When Hollywood Gazes at Latino Male Bodies

Latino men demanding to be treated as an equal risk being dismissed as “aggressive” (if not dangerous), “emotional” (lacking intellectual rigor), and/or “too passionate” (if not overly sensual). But how are these negative depictions of Latinos encoded upon the Latino male body? How are the stigmata of these cultural wounds enfleshed? Members of the Euroamerican dominant culture, male and female, are privileged with whiteness, creating a tendency to perpetuate the myth that the rules, traditions, institutions, and language of Euroamericans are legitimate and normative. Rejecting this naturalness, we turn to systems of encoding and decoding signs. Semiologist Roland Barthes is helpful here. Relying on the methodology he employs in his book Mythologies, this article turns its attention to exploring what Latino male bodies signify to the dominant Euroamerican culture.

Mythologies consists of a series of brief essays examining common features within popular French culture (i.e., world of wrestling, soap commercials, steak & chips, and striptease) in order to reveal how every cultural phenomenon, regardless of how normative or natural it appears, undergirds ideological assumptions. Norms are naturalized even though they can be construed as the unconscious propaganda of those who benefit from constructing myths. The myth succeeds, not because it is able to mask, but rather because it distorts the glaring contradictions existing within the social system so that they can appear both normal and natural.

The Latino male body as a mental notion ceases to be a symbol, but rather becomes the very ideology defining the Hispanic man who is represented through the signs: 1) greasers, 2) dimwitted, and/or 3) Latin-lovers. Still, the former linguistic sign represented by the Latino body becomes a new “depoliticized” signifier within a new system of meaning, and hence, creates a myth. Emptied from its original meaning, the multiple signs of the Latino male body become new signifiers to a myth, a myth so entrenched within the Euroamerican mindset, that its usage becomes second nature. These new signifiers, within this second-order semiological system, now signify Latino men as aggressive, stupid, and sensual. Creating these myths about Latinos has the power to connote a larger sign system that misconstrues society and its intra-relationships.

To understand how Laino male bodies are seen within Euroamerican culture, we turn to motion pictures where for over a century, Euroamericans have gazed upon Latino bodies depicted on big silver screen. Popular movies entertain us; but more importantly, they reveal society’s ethos, a reflection of contemporary Euroamerican culture. Filmmakers impose upon the viewer what interests them, interests based on their worldviews. How Hispanic men are seen on the big screen provides a unique opportunity to analyze how the dominant culture sees Latino men in the everyday.

Popular movies depicting Latino male bodies exist transhistorically, as intentional signs, as symptoms regulated by something done or by what someone else does. Still, the inherent social structures behind visual art are products of the same social location in which the filmmaker finds him or herself, for they do not exist in a social vacuum. They too are shaped by the socio-historical space that they occupy, a space influencing their works. Movies serve as historical documents expressing the social life they know, including its hopes, its struggles, its disappointments, its joys, and its tragedies. Watching movies allows us to see the constructed reality of the dominant culture. Upon blank film, the filmmaker transforms empty space into ideas, ideas that constructs reality through the normative gaze of those with the power and privilege to make films.

Movies becomes a document which reveals how reality is understood by the dominant culture – male and female – planting in the minds of the viewer the seeds which will eventually blossom into creating an overarching definition of what is a Latino man. Film, as a sign, contains within it the meanings given to it by the dominant culture from where it arises. Consequently, the reality by which we measure a film becomes the recognized referent of a shared illusion. Yet, this illusion becomes a self-contained whole subordinate to its own order and structure. Through the filmmakers’ rendition, the inner structure of the movie is capable of surpassing the power structures of reality, transforming those structures by providing a new vision; but all too often it simply creates and reinforces the prevailing normalized gaze and discourse. Consequently, our aim in contemplating popular movies is not to offer insight or feelings about any particular piece, nor is it to provide a critique on story plot.

Relying on the documentary The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood, we will “see” Latino men on the big screen so that we can glimpse a reality so familiar that its depictions of Latinos are unquestionably believed, even by those who are being depicted. A major contributor to the colonization of Hispanic minds are the movies and television shows that taught those of us who are Latino/as how to play the part of a Hispanic, in effect, constructing our reality. Latinas like Carmen Miranda, Rita Heyward, or Rita Moreno, portrayed as “spicy” or “hot tamale,” also deserves our attention, especially if we want to understand how Latinas’ bodies are defined to ensure easy appropriation. Unfortunately, for now, our focus will be on how Latino men are portrayed.

Hollywood - greeserConstructing the Latino Greaser: Greaser is a derogative 19th century slur for Mexicans whose origins is associated with the labor practice of greasing one’s body to facilitate the loading and unloading of cargo and hides. The term soon referred to the Mexican skin tone, connoting the greasy hair associated with being unkempt, unwashed, and unclean. The slur became a common insult for Mexicans during the Mexican-American War. An element of danger was added to the term as demonstrated by the new Anglo invaders of California in their 1855 state statute called the Vagrancy Act, better known as the Greaser Act. The Greaser Act was a so-called anti-vagrancy law which defined vagrants as “all persons who are commonly known as ‘greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood . . . and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons.”

Hollywood embraced the greaser early during the silent era with such films as The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908), Tony the Greaser (1911), The Girl and the Greaser (1913), The Greaser’s Revenge (1914), Bronco Billy and the Greaser (1914), and simply, The Greaser (1915). These movies created a neat dichotomy between the good guys, whites, and the bad guys, Mexicans, who were murderous banditos and have no qualms in kidnapping white women. The greaser image waned due to a 1922 Latin American boycott of Hollywood films due to how Latino bodies were being portrayed, and the 1930s so-called “Good Neighbor Policy,” which acted as a counter to Nazi diplomatic advances in Latin America. The greaser made a comeback in the 1960s as the cowboy’s anti-hero, best illustrated by actor Alfonso Arau in the 1969 film The Wild Bunch. Greaser evolved to spic as it made its way from westerns to urban jungles in such movies as West Side Story (1961, where the leading lady is an Anglo playing a Puerto Rican) and Scarface (1983, where the leading man is an Italian-American playing a Cuban). The greaser, spic, becomes a criminal on the run, both repulsive and yet strangely attractive, always looking for trouble. The depiction found in such films as Boulevard Nights (1979), Zoot Suit (1981), Colors (1988), America Me (1992), and Mi Vida Loca (1994) portrays the Latino man as aggressive and dangerous, someone to fear.

A century of Hollywood depicting Latino bodies as knife wielding, gang-banging, terrorizing greasers created a myth in the Euroamerican imaginary that unconsciously (if not consciously) constructs how Latino are seen by both white men and women. Such men are a menace, more so because they lack the intellectual sophistication to control their passions. A neat dichotomy is created by the cerebral characteristic of white men that occupy an elevated evolutionary space from the less advanced passionate Latino.

Hollywood - Dim witConstructing the Latino Dimwit: While conservatives usually question the level of civilized sophistication (i.e., the greaser/spic) of male Hispanics, liberals usually question their level of intellectual prowess. What makes Latino men more dangerous is their lack of the higher powers of rational thinking needed to control their lower base emotions. Not surprisingly, the portrayal of Latinos as dimwitted became a normative depiction on the big screen. Probably the earliest depiction of the clownish Latino was the portrayal of Pancho Villa, by actor Wallace Beery, as savage and animalistic in the 1934 film, Viva Villa. Chis-pin Martin typifies the roly-poly, corpulent, comic stereotype, playing the buffoon role of Poncho in the 1943 flick, The Ox-Bow Incident. It is important to note how the Latino body signifies the dangerous elements associated with the greaser construct coupled with a philistine persona. Latino’s intellectual short-failings are also in need of white messiahs – be they men or women. And yet, while the Latino body may be backward, under the surface exists a subdued threat (attraction?), especially for white women. The Latino body may be viewed as the stereotypical domesticated gardener; but one must fear this gentle keeper of our lawns least his true lustful nature erupts.

Hollywood - Latin LoverConstructing the Latin Lover – Thanks to over a century of blockbuster movies, Euroamericans have historically been taught that Latino men are overly sexualized beings invoking both fascination with and fear of their sensual prowess. Hollywood’s construct of the hot-blooded Latin lover, and his sexual exploits created a desire to “go slumming” by some white women, as best illustrated by Maye West in the 1933 movie She Done Him Wrong, which gave us her now famous description of Latino bodies: dark, handsome, and warm. Latino men’s foreign accents are a threat to other men even though they are alluring to “bad” women, as Latino bodies became a commoditized entity for white women consumption. The construction of race and its eroticization is so woven into white America’s identity that it has become normalized in the way many whites have been taught by their culture to see Latino male bodies. To question this mind-set as racist only produces an incredulous response of innocence from those who have been socially taught to signify the Latino male body as the receptacle of aggressiveness and carnality.

The construction of the Latin lover came during the era of Rudolf Valentino. Antonio Moreno in The Spanish Dancer (1923) and Ramón Novarro in The Pagan (1929) were introduced (mainly as a response to the 1922 Latin American boycott of greaser movies) as the first Latin lovers. Probably the most famous Latin lover actor of that time was Ricardo Cortez, aka Jacob Krantz, an Austrian Jew (by now the reader might begin to notice that those who best play Latina/os, according to Hollywood, are usually non-Hispanics).

The image of the Latin lover was heighten during the 1940s and 50s, mainly as a result of America’s “Good Neighbor Policies” with Latin America. Actors like Ricardo Montalban, especially his 1953 movie Latin Lovers created the enduring mode for the stereotypical Latin Lover. Based on the popularity of the literary gene of modern plantation, the “bodice ripper” novels projected white women forbidden desires onto darker bodies, allowing them to engage in sex with these darker bodies, absolved of any culpability. Those viewed as being evolutionarily closer to the heat of the jungle were held responsible for compromising the virtues of whites, due to their so-called seductive nature. To engage in sex with Latino male bodies, white women are given an opportunity to lose themselves to primitive urges, heightening their momentary sexual experience while reinforcing these darker bodies’ subjugation.

Over a century of being constantly and consistently harangued by depictions on the silver screen to embrace a naturalized and legitimized Latino male identity has caused psychological damage, as our very minds become sodomized. Movies, as cultural signifiers of the Latino male body, have been used to normalize Latino bodies for U.S. domestication. We have come to accept as truth that the closer one can be to the white male ideal, regardless how much one might protest the oppressive social structures constructed designed to privilege white supremacy, the less struggle for survival takes place. That which is repulsive ironically becomes for many the path toward liberation, even though said liberation is but illusionary. Nevertheless, becoming white, assimilating, not questioning how our minds have been colonized becomes the easiest and most damaging path many people of color to take. Whatever liberation looks like, it must begin with liberating our colonized minds that continue to see our bodies through the eyes of the dominant culture, rejecting assimilation to the dominant white culture.

Miguel A. De La Torre

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