Obviously part of acting is portraying foreign identities but it’s easier to play familiar ones. So, it makes sense to hire Latinx actors to play Latinx roles, right? Those actors have the advantage of being familiar with the life experiences, verbiage, accents, and other nuances of the culture embedded into who they are, making the portrayal more convincing, and authentic. But, you would be surprised (who are we kidding, the lack of Latinx representation in Hollywood is far from surprising) to learn that many Italians are playing Latinxs in film and on television. Italians playing Latinxs is common, no doubt because they look like the narrow-minded notion that Latinxs only have dark hair and light-to-olive skin. This has happened so much that actor and activist John Leguizamo says that him portraying Italians is simply “revenge.” To better understand our role–or lack thereof–in Tinseltown, let’s take a look at several times where Italian actors played Latinx characters.
Al Pacino in Scarface and Carlito’s Way
Al Pacino is arguably one of the greatest actors of all time. You can say he has earned the right to play just about any role offered to him in Hollywood. But should he? Pacino became an icon, ironically strongly among Latinxs, when he portrayed Miami-based Cuban druglord Tony Montana in Scarface. A decade later, in 1993’s Carlito’s Way, Al Pacino played Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican ex-con who tries to stay away from a life of crime when released from prison. While we won’t know what it would be like for Scarface to have been played by a Latino, we can see how Carlito is interpreted by one. In the 2005 prequel, Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power, the title role was portrayed by Chicano Jay Hernandez.
Madonna in Evita
Remember when Argentinians lost their shit because Madonna was playing Evita?! While it appears that the outrage was more about Madonna’s sexy persona and less about her being Italian, this is yet another example of Italians being selected to play Latinas on screen. To add insult to injury, Argentinian president Juan Perón was portrayed by Welsh actor Jonathan Price, and revolutionary Che Guevara was played by Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard who is no stranger to taking on a Latinx role.
Armand Assante in The Mambo Kings
Yes, Antonio Banderas got to be Cuban, in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings. Alongside him was Italian actor Armand Assante; the two played the musical Castillo brothers, who leave Cuba for the Big Apple. As is often the case in these films, Latinos are excluded from playing lead roles but are included as supporting cast, most likely to add “authenticity” to the story. In The Mambo Kings, we see actual Cubans Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, and Desi Arnaz Jr. (who plays his dad Desi Sr.). Now, how would this film have looked and felt if the brothers were played by two actual Cubanos? There is a certain sazón that each Latinx has from their own culture that can be imitated but never duplicated. It’s innate, it’s family, friends, and environment–it’s both nature and nurture. That’s not to say that actors can’t play people from other backgrounds, but why can’t we be tasked with telling our own stories?!
Jennifer Esposito in Crash and More
Jennifer Esposito is an Italian actress who many of us thought was Latina until we learned otherwise. She has portrayed Latinas on both the large and small screens several times, including in the Academy-Award Best Picture-winning film Crash. Esposito has spoken out about losing several parts in Hollywood due to not “being white enough,” which is a problem that Latina actresses can also attest to, and which can explain why she is continuously given Latina roles. Thankfully, we are seeing more and more Latinas playing Latina characters, and a broadening of the perceptions of what certain roles and their interpreters look like.
John Saxon in Cry Tough, The Appaloosa, and More
In order to create the future we want–in Hollywood, and everywhere else for that matter–we need to learn about our past. If Italians playing Latinxs is a problem today, imagine how bad it was decades ago, when we were really not trusted to share our own narratives in front of the camera or behind it. Italian actor John Saxon had an impressive career in Hollywood, appearing in more than 200 parts over the course of his career. He is known for his iconic roles in Enter the Dragon and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Saxon has had several roles in which he plays a Latino. This includes Puerto Rican ex-gang member Miguel Antonio Enrico Francisco Estrada in 1954’s Cry Tough and “a merciless Mexican bandit” in 1966’s The Appaloosa (a role which garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor).