individuals and their movies will be part of the analysis, as well as the problematic situation of Hispanics in American popular culture, especially in regard to the conflict with the white Anglos, but also in regard to the African-Americans.

The increasing importance of Hispanics in U.S. society has brought up a number of new literature regarding the Hispanic community, especially in the context of film. Two important authors / editors should be named at the beginning: At first, Chon A. Noriega, who has published the latest overview of Chicano cinema in 2000[3]. Second Gary D. Keller, who edited a number of “groundbreaking” (Noriega on Keller) surveys about the development of Chicano cinema in the 20th century. This seminar paper covers a longer, more recent period of time, and names also movies from Hispanics or about Hispanics after the year 2000, which were not mentioned in these books. Therefore I will refer to some websites dealing with Chicano cinema.

I will begin my analysis with describing the Hispanic image in Hollywood. Their presentation in 20th century mainstream cinema is not just decisive for the image that consumers have about the Latino culture, but has also been decisive for the obstacles towards an Hispanic establishment in Hollywood.

2. Ethnicity and Popular Culture – Hispanics and Contemporary Hollywood

2.1 The passionate lover and the menace to society: the Hispanic image in U.S. mainstream movies.

Filmmaking is a business, not a social service agency or a reality check..

Alfred Charles Richard, Jr.[4]

Hispanics have been appeared in Hollywood movies for decades, but mostly in supporting roles only. Until the 1980s no mainstream movie was produced which dealt in a objective way with Hispanic culture and community. Before there presentation had been totally negative, stereotypical, homogeneous. Hispanics acted primarily as opponents, obstacles that the Anglo protagonists had to overcome in order “to realize their heroic identities”[5]. In regarding several periods of film, one finds out that their presentation always was a stable one[6]. The post-war period presented the Hispanic male either as sex objects (concept of the ‘Latin Lover’), or as villains, individuals with no moral[7]. Hispanic women played their role as hot blooded Latina. The change of the social climate in the 1960s, resulting in new moral codes, intensified this stereotypes in a more detailed presentation of violence and sex[8]. At the same time, a new genre came up: the western movies. Here the Mexicans were presented as ‘bandito’. This stereotype was followed by the ‘Mexican drug-dealer’, an image which came up in the 1970s and has lasted until the present day. From 1970s Godfather to 2000’s Traffic, Mexican culture has been presented as drug culture. In regard to the increasing number of illegal immigrants, cinema and television present the Mexican as “threat to every North American”[9]. Due to the loss of the Red Scare as topic in movies after 1990, the war on drugs became the most appealing one for Hollywood producers, at least until 9-11-01. U.S. policies, the involvement in Central and South African affairs (Civil War in Nicaragua, war against Noriega in Panama and Colombian drug cartels, etc.), provided filmmakers with the raw materials about the drug-problem. The highly acclaimed movie Traffic (directed by Steven Soderbergh, 2000), produced with a high contribution of Hispanic actors (Benicio del Toro received an Academy Award as best Supporting Actor in 2001), and the use of English plus Spanish as languages, presents the war on drugs as being more complex. It deals with the problem of the U.S. war on drugs from different perspectives: despite the attempts of a Mexican narcotic officer fighting the two most powerful cartels, Traffic puts emphasis on the situation in the U.S. On the one hand, the drug-dealers are not Latinos, but common Anglos. On the other hand, the consumers are young teenagers of upper-class families. One of them is the daughter of a U.S. judge (played by Michael Douglas) who is responsible for the war on drugs in the U.S. government. His speech at the end of the movie underlines that to solve the problem you must not fight against the Mexicans, but start in your own families – a desperate undertaking. This is a new approach in contrast to the message of movies before, assuming that “if supply were stopped, the problems would end and a drug free North America would emerge”[10]. Nevertheless, Traffic is an exception. Finally, white Hollywood has good reasons for the use of the negative presentation of other nationalities. In general, stereotypes have a strong psychological effect, as they should strengthen self-consciousness and superiority against the person who is stereotyped negatively. In other words: the presentation of Hispanics in movies should teach the domination of the Anglos, justify their economic and cultural superiority[11]. These negative stereotypes are deeply rooted in the consciousness of white America, and there are many reasons why they are used so constantly. Movies teach, and the Carlos E. Cortéz emphasizes:

Entertainment media tends to reiterate and legitimize racial, ethnic, and social hierarchies. By repeatedly depicting ethnic or racial dominance or subservience or consistently portraying members of some ethnic groups in limited spheres of action, media contribute to the shaping and reinforcement of viewer reception schema for absorbing future images into coherent, if distorted, mental framework.[12]

The uplift of the Hispanic community, not just in regard to population, but also in regard to increasing economic and political influence, has threatened many Americans. They fear a Hispanic infiltration. This fear is mainly a result of the media representation, offering statistics showing the economic situation of some Hispanics. The anti-bilingualism campaigns which emerged in the 1980s, proclaiming the legalization of English as only, as official language, and the stemming of Spanish, use this as their argument. The uplift of Hispanics has also been presented in Hollywood movies. In many gangster or action movies, the Hispanic villain is presented as person having highest power and influence (American Me, 1992, cf. page 13f.). Additionally, since the 1980s several ‘positive’ Latino characters have been presented as rich and established individuals in U.S. society. One example is the role of Hector Elizondo as millionaire in Pretty Woman (1991). In regard to the English language restriction movements the sociolinguist Joshua A. Fishman mentions several arguments that can help us in the discussion of stereotypes as well. Fishman mentions:

These attitudes [=voting for English as only language] are all sublimations of the sense of being abused, of being taken advantage of, of being denied one’s own place in the sun and in the scheme of things that seems to plague so much of Anglo-oriented America today. The ‘English Only/English official’ movement may largely represent the displacement of middle-class Anglo fears and anxieties from the difficult if not intractable real causes of their fears and anxieties to mythical and simplistic and stereotyped scapegoats.[13]

Of course, the image white America has about other ethnic groups is highly influenced by the presentation in media. For many Anglos the ordinary Hispanic therefore is the “inherently violent”[14] savage, he himself the civilized. Movies like The Godfather (1972) or Scarface (1983), where Latinos are presented as drug-dealers and brutal sadists, support this image. That they show a short message at the end of the credits saying “the characters do not represent the Cuban American community and it would be erroneous and unfair to suggest that they do. The vast majority of Cuban Americans have demonstrated a dedication, vitality, and enterprise that has enriched the American scene.”[15], can not negotiate the image that had been presented the two hours before.[16]

On the one hand, many Hispanic actors have earned a lot of money in playing these popular stereotypical roles[17], and some of them, like Cheech Marin, were after a period of time able to invest in movies presenting Hispanics in a positive way. But on the other hand, the stereotypical presentation had strong negative effects for Hispanics who wanted to establish in Hollywood with alternative projects. When the first popular Hispanic movies came up there were several Anglos who criticized these films because they failed to conform to their stereotypes[18]. No surprise that Hispanic filmmakers have always had problems in producing films offering an alternate presentation of the Latino community. Anglo producers have been eager to finance films using the Hispanic stereotypes (sex-drugs-violence) than for instance movies about Mexican folk-heroes[19]. Films like American Me (1992), which is with a budget of 20 million U.S. dollars one of the most expensive studio productions by a Chicano filmmaker, therefore dealt with gang riots in Los Angeles among the Hispanics and African Americans (cf. 2.4: “Hispanics vs. African-Americans in Popular Culture”).

Since the 1960s, the negative presentation of Hispanics is accompanied by resistance from Chicano organizations. In 1968 the ‘Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors’ (IMAGE) and the ‘National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee’ (NMAADC) were founded. Both groups began to write letters to advertisers, held press conferences, and threatened boycotts. Noriega underlines that the instrument of boycotts “redefined Mexican-Americans as consumer group rather than a political constituency”[20]. Although Chicano movies resisted on using negative Hispanic stereotypes, now Hispanic women organizations felt snubbed: movies like Zoot Suit (1980), where the Hispanic is presented as male-centered nationalist, were said to present a wrong gender philosophy[21].


[1] Cf. Ostendorf, Berndt: “Why Is American Pop Culture so Popular? A View from Europe.” , in: Dorries, Reinhard R.; Hof, Renate; Hoffmann, Gerhard; Ickstadt, Heinz; Lösche, Peter (eds.): Amerikastudien / American Studies 46.3 (2001) (339-366): 339.

[2] Cf. de Alva; Jorge Klor; Shorris, Earl; West, Cornel: “Our Next Race Question: The Uneasiness between Blacks and Latinos”, in: Darder, Antonio; Torres, Rodolfo D. (eds.) (1998): The Latino Studies Reader: Culture, Economy, and Society, Malden – Oxford: Blackwell University Press (180-189), 180.

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

[4] Richard, Alfred Charles Jr. (1994): Contemporary Hollywood’s negative Hispanic image: an interpretive filmography, 1956-1993, Westport: Greenwood Press, 32.

[5] Baker, Aaron: “From Second String to Solo Star”, in: Bernardi, Daniel (ed.) (2001): Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness, Minneapolis – London: University of Minnesota Press (24-38), 32.

[6] Cf. Richard, Alfred Charles Jr. (1994),15.

[7] Hershfield, Joanne: “Dolores del Rio, Uncomfortably Real. The Economics of Race in Hollywood’s Latin American Musicals”, in: Bernardi, Daniel (2001) (136-162), 141.

[8] Cf. Keller, Gary D. (1994): Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview and Handbook, Tempe, 150.

[9] Richard, Alfred Charles Jr. (1994), 28

[10] Richard, Alfred Charles Jr. (1994), 30.

[11] Cf. List, Christine (1996): Chicano Images. Refiguring Ethnicity in Mainstream Film, New York – London: Garland, 53.

[12] Cortés, Carlos E.: “Who is Maria ? What is Juan? Dilemmas of Analyzing the Chicano Image in U.S. Feature Films”, in Noriega, Chon A. (ed.) (1992) (85 – 132), 92.

[13] Fishman, Joshua A. (1988): „English only’: its ghosts, myths, and dangers“, in : International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 74, Berlin - New York – Amsterdam: de Gruyter (125-140),125.

[14] Fregoso, Rosa Linda (1993): The Bronze Screen. Chicana and Chicano Film Culture, Minneapolis – London: University of Minnesota Press, 125.

[15] Cortés, Carlos E.,in Noriega, Chon A. (ed.) (1992), 90f.

[16] Cortés, Carlos E.,in Noriega, Chon A. (ed.) (1992), 87.

[17] Noriega, Chon A.: “Representations and Resistance”, in Noriega, Chon A. (ed.) (1992): Chicanos and Film. Essays on Chicano Representation and Resistance, New York – London: Garland (3-25), 15.

[18] Cortés, Carlos E.,in Noriega, Chon A. (ed.) (1992), 100.

[19] Cf. Fregoso, Rosa Linda (1993), 125.

[20] Noriega, Chon A.(2000), 145.

[21] Fregoso, Rosa Linda (1993), 19.


ISBN (eBook)
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Institution / Hochschule
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik
Ethnicity Popular Culture Hispanics Contemporary Hollywood Youth Aesthetics




Titel: Ethnicity and Popular Culture - Hispanics and Contemporary Hollywood