Latinos may now be the largest racial minority in the United States, but their rise in numbers hasn't necessarily made it easier for them to challenge stereotypes.
Racial stereotypes about Latinos abound in television and film. This overview of the most common Hispanic stereotypes portrayed in the media-from maids to gangbangers-reveals why sweeping generalizations about Latinos are harmful.
All Maids All the Time
In the earlier days of television and film, blacks were the racial group most likely to portray domestic workers.
Black housekeepers played key roles in television sitcoms such as 1950's Beulah and films such as 1939's Gone With The Wind. By the 1980s, however, Latinos increasingly replaced black people as Hollywood's domestics.
The 1987 TV show I Married Dora was about a man who married his Latina housekeeper to prevent her from being deported. Even megastar Jennifer Lopez played a housekeeper in 2002's Maid in Manhattan, a romantic comedy reminiscent of the Cinderella fairytale.
The late actress Lupe Ontiveros estimated that she played a maid as many as 150 times onscreen. In 2009, Ontoveros told National Public Radio,
“I long to play a judge. I long to play a lesbian woman. I long to play a councilman, someone with some chutzpah.”
Hollywood has a long history of portraying Hispanics and Spaniards as Latin Lovers. Men such as Antonio Banderas, Fernando Lamas, and Ricardo Montalban all starred in a number of roles that perpetuated the idea that Hispanic men are incredibly suave, sexy and skilled in the sheets.
The stereotype became so popular that Hollywood produced a film in 1953 with the very title Latin Lovers, starring Ricardo Montalban and Lana Turner.
Tired of being typecast as a Latin Lover, Fernando Lamas, father of actor Lorenzo Lamas, told the Free Lance-Star in 1958 that he wanted to redefine the term, saying:
“A Latin lover shouldn't be a greasy character. He doesn't even have to be Latin. But he must be a guy who loves life, and since life includes women, his loves include women. Sometimes he gets a girl and sometimes he gets his face slapped. The most important thing is that he be a real man with problems to solve.”
While Hispanic men are often reduced to Latin Lovers in television and film, Hispanic women are commonly typecast as sexpots. Rita Hayworth, Raquel Welch, and Carmen Miranda are some of the Latinas in early Hollywood who capitalized on their sexy image.
More recently, Eva Longoria played a conniving Latina homemaker who used her looks to advance her agenda in Desperate Housewives, and Sofia Vergara played the role of Gloria Delgado-Pritchett on Modern Family, which many prominent Latinas argue not only fuels the stereotype that Hispanic women are sexy but also loud, crazy and spicy.
Tanisha Ramirez said in the Huffington Post:
“The problem here is that this idea of the curvy, sexy and sultry Latina denies many Latinas their cultural identification based on their physical appearances and sexual attractiveness, alone. In essence, this sort of thinking traps our culture within our bodies, ignoring the values, ethics, and traditions that contribute to our sense of culture and community.”
There has been no shortage of Latinos playing thugs, drug dealers and gangbangers in U.S. films and television shows, especially police dramas.
Popular films such as 1992's American Me and 1993's Mi Vida Loca chronicled the lives of fictional Hispanic drug kingpins and gangsters. Even the 1961 classic West Side Story centered on the rivalry between a white gang and a Puerto Rican one.
The gangster stereotype aimed at Latinos is particularly harmful, as it gives the public the idea that Hispanics aren't law-abiding citizens but cholos. Accordingly, they should be feared, shunned and certainly not treated as equals.
While some Latinos, just as some whites, find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system, the majority of Hispanics aren't criminals. They work as lawyers, teachers, pastors, police officers, and in a host of other areas.
Television programs such as The George Lopez Show, Desperate Housewives, and Ugly Betty were unique in that they portrayed Latinos as Americans rather than as recent immigrants to the United States.
Not only have many Hispanics lived in the United States for several generations but some Hispanics also descend from families that predate the establishment of the present-day U.S.-Mexico border.
For decades Hollywood has featured Hispanics speaking heavily accented English on television and in cinema. Lupe Ontiveros told NPR that during auditions, casting directors made it clear that they prefer her to play immigrant types.
Before auditioning, she'd ask them, “'You want an accent?' And they'd say, 'Yes, we prefer for you to have an accent.' And the thicker and more waddly it is, the more they like it. This is what I'm against, really, truly.”