Beyond Stereotypes

                                                                I don’t see anything bad about being stereotyped as a Latin woman.   
We are yellers, we’re pretty, we’re sexy, and we’re scandalous.  
I am not scared of the stereotypes.”   
                                                                                                         ––  Sofia Vergara        

by Bel Hernandez Castillo (Excerpt from Latino Magazine)

Moctesuma Esparza delivers. He has produced some of the most lasting positive images of Latinos in film and television of the past twenty-five years. Films like The Milagro Beanfield War, Selena and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez have helped launch careers like those of Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos and inspired Latinos and audiences worldwide. He’s fought hard to get these films made. They are gems among the usual films about Latinos that Hollywood has been perpetuating since the inception of the film industry.

“When I finally decided this was going to be my career,” said Esparza, “I chose to take on the role to transform our image, not just in the U.S., but in the world; to transform an image Hollywood had created which was stereotypical and demeaning, into an image of us as a people, as human beings of this land, who have something special to offer this country and the world, along with the rest of the native people of this continent.”

But in four decades of working in the industry, producing critically acclaimed and commercially successful films, has Esparza see the image of Latinos in Hollywood transformed? His answer is an immediate and a resounding “No.”

He then adds: “In fact, they have gotten worse.”

Stereotypes in the media are simple, one-dimensional portrayals of a certain group of people, usually based on race, gender, religion, profession or age. To some degree we all stereotype people who are different from us. In Hollywood, filmmakers often use stereotypes to quickly establish certain characters like the Latino drug dealer, immigrant or gangbanger. Asians are smart and lacking sex appeal; blonds are dumb and African Americans are hip-hop thugs.

But ask any Latino who has grown up being marginalized by the portrayal of negative stereotypes and they will tell you it’s not the occasional stereotype they mind, it’s the constant barrage they object to. It’s the images of mostly maids, illegal immigrants, gangbangers and drug dealers that their children are subjected to, that shape the image they have of themselves and these images are promoted worldwide. Ask the actors how they feel about constantly having to audition and play these stereotypical roles and they are speaking out—no longer keeping quiet for fear of not working.

“I am not mad and I am not rabid, but I am passionate and I am pissed,” said actor/producer/director/musician Esai Morales in a recent radio interview on KTLK 1150 in Los Angeles. “This is about ignorance and fear… this business has always been run by white men. It’s always someone’s image of what reality should be.”

Morales, a self proclaimed actorvist, first came to Hollywood’s attention in 1983 for his role as Paco Morales opposite Sean Penn in the critically acclaimed Bad Boys about teenagers in prison. A graduate of Manhattan’s School of Performing Arts, Morales moved to Hollywood soon after the release of Bad Boys where he landed the role he is most recognized for as Ritchie Valens’ brother in the hit biopic La Bamba, written and directed by Luis Valdez.

He’s been lucky to have played his share of detectives, FBI agents and even a Civil Liberties lawyer in the futuristic science fiction drama Caprica for the SyFy Channel. However, he has also had to play roles that he calls the four “H” stereotypical roles for Latinos in Hollywood: Hostile (“I’ll cut you”); Hormonal (“Ay Mamacita”); Humble (“No señor, we don’t want no trouble”); and Hysterical (“Ay Lucy”).

“I don’t think you want to stay away from the stereotypes,” actor/director Cheech Marin said recently at the Television Critics Association Conference in Pasadena. “I think you want to confront them and deal with them.”

Cheech Marin (left) with Rob Schneider in "Rob"

Cheech began his career as one half of the marijuana loving comedy duo Cheech and Chong. Playing a stereotype is what made him a household name. After several comedy album releases, the duo went on to make six films starting with the now cult classic, Up in Smoke in 1978. In 1985, Cheech struck out on his own starting with his directorial debut on the film Born In East L.A. (based on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.) in which he starred as a U.S. citizen who is mistaken for an illegal alien and deported.

Cheech’s most recent role was in the now cancelled CBS sitcom Rob, about a clueless gringo who marries into a Mexican-American family, was definitely not a stereotypical role. In this instance, Cheech’s character Fernando—a Republican—was doing the stereotyping, joking in one of the episodes that between his “100 illegal immigrant family members” he thinks they “have like, three Social Security numbers.” The Latino blogosphere was on fire screaming “stereotypes.” Critics panned the show, calling the writing racist. Rob only lasted eight episodes.

Alex Nogales, President of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a non-profit, media advocacy and civil rights organization, which grades the four major television networks on diversity, believes it wasn’t racism that led to the cancellation of the show. “It just wasn’t great writing,” he claims. Nogales stressed that there was only one Latina writer (Laura Valdivia) on the Rob writing team. However, he explains, “She was not one of the senior writers,” and continues, “What we need are more experienced writers who actually write the episodes or are story editors. Junior writers don’t have a lot power. As a junior writer you can’t tell the head writer that his jokes are stereotypical.”

But yes, its true, Hollywood has not been able to wean itself off the negative Latino stereotypes in 60 years. As they say, writers write what they know, and the majority of the Hollywood writers who write Latino characters don’t know any Latinos other than maybe their “illegal immigrant” gardener or maid they hired, or the drug dealer they heard about in the news, so it is from that narrow view of Latinos that they write.

Case in point, Ted Cohen and Andrew Reich, creators of the ABC mid-season sitcom Work it, which offended the transgender and Puerto Rican community with their show, causing it to be yanked off the air after only two episodes. GLADD and the Human Rights Campaign claimed the show reinforced negative and damaging stereotypes about transgender people. Meanwhile the Puerto Rican…CLICK HERE FOR REST OF THE ARTICLE