Much discussion about the 2010 United States Census has been on the growing rate of the Hispanic/Latino populations in the U.S. Wealthy Mexican-American comedian George Lopez can produce a rousing response from what might be a predominately Hispanic/Latino audience when he announces how the U.S. had better adjust to what is now more than 40 million people of Hispanic/Latino descent. Jay Leno, the fading late night TV comedian, can also get a rousing reaction from audiences comprised of mostly whites when referring rather disparagingly to the increasing prominence of the Mexican-Americans in California. What neither Lopez nor Leno seemed to get is the significance of phenotype. Indeed, “race” (distinguishing people by superficial physical characteristics such as skin-color) is more a boundary marker than ethnic identification (distinguishing people by nationality or culture) which still defines Hispanic/Latinos.
Cinematic imagery, both past and present, provides a fascinating if not disturbing litmus test for the significance of skin color and therefore the permanence of race and racism in the real world. Hispanic/Latinos come in all shades due to the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. But there is much cream in the coffee as reflected in Hispanic/Latino actors and actress who can cross over the racial divide (and vice versa) with hardly a whimper of protest about authenticity.
In Hollywood, whites have a long history of portraying Hispanic/Latinos. Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach was the Mexican outlaw Calvera in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960). In this same western, German actor Horst Bucholz was caste as the novice Mexican gunman Chico. Wallach helped make Clint Eastwood famous as the lethal Mexican bounty hunter Tuco in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Italian-American actor Al Pacino portrayed a Cuban-American gangster in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). The film featured any number of white actors caste as Hispanic/Latinos; such as Mary Mastrantonio, Paul Shenar, F. Murray Abraham and Robert Loggia. Italian-American actor Loggia had been casted earlier as the real-life Mexican lawman Elfego Baca (1865-1945) in the 1962 Walt Disney TV series. Pacino also appeared as Puerto-Rican ex-thug in DePalma’s Carlito’s Way (1993). Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins, totally unconvincing as an African American in Robert Benton’s The Human Stain (2003), had little problem being taken as Hispanic in Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro (1998). Italian-Irish actor Armand Assante depicted a Puerto-Rican in Sidney Lemut’s Q&A (1990) and a Cuban in Arne Glimcher’s The Mambo Kings (1992). In James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), Vasquez, the tough Latina Marine, was portrayed by White actress Jenette Goldstein. Who can forget the Material Girl, Italian-American singer Madonna, being casted as the iconic Argentinean Eva Peron in Alan Parker’s Evita (1996)? Anglo actor Harrison Ford, on the run in Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive (1993), had no problem assuming the identity of a Hispanic/Latino hospital janitor.
Hispanic/Latino-born actors have portrayed whites as well. Cuban-born Andy Garcia, casted as an Italian-American law enforcement officer in De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), has repeated the role of duped Anglo casino gangster Terry Benedict in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 (2001), Ocean’s 12 (2004) and Ocean’s 13 (2007). Jennifer Lopez is of Puerto Rican ancestry and similar to Garcia, can easily transition across the divide as in Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000), Luis Mandoki’s Angel Eyes (2001) and Michael Apted’s Enough (2002). Mexican-born Rita Hayworth (1918-1987), the poster women in Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994), hardly ever portrayed a person of her own ethnicity. Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) of Mexican-Irish ancestry won a Best Actor Academy Award as a love-for-life Greek peasant in Mihalis Kakogiannis’ Alexis Zorbas or Zorba the Greek (1964). Quinn might be remembered as the Italian-American New York cop on-the-take in Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street (1972).
Skin-color continues to mark a racial divide in Hollywood. Puerto-Rican-born Esai Morales with darker skin portrayed the evil brother in Luis Valdez’s La Bamba (1987). Dark and lovely Mexican-born Elpidia Carrillo has always been sexually available to Gringos as in Tony Richardson’s The Border ((1982), Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983), Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) and in John McTieman’s Predator (1987). Brazilian-born Sonia Braga has been similarly been the South-of-the-border sexual object as in Clint Eastwood’s The Rookie (1990). Nicaraguan-born Barbara Carrera, literally exposed in Ralph Nelson’s Embryo (1976), went on to other films in essentially the same role, such as Fatima Blush in Irvin Kershner’s Never Say Never Again (1983).
Cuban-American Eva Mendes appeared in John Singleton's 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), Carl Franklin’s Out of Time (2003), and Andy Tennant’s Hitch (2005). Mendes especially has represented a needed bridge of solidarity between Blacks and Hispanics when romantically linked with men-of-color such as with Denzel Washington in Out of Time and Will Smith in Hitch. Still, most Latin women tend to be seen as exotic and sexually available to white men such has Michelle Rodriguez who is of Puerto-Rican /Dominican descent and seen in Karyn Kusamas’s Girl Fight (2000) and Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious (2001). Rosario Dawson is of Afro-Cuban heritage and in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), she was purposely casted to represent the literally dark, sensual and dangerous female. Jessica Alba, the nymphet in Sin City and in Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005), has stayed more on white side of the divide though her father is Mexican. Alba seems to be younger version of Raquel Welch who became more famous than she might have wish as the pin-up cave-woman in Don Chaffey’s One Million Years BC (1966). Welch’s father is Bolivian.
There are black and white Hispanic/Latinos in real-life, but Hollywood continues to reinforce a racial hierarchy with white on top. Not even rich comedian George Lopez can move beyond being seen as a dark-skinned Mexican-American.
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