Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rolling Brownouts

I'm told that things get worse before they get better.  When it comes to Hispanic Images In Film (to borrow from Turner Classic Movies' Race And Hollywood series--although they did Latino Images In Film), I think things have gotten worse with no signs of getting better. 

These ruminations were inspired by A Better Life.  So far, this is the fourth film I've seen where the images of Mexican-Americans (all four films are about Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, not about any other Hispanic groups) doesn't square with my own personal experiences as a Mexican-American. 

I grant you, I'm proud to say I'm the most bourgeois Hispanic around, and a Lutheran Hispanic at that.  Therefore, I don't fit into what I see on the screen, and I make special mention of my faith since barring one film (Quinceañera) all Mexican-Americans are fiercely Catholic.  I'm not Catholic, and know many Hispanics who are very strong Evangelicals, and I even know some Hispanic Jews.  Won't find any of those in the barrio I imagine.  However, I digress.

A Better Life, as I've stated, is the fourth film I've reviewed that has Hispanic characters as the central ones, but the third film where the story revolves around illegal immigrants coming over to the States and attempting to avoid being deported.   You have the same story of A Better Life in Under the Same Moon, with the only difference being that it is a mother as opposed to a father, and a child rather than a teen.  However, I had no problem connecting Carlitos from Under the Same Moon with A Better Life's Julian.  Only From Prada to Nada has Hispanic characters who, horror of horrors, are actually citizens (something that in Arizona and Alabama is not believed to be possible), but even here, there's a scene where a group of women believe someone at their door is 'Immigration'. 

Maybe it's me, my background, my upbringing, but nothing about the contemporary Hispanic images jives with my life.  My hometown of El Paso, Texas is 80% Hispanic (75% being Mexican-American) versus 15% non-Hispanic white (although if one counts Hispanics as white, the white population of E.P. is 78%).  As a result, I grew up with Hispanic doctors, Hispanic lawyers, Hispanic teachers, Hispanic police and firefighters, even Hispanic politicians.  It was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing special or unique or bizarre, but rather part of the world as it is. 

However, I don't see that in present-day Hollywood films.  For the most part, the stories about Hispanics revolve around gangs, drugs, pregnant teens and the bane of my existence: people in this country illegally.  How I DETEST the last one!  I do.  As much as these filmmakers would like to convince me that this somehow is reflective of my life and my family, it just isn't.  My father is a native-born American (as is my grandfather, etc., etc.), and basically, he's just a good ol' boy (down to the cowboy hat--and in interest of full disclosure, I own a cowboy hat myself: it's Rick's Cafe TEXAN after all).  My mother is a naturalized citizen, so sorry, Hollywood (and Alabama): can't deport her. 

Instead, what I see coming from films are poverty, questionable citizenship, almost exclusively monolingual people who live in the barrio.  As much as I'd like to accommodate them, I never lived in the barrio, I never witnessed any shootings, and here's a bigger shock: I've never used or sold drugs.  I'm the squarest person I know.  Need I remind you, I didn't get the pun for Your Highness until I had it explained. 

In short, what I see from Hollywood about Hispanics isn't what I know from personal experience.  I think it comes rather from Hollywood scriptwriters either drawing from their own experiences (most Californians who are fortunate enough to work in film see Hispanics working in the gardens or homes), and/or draw from the news (nothing brings ratings like gangland shootings or the horrors tormenting Mexico's border cities).  I argue the stereotypes are feeding themselves: what they see on the news informs what they produce, which in turn supplies how non-Hispanics see Hispanics.

This makes me so angry, as one of my cartoon heroes (and oddly, whom I sometimes identified with--Marvin the Martian) would say.  I wonder whether any casting director would truly figure that a Hispanic actor could be a doctor/lawyer/dentist/politician/judge/teacher/concert pianist/what-have-you.  Yes, I know that there are Hispanic characters on television but I'm talking about film.  I cannot fathom why Hispanics in film have to stay in the barrio

How I long for the time when someone like Margarita Cansino could be considered The Love Goddess.  Rita Hayworth, where art thou?  She was beautiful, she was glamorous, she was talented, she was Hispanic (of Spanish extraction).  She was very proud of her heritage, and oddly enough, she was sexy without being sleazy (something I'd advise all actresses to do likewise). 

Where are my Ritas?  Salma Hayek?  J. Lo?  Penelope?  Each is talented (Frida, Selena, Vicky Christina Barcelona show how with good roles, they can do remarkable work), and yes, all quite beautiful.  However, I'm not convinced they have yet gotten to the purely dramatic depths Hayworth achieved (such as in The Lady From Shanghai or her signature role as Gilda) to become iconic. 

When I think of Hispanic images, I don't see how they have changed all that much between now and the dawn of cinema.  The stereotype of the 'bandido'?  Well, now we have the gang-banger (welcome to Blood In, Blood Out or American Me).  The sultry temptress or the comically accented sexpot?  Anyone seen Desperate Housewives or Modern Family? The Latin Lover?  How's Chasing Papi for you? 

It all goes to this: I'd like to see movies where being Hispanic is not even an issue (major or minor).  We have a Hispanic Supreme Court Justice now, so when will I see a Hispanic judge on a legal procedural (no, Jimmy Smits in Outlaw does not count).  I'd like to see a Hispanic lawyer on Franklin & Bash as a recurring character--how is it that we have an Indian-American recurring character but no Hispanics in Franklin & Bash's California?  Believe me: Franklin & Bash is one of my favorite television shows, so this is a cry of the heart. 

Here's how it is: I don't see Hispanic images getting better.  I see them getting worse.  The Hispanics I see in film are poor, illegal, Catholic, and live in California (specifically East L.A.).  I, my dear readers, am none of those things (well, we can debate the 'poor' part, but minus that, I don't fit any of those images--not that there's anything wrong with being Catholic.  I love Pope Benny, but I digress).  I'd like to see Hispanics on screen that don't have to worry about being deported, whose children finish high school (even college), who are as professional as any of their Anglo or African-American contemporaries, even who--horror of horrors--on occasion vote Republican (for heaven sakes, we have at least two Hispanic golfers--Lee Treviño and Chi Chi Rodriguez, couldn't we have Hispanics in a country club?).  I'd like to see Hispanics not work as chambermaids but run the hotel, not be the gardeners but throw garden parties, not build homes but design them (interior and exterior). 

One could argue that someone like Robert Rodriguez has tried to do so with the Spy Kids franchise, but he's balanced that out with Machete.  Whether it plays on or spoofs the stereotypes is up to the viewer.  I was not a fan.

When I grew up, the idea of Dora the Explorer or her cousin Diego would have been simply inconceivable.  Perhaps that is why I could never fully accept the stereotypes of Hispanics: since I didn't know anyone like that (with the bandannas, the tattoos, the lowriders), I couldn't accept that it was somehow what I should be, let alone what I was.  I remember once I was at a store.  I wandered into the toy department, and there were all these figures of Dora lining the shelves.  A curious emotion overcame me; it was a sense of pride mixed with sorrow.  I felt great pride that my children would have role models like Dora and Diego, which I did not have growing up (and to a greater extent, examples like Justice Sonia Sotomayor or Senator Marco Rubio to look up to).  I was moved by the fact that children of all races would look to Dora and Diego, play with their figures, watch their DVDs, and think it was nothing special.  Maybe they would then see a Hispanic lawyer, doctor, teacher, even President, as nothing out of the ordinary.  It was a beautiful feeling, but with how Hollywood insists my family and I are really on the periphery of American society, I fear that feeling won't last.

I'm glad my children will have Justice Sotomayor, Senator Rubio, and of course, Dora & Diego to hold as models.  It's a change from my childhood.  I had Speedy Gonzalez.  However, I should remember that for all his accent and sombrero, he always outwitted the Gato Loco, so that's a plus.  I like Speedy Gonzalez, and I like Dora & Diego.  I just hope that Hispanic images in film will grow to where we go beyond busboys and start being part of the glorious American experience.

Hey Hollywood: Some of us UPHOLD the law...

and some of us MAKE the laws.

We play AMERICAN football...


...and even COUNTRY music!

Hollywood: We're AMERICAN.  We speak English.  We're not all illegal or poor.  We're professional, we're educated, and morevoer, we're passionate filmgoers. 


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