Latinxs have long had a difficult relationship with Hollywood. We are constantly fighting to get representation on the silver screen, despite being 62.1 million strong in the U.S. When we are in films, our roles often perpetuate long-held Latinx stereotypes, such as women only being maids, men only being criminals, and everyone not knowing how to speak English or speaking with heavy accents. Movies don’t get how varied we are as a people, don’t show the multifaceted Latinx experience. And it’s been happening since the film industry started in 1894.
In an effort to document, analyze, and share Latinx film history–including the problematic trends we need to change–I’m highlighting several major Latinx stars who played Latinx stereotypes. Some of these actors were able to pivot into different, more nuanced portrayals, while others leaned into the type, basing their public personas on Hollywood’s limited definition of them.
Dolores del Rio Escapes Back to Mexico
Mexican icon Dolores del Rio is credited as being “the first major female Latin American crossover star in Hollywood.” Despite being from an aristocratic family, del Rio wasn’t given glamorous roles when she first arrived in Tinseltown in 1925. Instead, Dolores was “typecast as an exotic, sexualized ‘Latin’ lover,” the female version of Valentino.
She also played natives and peasants, such as in What Price Glory? (1926), Ramona (1928), and Bird of Paradise (1932). Even after limiting her to these Latinx stereotypes, Hollywood still felt the need to push her Spanish, rather than her Mexican, roots. Per her biographer Linda B. Hall (Dolores del Rio: Beauty in Light and Shade), del Rio decided to return to Mexico to be the serious actress she wanted to be, saying, “I wish to choose my own stories, my own director, and cameraman. I can accomplish this better in Mexico. [I had to] leave stardom to convert myself into an actress and I could only do that in Mexico.”
Lupe Velez, Forever the Spitfire
Another Latina who became a big star in Old Hollywood is Mexicana Lupe Velez. She is known for playing Carmelita Fuentes, the protagonist of the Mexican Spitfire series of films. Although Velez dazzled on screen, it was while playing a stereotypical “spicy Latina,” complete with a hot temper, exaggerated accent, broken English, and a sexy persona. While she didn’t originate the spicy Latina stereotype, she did perpetuate it, both on-screen and off (with no help from Hollywood).
Other roles Velez played (or had to play, given that Latinas weren’t given access to a wide array of roles at any point in Hollywood history), include The Mountain Girl in The Gaucho (1927), the peasant girl Jania in Stand and Deliver (1928), and Pepper in Hot Pepper (1933).
Fernando Lamas and the Latin Lover
“The Latin Lover” is one of the oldest Latinx stereotypes. The notion of all Latin men being gorgeous, sexy, and perpetual winners with the ladies started with the Italian actor Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s. After his death, the tradition was carried on for decades by Latinos including Gilbert Roland, Ramon Novarro, Antonio Moreno, Ricardo Montalban (who starred in a film called Latin Lovers), and Fernando Lamas.
Argentinian actor Fernando Lamas is one of the best-known Latin Lovers of early film and television, having started his career in Argentina, and heading to Hollywood in 1951. He leaned into the stereotype, perpetually playing the sexy leading man opposite actresses including Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, and Esther Williams. Lamas served as the inspiration for both Billy Crystal’s over-the-top character on Saturday Night Live who iconically would say “you look marvelous,” and The Most Interesting Man in the World, a.k.a. the Dos Equis Guy (played by Fernando’s real-life good friend, Jonathan Goldsmith).
The “Latin Lover” stereotype in the Lamas family didn’t end with Fernando. His son, actor Lorenzo continued the legacy as a Latino sex symbol during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Steven Bauer, Famous for Being a Latino Criminal
Another major Latinx stereotype is that of the criminal. In fact, according to a study by the USC Annenberg Initiative called Latinos in Film: Erasure on Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,200 Popular Movies: “Just under a quarter (24%) of all Latino speaking characters and 28% of top billed Latino talent were depicted as law breakers across a range of violent and non-violent crimes. Over half (61.9%) of all characters shown engaged in illegal activity were part of an organized crime group such as gang members or drug dealers. Thirty-eight percent of criminals were depicted committing fraud, thievery, murder, or having previously been in prison for reasons not made clear in the film.”
So, it’s no surprise that Latino actors often play Latino criminals in film. Cuban actor Steven Bauer–who ironically Anglicized/changed his name to make it in Hollywood–still ended up playing thugs, on both the big and small screens. In 1983, he portrayed Manny Ribera, Tony Montana’s right-hand man and best friend in the iconic film Scarface. Bauer also played drug lords in Traffic (2000), Breaking Bad (2011), Better Call Saul (2017-2020), and Queen of the South (2017-2018). In 1990, Steven Bauer traveled to the other side of the drug world by playing real-life DEA agent Kiki Camerena in the TV movie Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.
Even Jennifer Lopez Played a Maid
It seems like Hollywood has christened Jennifer Lopez as the preeminent representative of Latinas. If there’s a high-profile event that includes Latinas, JLo is there, repping for la gente. While she has certainly opened several doors for us, there are many other Latinas who also deserve the space to shine. We need as many different Latinas to act, sing, produce, etc. as there are different segments of Latinas in the world!
That being said, Jennifer Lopez has been fortunate to play a variety of roles in her career as an actress. But she has played Latina stereotypes, most notably in the 2002 film, Maid in Manhattan. In the movie, she portrays a hotel maid whose world opens up when she’s mistaken for a socialite by a rich and powerful white man. Was it a cute movie? Yes. Was it problematic? Yes.
That said, Lopez has spoken about fighting against stereotypes in Hollywood on different occasions. When appearing on Apple Music’s At Home With series, she said she doesn’t want to be stuck in the Latinx stereotypes where she plays “the cook or the nanny,” she wants to be the lead. And what JLo wants, JLo gets.