“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.