As part of their annual Race & Hollywood series and this year's ongoing month-long exploration of Latino images in film, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) commissioned an interstitial on Latino stereotypes in film, featuring Rita Moreno, Héctor Elizondo, Edward James Olmos and John Saxon.
Elizondo initiated the commentary by stating that the stereotype most offensive to him was the Latin as outlaw, whether the Latin hood or the Latin drug dealer. He felt this stereotype to be a particularly dangerous one. Moreno confirmed there was always the bandido, though later on focus fell on gang members. Olmos likewise spotlighted the stereotype of the gangbangers, whose origins he traced to the late '30s.
Olmos added that female stereotypes included the feisty Latina sex bomb—still with us—as well as the fast-speaking maid who talks in a thick accent. Elizondo agreed that Latina actresses were asked to play either the maid or the prostitute. Further, when Latinos were presented as juvenile delinquents—such as Rafael Campos in The Blackboard Jungle—the subtext was that they were individuals disinterested in learning, only in acquiring.
"The most belittled culture in films has been Mexicans," Moreno attested. The Mexican sleeping against a cactus underscored their presumed laziness and—in terms of ubiquitous kitsch—is comparable to the Mammy for African Americans. In Giant, Mercedes McCambridge flat-out complained, "I know how to handle Mexicans. Been doin' it all my life. They'd sit on their honkers all day if I didn't keep after them." Olmos stated that in the '70s and '80s the Mexican American was bombarded with brutal stereotypes. Elizondo admitted it began to make him uneasy whenever he saw a Mexican character smiling and laughing a lot. "Why does that make my skin crawl?" he asked himself.
The other group most belittled, Moreno ventured, were the Caribbeans, the Puerto Ricans. She claimed Hollywood had not done too well by the Caribbean community. "If we go back to the '50s," Olmos concurred, "I think that the Puerto Rican culture had probably the most difficult time." Discounting that West Side Story was a true look at the Puerto Rican in New York—the nuyorican—he cautioned care evaluating that film because "it did get into some difficult moments of stereotyping."
John Saxon—an Italian actor whose ethnic masquerades frequently included Latinos—mentioned that back in the '20s-'30s, Hispanics "were fashionable creatures, suave."
Though Olmos asserted that the Latino stereotypes are still with us, alive and well, Moreno countered that she felt most of the stereotypes were gone; the problem being that with the loss of roles—"dare I say those roles"—opportunities have dried up for Latino actors.
Illustration of the bandido courtesy of David Ryan Paul. Cross-published on Twitch.