Latin Looks in Hollywood over Time

Hollywood has always been about more than weaving stories on the silver screen. It has also worked hand-in-glove with the advertising industry. Historically, Hollywood used movie covers, photos and stories in popular magazines and newspapers, and commercial ads in association with particular products to advertise their film stars and the films that they were promoting.  These advertising techniques are still used today in basic or more advanced forms. For example, we now have extensive product placement in films and television, internet stories and websites, twitter and tumblr feeds and followers, and radio, music, or corporate tie-ins, e.g., Happy Meals and Disney or Pixar films.  (Puente, 2011).  This essay examines Latino representation in five major eras of Latino film history: (1) the Silents and Early Talkies (pre 1940); (2) the Good Neighbor Era (1940-1949; (3) the Cold War Era (1950-67); (4) the Modern Era (1968-1989) and (5) the Post Modern era (1990s to present).[1] While it focuses on films, the same forces and trends were occurring in advertising.

Hollywood’s relationship to each ethnic and minority group has been complex and nuanced. Each group has had its own complex history and each group’s portrayal has fluctuated with changes in consumer culture, economic prosperity, domestic and international politics, migration patterns and the vicissitudes of power in Hollywood. But common threads flow through each of these unique group experiences. Issues of race-color, class, ethnicity, gender and the zeitgeist of the times have affected the public images of racial-ethnic film actors in all groups. For example, in the Silents and Early Talkies period there were a considerable number of what were then referred to as “Latin” actors, — but there was a split-level approach to casting.[2] Latinos who were dark and/or non-European in appearance were generally not the “stars,”  Indeed, if they had roles, they tended to play supporting roles or were part of the masses of peasants, banditos, name-less cantina girls, or extras.  Also, although coverage of the stars noted their origins in Latin America, the ads described their “Spanish-ness.”  Indeed, one major star of the time, Dolores Del Rio, complained that she was often described as Spanish and not Mexican. Many Latin stars of this era appeared in ads that highlighted not just particular products, but their current films as well.[3] In this early period, there was widespread interest in Latin stars and ads.  This is particularly striking given the larger socio-political context of accepted segregation and eugenics thinking.  This greater openness, is probably explained by the facts that Hollywood was in its infancy, there were many immigrant directors; the movies were silent, so accents were not a problem;[4] the audiences included large numbers of working class, immigrant offspring; a certain liberalism reigned, women received the vote; it was the age of jazz and the Harlem Renaissance, and the economy was strong.

In the next era of “Good Neighbors,” the Depression deepened and the world descended into the Second World War. As these changes occurred, the stardust sprinkled on the former Latin luminaries began to dissipate.  Talkies came to dominate and musicals increased in number.  Latin Lovers were less in evidence, replaced be new leading men, rugged individualists whose leading ladies did not often stray very far from the non-ethnic, “all-American” look of the time. With the exception of Lupe Velez, who starred in the “Mexican Spitfire” series, all of the major Latin stars of the previous era experienced a downturn in their Hollywood careers during the forties. Accordingly, some actors found it prudent, or beneficial, to downplay their Hispanicity.  For example, Rita Hayworth (1918-1987) was born Margarita Carmen Cansino in New York City, she made a lukewarm film debut as Rita Cansino.  However, after anglicizing her name, undergoing painful electrolysis treatments to broaden her forehead, losing weight, and dying her hair red, she went on to major success as the "ethereal all-American girl" with little reference to her Spanish antecedents.[5] Others would follow this route.[6]  She also appeared in a number of ads that were targeted to help the war effort.[7]

Paradoxically, but not too surprisingly, given the need for raw materials, markets and support from Allies in Latin America, there were a number of new Latino film stars, who played  happy, musical Latins, e.g., Carmen Miranda, Cesar Romero, Xavier Cugat, and Desi Arnaz.  Carmen Miranda, in particular, projected “Transcontinental Chumminess.”  Latin music was often a staple feature of the jubilant 1940s musicals, with radio and record sales adding to advertising.[8]

As the country recovered from war, it entered another era characterized by war — in this case, the Cold War. During this era, the sizzling “south-of-the-border’ sounds gave way to inward-looking conservatism. The Eisenhower years were highlighted by the McCarthy (HUAC – House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings. (Keller, 1994:131ff; Woll and Miller, 1987:3-21)  The prominence of the Latin stars of the forties declined.  As former film star, Ramon Novarro noted, “The Latin image was starker, and the music and gaiety were forgotten as the war receded...There was less need not to offend former war allies” (Quoted in Hadley-Garcia, 1990c, 1993, p. 13 Even Desi Arnaz, who went on to develop and star in the hit television series, “I Love Lucy,” admitted he left MGM because he wondered how many parts were going to come up for Latin leads. (Arnaz, 1976) Other stars took lesser roles or went abroad to make pictures. It was also a time when the US-Latino communities were growing and so a number of social problem films were made – the most famous of these being West Side Story (1961).  Zorro and The Cisco Kid series also made reappearances and spawned such products as lunch boxes.  But many of the biggest box-office stars were invisible as Latinos, e.g., Anthony Quinn, born Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn in Chihuahua, Mexico and Raquel Welch who was born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago. Juano Hernández was an invisible Latino because he did not conform to the stereotyped “Latin look.”  Born in Puerto Rico, he appeared in more than 30 movies, usually playing African American or African characters. (Reyes and Rubie, 1994:421)

The few roles available were often victims incapable of defending themselves, vixens, alien invaders, and young punks. Therefore, many of the images that we see in this period were of Latin Lovers (e.g., Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas), Bombshells, Spitfires and Sultry Latinas (Katy Jurado in High Noon (1952), Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961), and  victims saved by white saviors (Elsa Cárdenas in Giant (1956).   In essence, there were fewer roles open to Latino actors and many of these were cliché roles.  Exceptions included Rosaura Revueltas in the now classic indie film Salt of the Earth (1954) and the exceptional José Ferrer.  Some actors became victims of McCarthyism.[9]

This was also the era in which the seeds were planted for the more violent, lower-class criminal image that would blossom more fully in the Modern Era—the seventies and eighties. As Latinos replaced whites in central cities, the depiction of Latinos as poverty-stricken, drug-addicted, criminal invaders, foreigners, as “others” in need of help, intensified.  However, this Modern Era was also a period of contestation, marked by demonstrations against the Viet Nam war and the 1965 Immigration Act, which brought in large numbers of Asians and Latin Americans.  Social mores were challenged and hippies preached peace, love and freedom. The Black Power movement intensified. White flight continued and new Latino actors and organizations emerged. 

This period also saw the start of two emerging trends: the more insistent protesting of negative depictions on the part of Latino communities throughout the country (e.g. Ricardo Montalban (1980-154ff), who had turned to television commercials for the Chrysler Cordoba car (because of limited acting options) helped to found the  organization, Nosotros, to improve the image and employment of Latino actors (Montalban, 1980)), and the development of alternative images, stories, and projects by those whose groups had been otherized.[10] In the Post Modern era, Hollywood’s interest in such ventures grew, non-Latino interest in Latinos expanded, and many more Latino newcomers entered the acting world, often achieving major successes.

In the early nineties, a seismic shift occurred with Latino stars and images bursting into full bloom.  Obscuring Latino-ness seemed foolish – just as it had been in the mid-twenties and early thirties. Latina stars also seemed to be more physically varied than they had been in the recent past, e.g., Jessica Alba, Tatyana (Marisol) Ali, Rosario Dawson, Michelle Rodríguez, Talisa Soto, Zoey Saldaña, Roslyn Sanchez, Eva Mendes, and Tia Tejada. They were also more openly, sometimes nonchalantly, Latina.  The early racial dividing line now became more blurred.

Accompanying this rise in Latino stars was a more generalized “Latinization” that was sweeping the country and the world, through music, food and dance. Ricky Martin’s ubiquitous Livin’ La Vida Loca became an international hit, and Latin rhythms became mainstream. There was also subliminal Latinization, as Latin music appeared as background in TV commercials, programs and films. Spanish words were entering the mass vocabulary without translation, e.g. “Hasta La Vista, Baby” and “Yo quiero Taco Bell”.  The market also drove this Latinization (Dávila, 2001).  For example, McDonald’s introduced the classic Cuban sandwich, a “Dulce de leche” flavor with its McFlurry, a Latin McOmlet, and even a Mango Dipping Sauce for Nuggets.[11]  Non-Latinos were buying the records, videos and albums that made mega stars of Ricky Martin, Jennifer López, Marc Antony, and Shakira. The Wall Street Journal(Aug. 9, 2001, p. A1) called it a “craze for all things Latino.”  From soccer to salsa — both the edible and danceable varieties – Latinization had begun in earnest. 

However, as we entered the second decade of the 21st century, still in the Post-Modern Era, this sweeping change moderated as the country began to experience economic distress and immigrants became targeted once again as responsible for the malaise. There were also still long-standing, unresolved issues. For example, the spitfire character continued — although bolder and more explicit sexuality was in keeping with this era, it still seemed that sexuality was generally at a higher octave for Latinos than for others in the same films. Consequently, many Latino characters were still exoticized and eroticized.  In addition, it still seemed to be more about bodies than brains, accomplishments, successes or depth.  Therefore, despite the increase in actors, and in portrayals in central and starring roles, many observers were still left wondering: Where are the Latinos who are intelligent, accomplished and powerful in areas other than sex?

Cuban Pete


[1] This essay is based on two earlier books (Rodríguez, 1997; 2008), which examine film posters, movie clips, film stills, publicity photos, and sheet music covers, as well as Photoplay articles, photos, and other magazine advertisements that reflect the intersection of advertising and Latino film stars over time. These materials have been gathered from the archives of the National Museum of American History Collections, the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Collection, the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and the Library of Congress Motion Picture Division.

[2] Major Latin film stars were present from the very beginning of film and included: Pedro de Cordova, Myrtle Gonzalez, Beatriz Michelena, George Hernandez, Antonio Moreno, Ramon Novarro, Ricardo Cortez, Anita Page, Dolores Del Rio, and Lupe Velez. Not major marquee names, but well-known were: Raquel Torres, Don Alvarado, and Alfredo Biraben.

[3] See here ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes with Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez; and, Lupe Velez Coca Cola ad.

[4] Since the films were silent, they also had international markets and Latino stars were often featured in foreign magazines. [Tk see, for example, Lupe Velez on the cover of French and an Italian magazine.]

[5] It is a reflection of the times that Hayworth’s first major screen success was in a film called The Strawberry Blond (1941)She later acknowledged the significance of this change, when she said, "After I changed my name, the quality of roles offered to me improved greatly." (Cited in Hadley-Garcia, 1993, p. 59) She enjoyed immense popularity during the war era and was often cited as the favorite G. I. Pinup girl during the 1940s. Curiously, it is after the war and after her biggest film success in Gilda (1946) that her career began to decline. She died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1987 at the age of 68.

[6] The shift to more ethnically homogenous White Anglo-Saxon images was not just a “Latin” phenomenon. Many ethnicities became “invisible” or “re-made,” e.g., Danny Kaye, who was Jewish, dyed his hair blond and was generally not seen by the public as Jewish. There were scores of others.

[7] See Royal Crown Cola ad with two servicemen.

[8] Films included more Latin characters, themes and Latin American settings and they were projected on the screen as warm, friendly and quite similar to the United States, e.g., They Met in Argentina (1941), Down Argentine Way (1940) and, even Disney’s now classic animated film, The Three Caballeros (1944). Many of the films showed Latin America with modern capitals, affluent Latins, living in skyscrapers, with beautiful tree-lined avenues, and sharing with Anglos concerns about love and money. As the film historian, Charles Richard, Jr. put it, “Lots of Anglos were hugging and kissing lots of Hispanics" (1993, p. xxxvi). The screen Latins also seemed to be in love with everything in the North. The image projected in many of the films was of one people in two hemispheres who could share love and friendship and thus insure inter-American security

[9] There were other less visible Latinos during this period. For example, there was Chita Rivera (1933-), who played Anita in the play version of West Side Story, Mel Ferrer (1917-) who made his screen acting debut in 1949 in Lost Boundaries, where he played a black man passing for white, but he was also well-known for directing and producing, Susan Kohner (the daughter of Mexican actress, Lupita Tovar and agent Paul Kohner, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Imitation of Life (1959), Joaquin Murieta, Rosenda Monteros (from Mexico) and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (from San Antonio, Texas). In addition, there were other Latino actors who had more transnational careers, e.g., Cantinflas, Sarita Montiel, Rita Macedo, Miroslava, Armando SilvestreMaria Elena Marquez, and Carmen Sevilla made films in both Mexico and the United States and Linda Cristal, who was born in Argentina but debuted in Mexican cinema in 1951, would continue her career into the next era.

[10] The works of Luis Valdez, Jesús Salvador Treviño, Carlos de Jesus, Sandino Films, Pablo Figueroa, Robert M. Young, León Ichaso, the Fania All-Stars, Edward James Olmos, and Cheech Marin are representative of this approach. Also, community at murals began to populate Latino areas. [tk see mural in ppt]

[11] Other American commercial icons, like the Mars bar (made by M&M) introduced a “dulce de leche” flavor. Salsa was outselling ketchup in the Midwest, nachos were beating hot-dogs at the movies and salsa music was finding its way on to hitherto unknown dance floors and commercials all over the country, in Europe, Japan and elsewhere.

Latin Looks in Hollywood over Time