Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret
It sure has been a while since we’ve seen a good Latin-American on the big screen.
[Note: “Latine” is a gender-neutral form of “Latino/a”, and will be used throughout this article.]
Hispanic people are the largest minority in the United States (as of a few years ago), and the percentage is only going to grow, according to estimates. As a result, Latin-American traditions have become an integral part of American culture—from their food, to their fashion, to their poorly appropriated holidays. Even without the threat of an unsympathetic government and the nation’s growing unease towards foreigners, Latines are still lacking representation in a pair of very important mediums: film and television.
The United States hardly sees films being made by Latines for Latines with only a handful of movies hitting theaters each year among the dozens of others made by (usually) White people. An obvious solution would be to encourage more prominent studios to incorporate Latin-American characters and actors into their works—such as successful efforts have led to some celebrated performances: Oscar Isaac and Diego Luna became major characters in the Star Wars canon, Tessa Thompson played Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok and a scientist in Annihilation alongside Gina Rodriguez, and Disney’s Coco and Reel FX’s The Book Of Life continue to be genuine staples of Mexican-inspired animation.
It isn’t hard to give Latine actors good, well-written roles. It just happens to be easier to force them into lazy stereotypes.
Take Gringo and Peppermint, two films that were released this year. Both involve the Mexican cartel, a higher power that is corrupt and associates with the syndicate and a main character seeking revenge. The cartel members are essentially extras, playing dangerously mindless goons that serve no purpose other than to look threatening and be murdered by the protagonists, which happens often and without remorse.
The writers of these films want cookie-cutter villains, and decide on scary, unsympathetic Latines in spite of a current political culture where they are constantly demonized; as well as the presence of a conservative audience always hunting for fear-mongering bait to spread. If anyone claims that this is representation, then there’s no glory in playing a racist caricature—and there’s only shame to those who write them.
Stereotypes are based on truths…Yes, there are many Latines in gangs, and gangs are common in areas with large Hispanic populations. Gangs are typically formed by youths who feel disenfranchised and ignored by society, and band together in solidarity against oppression; it’s a mindset that many frustrated minorities could develop.
It doesn’t excuse any crimes or illegal activities they may participate in, but it does show a gaping flaw in having an apathetic and inherently racist administration that ignores those who need the most support—because by refusing to help a demographic only leads to those people becoming distrustful and rebellious. It is seen as unruly and violent by the government, which turns away again. If systemic oppression had a mascot, it would be a snake eating its own tail.
This leads to another piece of media about Mexicans involved with a cartel: Mayans M.C., a spinoff of the show Sons of Anarchy. These shows provide a voice for those on the other side of the law, showing people stuck in dangerous situations and bound by little more than family and obligation. These shows are careful not to glamorize gang lifestyles, and don’t shy away from the very real threats that lurk around each corner—each choice has a consequence, as nothing is ever morally light or dark in this lifestyle.
Part of the reason why the shows are handled well is because each one has someone to speak from experience: Sons of Anarchy has David Labrava, a former Hells Angel who plays one of the main characters on the show; and Mayans has Elgin James, a co-creator of the show and former founder of FSU, which is an antiracist street gang.
Sons of Anarchy was a show full of the violent, high-stakes lifestyle that came with being part of a motorcycle gang, and Mayans is sure to be similar with the added complexities of being Latine in a polarized country with a deep hatred for immigrants. The characters are complex, human, and non-PC jokes aside, personable in a way a group of men in their mid-20s and up can be. While I’m grateful for that, I’m never going to be satisfied by seeing Latin Americans continually playing the same tired, typecast roles.
Just last year, Netflix released One Day at a Time, a remake of the 1975 show of the same name. The show was reworked to show the life of a Cuban-American family living in present-day Los Angeles, and it had all the components of a strong comedy series: great writing, plenty of cheesy sitcom humor, family bonding, and a delightfully prevalent aura of ethnic pride woven through each episode that every Latin-American I met strongly related to. Also, every episode tackled an issue that affects families, especially Latine families, all over the country from mental illness to sexual identity, immigration and racism to sexism. It put a Latin-American family in the national spotlight, and the passionate lobbying for its third season renewal is proof that people want to see more of them.
Gangs exist, and their stories deserve to be told. However, gang members and cartel goons do not represent the entirety of Latines, and every one of us who are doctors, teachers, artists, engineers, and every other imaginable role we’ve seen others play, need to be seen too.