Tag Archives: Hispanics in Hollywood


“And why is it that when you’re dining here today to honor me as Hispanic Officer of the Year, I look around the room full of ranking officers, and the only other Hispanics I see are waiters and busboys?  As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your awards.” – René Enriquez, as Lte. Ray Calletano, “Hill Street Blues”, 1983


“A part of me wants to kick their ass.  A part of me feels sorry for their stupid ignorant selves.  But if you’ve never been farther south than Nuevo Laredo, how the hell would you know what Mexicans are supposed to look like?

There are green-eyed Mexicans.  The rich blond Mexicans.  The Mexicans with faces of Arab sheiks.  The Jewish Mexicans.  The big-footed-as-a-German Mexicans.  The leftover French-Mexicans.  The chaparrito compact Mexicans.  The Tarahumara tall-as-a-desert-saguaro Mexicans.  The Mediterranean Mexicans.  The Mexicans with Tunisian eyebrows.  The negrito Mexicans of the double coasts.  The Chinese Mexicans.  The curly-haired, freckle-faced, red-headed Mexicans.  The Lebanese Mexicans.  Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say I don’t look Mexican.  I am Mexican.  Even though I was born on the U.S. side of the border.” – Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo, Chapter 72. Copyright 2003, Vintage Books.


Recently FX Networks announced the premier of “Mayans MC,” a spinoff of their highly popular, award-winning “Sons of Anarchy.”  Airing from 2008 to 2014, “Sons of Anarchy” followed the lives of an outlaw motorcycle club in the fictional town of Charming, California.  Exploring government corruption, personal loyalty, racism, redemption and the vigilante spirit, it’s sort of what you’d get if the Hells Angels produced a show for the Hallmark Channel.  “Mayans MC” essentially continues the storyline, but with a Latino cultural flair.  While the real Mayans charted the night skies, these “Mayans” are drug runners who immediately encounter another gang, Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones).  They might as well have called it ‘Mean Ass Mexicans on Motorcycles.’  I guess not much has changed since 1983.

It’s slightly reminiscent of “Kingpin,” a severely short-lived series that dealt with “the machinations of an ambitious Mexican family . . . displayed in graphic detail as the family faces challenges from both the United States Drug Enforcement Agency and from the dangerous underworld in which they work.”  The show was the brainchild of the late David Mills, a “light-skinned black man whose racial identity was not always evident to those around him” and who “wrote white characters and black characters with equal zeal.”  Okay, great.  He may have placed Black and White folks on equal levels, but he kept Hispanics on the criminal platform.  There are more colors in the rainbow of equality than black and white.

The start of 2005 saw the debut of “Jonny Zero,” a Fox series about an ex-con named Jonny Calvo, played by the underwhelming Frankie G. (Gonzales), who returns to his old neighborhood to begin life anew.  He naturally finds it tough to stay on the right side of the law because his former employer seeks his tough-guy services to engage in new criminal activity, while the FBI wants him to snitch on that same former employer.  Decisions!  Decisions!  Aside from taking place in that most Latino of all American metropolises, New York City, “Jonny Zero” was also filmed there.  I presume that was meant to lend it a sense of gritty urban realism.  Fortunately, like “Kingpin”, “Jonny Zero” lasted all of a nano-second in TV land.

Even now, in this allegedly post-civil rights era America, Hispanics are still portrayed on television as gang bangers, maids and illegal immigrants.

In 2011, Demián Bichir received praise and a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in “A Better Life”, the story of a Mexican immigrant father who chooses to remain in the U.S. and work as a gardener in Los Angeles.  His goal is simple: do for his kids what the movie’s title says to do.  It’s supposed to be melodramatic and sweet and, perhaps, make the case for a more sentimental view of illegal immigration.

In an interview last year, actor Benito Martinez lamented, “I had all these images of elegance and range and style, so when I, naively, was trying to build my career, those were my examples,” the soft-spoken Martinez says. “But what I was getting in the ‘80s as a young Latino actor was, ‘You’re going to be a gang member and you’re going to go in and rob the bank.’  I had to then learn about pigeonholing.  I had to learn the power of no.”

Martinez’s latest role?  A migrant laborer on a tomato farm on ABC’s “American Crime”.  The “power of no” often runs hard up against the need to pay bills and beef up a resume.  The show was cancelled last year.

Another ABC program, “Modern Family,” has been heralded as a depiction of America’s ethnic diversity.  But the main female character – portrayed by the immensely untalented Sofia Vergara – is yet another Hispanic trope: the sexpot.

Twenty years ago critics wondered aloud why the highly popular show “Friends” didn’t feature any Black characters, given that it took place in New York City.  Well, it didn’t have any Asian or Hispanic characters either.

Again, not much seems to have changed for Latinos in popular culture since 1983.  The late Lupe Ontiveros once calculated that she’d portrayed maids and housekeepers some 200 times in her 30+ years as a professional actress.  Yes, I’ve seen plenty of Hispanic housekeepers – have even known a few.  But most of the Hispanics I’ve seen and known throughout my life – even those outside my own family – have been well-educated, well-spoken, gainfully-employed, law-abiding, military-serving U.S. citizens.  These are MY people – not the illiterate wetbacks scurrying across the border at midnight or hyper-violent drug cartel leaders.  I’m not familiar with those latter groups.  I can’t identify with them.  Neither can most other Hispanic-Americans.

So why don’t we see more of us on television or in the movies?  I suppose my life as a 50-something freelance technical writer taking care of his elderly mother is too bland for the American entertainment – an industry still dominated by mostly White (usually Jewish) men.  And I won’t start a life of crime just to get attention and maybe a reality TV show!  Hell, that would cut into my writing time!

The ordinariness of the average Hispanic-American is perhaps why I had such a hard time getting my debut novel published.  Traditional publishing houses couldn’t see the reality in a book with Hispanic characters who are well-educated and speak perfect English.  Yes, one publisher actually told me that a little more than a decade ago!  That’s why I’ve resorted to self-publishing, which I’ll get to in a different essay.

The only way I see things changing for the general American perception of Hispanics – aside from letting the ‘Old Guard’ die off – is for Latinos to get angry.  Yes, just flat out pissed off and demand more AND better from the entertainment industry.  To some extent, that’s already happened with the cancellation of shows like “Kingpin” and “Jonny Zero”.  But we have to point out – forcefully – to TV and film producers that they don’t have a true understanding of who we all are.  Who we really are.  Stereotypes are pathetically old school and don’t have a place in 21st century societies.

Years ago some White people at my father’s workplace told him he wasn’t like “other Mexicans”; that he was “different.”  He honestly didn’t know what to make of it, but I did when he mentioned that to my mother and me at dinner one evening.  “They’re stereotyping you, Dad,” I told him.


Image: Erik De La Cruz, Latina Lista

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Brown Out

The death of actress Lupe Ontiveros made me think again about the roles that Hispanics are often forced to play in mainstream American television and cinema.  In a 2009 interview with NPR, Ontiveros mentioned that she’d appeared as a maid more than 150 times during her career.  In fact, her biography on entertainment web sites note that she’s best known for playing maids and housekeepers.  I’m certain she had aspired to do more.  But, maids and housekeepers are pretty much the only roles available for Hispanic actresses in the otherwise eclectic American entertainment industry.  Other stereotypical roles include, at best, gardeners and busboys; at worst, gang members and drug dealers.  Is that all there is for us?

Not long after she won the 1939 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel received staunch criticism from the NAACP for her constant portrayals of Black women as domestics.  McDaniel retorted, however, that she’d rather make a living portraying housekeepers than actually working as one.  That didn’t really satisfy the NAACP, but McDaniel was going to lose either way.  Yet, the housekeeper role was just about all any Black actress could get for decades.  Now, even a cursory glance at television and movies will show Black women as lawyers, judges, doctors, law enforcement officials and business women.

But, Hispanic women still wear that traditional apron, while holding a dust rag.  They aren’t the Hispanic women I’m accustomed to seeing.  Most Hispanic women in the U.S. have done more with their lives than get married and bear children.  They, too, are lawyers, judges, doctors, law enforcement officials and business women.  As with Black women, the vast majority aren’t involved in drugs or prostitution; they’re not gang members; they don’t breed like rabbits.  Yet, that’s what’s presented to the American populace in various entertainment mediums.  Hollywood just can’t seem to move past the stereotypes.  Its producers and directors are stuck in neutral.  It really must hurt to admit the truth, though, and the truth is that the American entertainment industry isn’t as open-minded as it thinks it is.

When Ontiveros took the role of Yolanda Saldivar in the 1997 movie Selena, it was quite a departure from the usual.  This was a tragic true story about the brief life and sudden death of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, a Spanish-language music star popular in the early 1990’s.  Saldivar had been head of Selena’s fan club.  But, the singer’s parents caught Saldivar embezzling money from their daughter.  When confronted, Saldivar shot Selena in a hotel room.  The younger woman was about 2 weeks shy of her 24th birthday.  That Saldivar had engaged in criminal behavior sort of feeds back into the stereotype that – overall – Hispanics are of the nefarious mindset.  But again, that may have been the best Ontiveros could get.  It was still different than portraying a housekeeper.

It’s ironic that the main star of Selena is Jennifer Lopez who is now undoubtedly one of the most well-known performers in Hollywood.  When Lopez won the part, Mexican-American groups complained because Lopez is Puerto Rican.  They viewed it almost as an insult, which is like some people saying they’re Sicilian, not Italian.  What’s the difference?  And, who really cares?  But, it could have been worst.  Ironically, Hispanics altogether protested loudly just a year earlier when the movie version of the musical Evita came out with Madonna in the title role of Eva Perón and British actor Jonathan Pryce as Argentine president Juan Perón.  I had to wonder, at the time, if the producers couldn’t find any real-life Hispanic actresses who could actually sing and act.  But if you think about it, Eva Perón and Madonna had a lot in common; they’re both ersatz blondes who only think they had talent.  But, Jonathan Pryce?

One of Ontiveros’ last roles was as a cantankerous mother-in-law opposite Eva Longoria’s bitchy suburban princess in ABC’s Desperate Housewives.  Longoria, for one thing, fit in quite well with her Anglo co-stars, and I’m sure no one besides Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly noticed the difference.  Actress Shari Headley, who starred alongside Eddie Murphy in the 1988 film Coming to America, once commented that auditions often felt like family reunions; the same actresses would show up whenever a casting call for a Black female character was announced.  Ontiveros, Longoria and other Hispanic actresses could have easily said the same.

I know Ontiveros wanted more from her career and could have done more with it, if given the chance.  But, she took what she could get.  It often wasn’t much, but she wasn’t just going to fade away.  And, neither is any other Hispanic performer.  They won’t just drop into oblivion somewhere, so a handful of Americans can feel comfortable with what they see on the TV or movie screen.  That’s an impossibility.  Stereotypes may persist, unfortunately, but we’re changing that – one character at a time.

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