Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood by Clara E. Rodríguez recounts the stories of Latino actors and actresses from the era of silent film to the present day. Rodríguez, a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Fordham University, examines the social conditions and assumptions that influenced the portrayal of Latinos in American film and their reception by the public. In the following excerpt from Rodríguez’ book, we learn about the typecasting of Latino actors, and specifically, about the role of the “Latin Lover.”
Options for Latinos
With a few important exceptions, many of the films that featured Latino characters during this [cold war] era focused on social problems and were steeped in historical myths, machismo, or stereotypes of Latin lovers and Latina bombshells. (Indeed, strong female stars of all backgrounds were also shunted aside during this era.) The choices for Latino actors were generally limited: They could either Europeanize their images (by discarding any ethnic references) or play up the stereotypes. Consequently, in this period, the distinction between visible and invisible Latino actors became stronger, and invisibility became a more clear-cut strategy for navigating identity and careers. The absence of middle-ground positions in film reflected the intolerance for ambiguity characteristic of this era. The roles available often called for proverbial characters: victims incapable of defending themselves, vixens, alien invaders, and young punks. In essence, fewer roles were open to Latino actors, and of the few that were available many were mere clichés. Some actors also became victims of the McCarthyism that was emblematic of the times.
Latin Lovers, Bombshells, Spitfires, and Sultry Latinas
Some might wonder why being seen as a Latin lover, or a Latina bombshell, is problematic. What is so wrong with this? First, it should be made clear that in Hollywood movies at the time there was not much distinction (other than the obvious) between Latin lovers, bombshells, spitfires, and sultry Latinas; the difference was often merely a matter of degree or gender. It should also be made clear that Latin lover and Latina bombshell characterizations were in many ways desirable. They were the men and women that audiences yearned to touch, lusted after, the ones their mothers had warned them about; they made their viewers’ hearts skip a beat and promised rapture and full surrender. What was wrong with being projected as sexually desirable? Don’t most of us strive for this in one way or another or at one time or another?
The problem was that, in the case of Latinos, the characters were erotic and exotic, and little else. The dark, forbidden, dream lovers generally had no other role; they were not lucky in love, and they frequently preferred non-Latinos as partners. The characters were often morally inferior and ended up reinforcing the comfortable American status quo that relegated people like them to the back seat. True, the Latino characters inspired unspeakable desire and desirability, especially at this time, when non-Latin men and women were often portrayed as prim, clumsy, restrained sexual partners. In the end, however, once the escapist fantasy had subsided, it was the non-Latinos who had the good morals, sense, and intelligence and were “the real thing”—the ones to be taken seriously in marriage, as well as in other areas of life.