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Hispanics in Hollywood: More roles, but more of the same

September 8, 2005 By Barbara Wolff

This story contains some good news, and some bad. The good news is that times have never been better, in terms of available roles, for Hispanic actors working in Hollywood films and television shows.

According to Mary Beltrán, assistant professor of communication arts and Chican@ and Latin@ studies at UW–Madison, that can only mean that Hispanics, both in the United States and worldwide, are becoming a demographic force that Hollywood must reckon with.

In the United States, the latest census figures list Latinos as the largest nonwhite ethnic group, at close to 14 percent of the total population. Nonwhites as a whole represent about 30 percent of the U.S. population.

Until very recently, scholars have largely shunned Hispanics in films and television, and in popular culture in general. However, the growing presence of Latinas and Latinos in the population has made them impossible for popular culture and its scholars to ignore, Beltrán says.

As both a barometer of and an influence on the public opinion of its time, the entertainment industry is a particularly fertile field for intellectual inquiry.

Photo of Mary Belfran standing in front of a movie screen.

Mary Beltrán, assistant professor of communication arts and Chican@ and Latin@ studies, talks about the 1928 film “Ramona,” starring Richard Dix, left, and Dolores Del Rio, center, as “a good example of the transitions taking place for Latinos in Hollywood during the shift to sound film. Del Rio was an established star whose Hollywood career was severely limited,” she says, after the introduction of sound in movies. Due to her accent, she got pigeonholed as a supporting actress and eventually left Hollywood for Mexico. Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

Beltrán’s own research in part focuses on the “presentation” and marketing of Hispanic stars in Hollywood films and television programs. Last summer she was at work on a book about the way the mainstream marketing machine has presented its Latino and Latina stars, starting with Dolores Del Rio in the 1920s, up to such actors as Benicio del Toro and Rosario Dawson in 2005.

Dawson is, of course, not strictly Hispanic, but of mixed Latina, African American and other heritages. The ethnically ambiguous and their growing prevalence in mainstream films is another of Beltrán’s research interests. She is beginning to explore the meaning of mixed-race actors in Hollywood and the increasing emphasis on multicultural heritage in contemporary publicity. While her research at this point does not extend to studying audiences, she has noted that the idea of mixed heritage often does not compute with most audiences.

“Focus groups show that audiences tend to see actors like Dawson, Vin Diesel and Halle Berry as belonging either to one race or another, but not to both,” says Beltrán. Her article on multicultural actors appears in the spring 2005 issue of Cinema Journal.

But back to Hispanic actors.

At the beginning of this article we promised some bad news, and here it is: With the exception of a handful of actors and actresses, Latinos and Latinas are rarely offered principal roles. And the roles they get typically portray the same fatigued and fatiguing stereotypes: Latinas as exotic, sexually hot, passionate “spitfires,” for example, or language-mangling comic relief. Beltrán says that, for the most part, Latinos seldom play fully realized characters. Although there may be more jobs available, they are basically the same roles that Latinos have assumed for the last 80 years.

“Look at Salma Hayek in ‘Fools Rush In’ (1997) or John Leguizamo in ‘Empire’ (2002),” Beltrán says. “Hayek plays the sultry girlfriend of Matthew Perry — she’s an ultra-sexed Latina like we’ve seen in Hollywood films for decades. And Leguizamo’s role as a drug lord hearkens back to bandito characters that first appeared in early silent films in the 1910s.”

Of course, is anybody in a Hollywood film or TV show playing a fully realized character? Beltrán says they crop up now and then.

“Two appeared in HBO TV series,” she says. “The role of Sister Peter Marie Reimondo, played by Rita Moreno, on ‘Oz,’ or Federico Diaz, portrayed by Freddy Rodriguez, on ‘Six Feet Under.’ In film, there are Michelle Rodriguez in ‘Girl Fight’ (2000), Victor Rasuk in ‘Raising Victor Vargas’ (2002) and Benicio del Toro in ‘Traffic’ (2000).”

Beltrán believes that the rising presence of Latinas in mainstream Hollywood films and television may indicate the beginning of a sea change in the entertainment industry.

“We’re starting to see a few very subtle changes in terms of casting, for example, Salma Hayek in ‘Frida,’” the cinematic biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, says Beltrán, who, like Hayek and Kahlo, is of mixed heritage. “Casting directors tell me that it’s possible for Latinas to get romantic lead parts, but there are limitations. Only the beautiful, thin and light-skinned get considered.

“Personally, I’m hoping to see more of a fresh perspective in coming years, specifically, different peoples portrayed in different kinds of roles,” Beltrán says. “There’s no question that movies and TV shows inspire audiences, not only here but also in other countries — half the audience for Hollywood films and television programs comes from abroad.

“We need to stop a moment and ask ourselves what kind of messages about the United States our entertainment exports are sending.”

Tags: arts, research