Latino Stereotypes: How Hollywood Transformed Us into a Monolith

Your favorite show it’s on. You have been following these characters for a couple of weeks now and are ready to cheer for them as they approach Big Boss territory. You lean in closer, buzzing with excitement, when you hear. You doubt your ears for a second, but then they speak again and there it is. What is up with their accents? That was how many people felt when watching shows like Better Call Saul, or even worse, Breaking Bad. Not to say these are bad shows, but when it came to representing Latinidad, they tended to lean on Latino stereotypes.

Latino stereotypes - Better Call Saul

Characters who are supposed to be from Mexico with Cuban accents or others who can barely speak the language at all! I am no native speaker myself, but I have observed many different types of Spanish around me – from my Uruguayan High School teacher to Argentine friends to Mexican exchange students in my school – they all sounded distinct and unique to their origins. But to Hollywood, they are pretty much the same.

This type of conflation is not new to the entertainment business. As far back as the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood has been failing at caring to understand what Latin cultures actually look and sound like.

An early example of this misconstruing of nationalities comes from the iconic Carmen Miranda. With her outfit loosely inspired by traditional Baiana culture, provocative dance moves, and vivacious singing, Miranda was the perfect poster child for the Good Neighbor Policy movies. This was a strategy adopted by the US government during WWII. The idea was that they provide money and resources to neighboring countries in Latin America, in exchange for support of their interventionist policies. And films like the ones started by Miranda were propaganda for this policy, disguised as rom-coms, comedies, or musicals that followed white American leads, who traveled down into the vibrant wonders of Latin America. 

They even appointed Addison Durland – who had lived in Cuba for years – to revise scripts for cultural inaccuracies and address Latino stereotypes. Sometimes it worked, for instance, when Durland had a Cuban rumba removed from the Mexican musical Fiesta (1947). But let’s just say Hollywood executives were more interested in catering to their own fantasies than they were in depicting Latin America accurately. Regardless, these early executives knew that they needed Latin talent or LATAM audiences wouldn’t give them a chance. This is where Miranda comes in. She was already known in Brazil when a vacationing Broadway exec ”discovered” her.

Miranda,  of Portuguese-Brazilian upbringing, wasn’t the first Latine in showbiz. Latin performers had been in Hollywood since its inception but rarely had a chance to play Latin characters, or when they did, were often typecast as gangsters and unbalanced women. But with this new policy, Latin America would have a chance to be shown in a more meaningful way with fewer Latino stereotypes. Well, technically.

Despite all of her talent and efforts, Mirada still found herself stuck as the feisty sidekick or the generic Latina performing in a nightclub. She was “exotic” but white enough to not offend segregated US audiences. With that, Miranda began to portray convoluted versions of Latin America.

In her first film, Down Argentine Way (1940), Miranda plays a performer in a nightclub in Argentina. Now, the problem was never that someone like Carmen Miranda wouldn’t perform outside of Brazil, but that the film conflated her Baiana dance, an Afro-Brazilian art, with Argentinian traditional dances. Let’s just say Brazilian audiences felt betrayed and the Argentine government went so far as to ban the film.

And that wasn’t the end of it – this type of casting kept happening to Miranda and other Latinas. In Week-End in Havana (1941), for instance, Miranda and her band are depicted in an ad for vacationing in Havana even though they’re singing in English.

Latinx stereotypes: Carmen Miranda

Miranda had to portray a conglomerate of cultures. She was Brazilian, but also any other Latin expression directors and producers needed her to be. For the American film industry, Latin America had no regions, it had collapsed in on itself.

But that was many years ago and we are better off now. Right?

You could argue films like Coco (2017) or shows like One Day At a Time (2017- 2020) managed to bring, not only culturally accurate but also complex, human Latine characters into the mainstream. However, to say that Hollywood has stopped conflating Latin cultures would be… unrealistic.

A relatively recent example of this was the show Narcos (2015 – 2017). To be clear, I absolutely adore Wagner Moura and Pedro Pascal. However, it is hard to look past the fact that Wagner is a Brazilian playing a Colombian and Pascal is a Chilean actor portraying a Mexican-American person.

I understand that actors are professional empaths, trained to dive into characters’ psyches and portray them with truth. However, whenever I see actors of certain nationalities portraying characters with specific backgrounds, I ask: are there no good Mexican-American or Colombian actors in the business? How is that any different from straight actors playing LGBTQ+ characters?

But questioning what characters are played by which actor, is to barely dig at the surface. After all, actors are not the ones making decisions. The real problem comes behind the scenes.

It is undeniable that some progress has been made, especially after the boom of Mexican directors in the mid to late 2010s. Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro, all won Oscars consecutively from 2013 onwards. And all of the hype was reinforced by the meteoric rise of Puerto Rican-American actor, singer, songwriter, and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda.

For a moment, it appeared that Latin America had broken into the mainstream. But as time went by, the same pattern kept repeating.

In the Heights is a musical, produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by John M. Chu,  set in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, a historically Dominican area of New York. But despite that, there is but one dark-skinned character in the film. This is a pattern that repeats itself since Carmen Miranda’s time. People like Carmen or Rita Hayworth – after her “whitening process” – were accepted. Anyone other than that – meaning less white passing –  was at best, portraying the grateful maid and, at worst, not on screen at all. It’s Latino stereotypes all over again.

On top of that, so many Latin American cultures are completely excluded from the Hollywood machine. Places like Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, and many others seem to go unnoticed by film producers, writers, and directors.

This kind of sparse and vague representation is a symptom of the same blend of cultures Hollywood has been grooming for decades. Presenting non-specific Latino stereotypes has become so commonplace that, even when there are Latin people behind cameras, they fall into the trap of recreating it, whether because they believe it or because it’s the only way to get their movies made. So we end up with “Latin” films that do not question the USA’s history of colonialism nor its racism towards LATAM countries and Indigenous cultures. 

In Hollywood, it doesn’t matter if it’s Colombian, Argentine, Peruvian, or Brazilian, it is all just Latin. There is no need to bring in new directors, writers, and producers. We already have del Toro, no wasting money on Gabriela Almeida Amaral or Rodrigo Plá, GDT can speak for them all!

This, of course, is not to fault the people who were able to find their way into Hollywood or to say directors like del Toro and Cuáron are not allowed to talk about cultures and topics outside their nationalities. But as long as we all have the same accents and none of our cultural quirks are genuinely depicted, we will always be the big Latin Monolith.

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