LIMITS FOR LATINX
/ˌlaˈtēˌneks,ləˈtēˌneks/ Noun , Adjective ;
A person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina).
During the Silent Film era, most Latinx actors were found playing the role of the shifty greaser that lost to the noble white cowboy. The late 1920’s made way for Latinx characters being portrayed as the male Latin Lover or the female spitfire. As filmmakers transitioned to the era of talkies, they took these stereotypes with them, causing terms such as “greaser” or “spitfire” to become synonymous with Latinx.
The Latinx community did not sit idly by as these stereotypes were portrayed on film, but it did prove difficult to go against the same era of film that was perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Black people with minstrel shows. The entertainment interests of American audiences and political pressure of WWII shaped Latinx representation in Hollywood films during the late 1930’s, where films such as Mexican Spitfire (1939) and Juarez (1939) revealed the stereotypes filmmakers used to determine socially appropriate casting and storylines.
Hollywood’s shift to talkies in the 1930’s did not change the stereotypical roles held by Latinx characters, but it did change the actors that were casted for these roles.
Admittedly, the star system created by Carl Laemmle was already ingrained in Hollywood and had American audiences eager to recognize the names of leading actors in films. These household names were often those of white actors, and rather than risk box office sales with an unknown Latinx lead, filmmakers decided that “brownface” was the less risky solution. Brownface was the cosmetic solution applied to the faces of white actors cast in roles of Latin American, Middle Eastern, Polynesian, Native American, or Southeast Asian descent.
The Austro-Hungarian star, Paul Muni, had brownface in the Warner Bros Picture Juarez (1939), as he played the stoic Mexican president Benito Juarez. Muni’s household name recognition could have been the reason for this casting choice, but one cannot ignore his previous engagement with brownface in Bordertown (1935).
Filmmakers were not willing to take the financial risk of casting authentic Latinx actors due to lack of name recognition as well as other reasons. It is difficult to not attribute casting choices to racial prejudice when white actors were thriving in brownface roles while, “most Latinos who rose to prominence did so using Anglo names and by hiding their identities” (Rodriguez).
Latinx actors that could successfully hide their identities were commended for being such “versatile” actors, meaning they could play the roles of any ethnicity like white actors did. They were so good at being white that both casting directors and American audiences were unaware of their true ethnic descent.
The rejection of ethnicity to achieve a full assimilation to whiteness was the path to Hollywood success reserved for light-skinned Latinx. Darker-skinned Latinx were cast exclusively for roles as the “savage natives” or in-house servants because movie-goers found this to be more believable.
The colorism experienced by darker-skinned Latinx in their own culture also overshadowed their talents in Hollywood, and allowed for the light-skinned Latinx actors to secure more prestigious roles. But despite light skin and perhaps an Anglo name change, the majority of successful Latinx actors were still confined to stereotypical leading roles.
In RKO Pictures’ Mexican Spitfire (1939), the leading role of Carmelita, played by Mexican and light-skinned actress Lupe Velez, was based on the spitfire stereotype of Latinx women. Carmelita was embraced by fans and filmmakers for a series of seven comedy films in the following years and, “Now that accents could be heard,” Velez was where many, “Latino actors and actresses generally found themselves... exaggerating their accents to comic effect” (Beltrán). Her fragmented English, loud volume, and short temper were a Carmelita trademark combination, and soon became that of spitfire Latinx women characters throughout Hollywood.
The harsh stereotypes embodied by Paul Muni as Benito Juarez and Lupe Velez as Carmelita, were seen as box office hits to filmmakers rather than problematic. In this era of Hollywood, filmmakers were more concerned with following the guidelines for films in the Production Code. In Juarez (1939) the Production Code’s requirement to have “Ministers of religion... not [be] used as comic characters or as villains” (Motion Picture Association of America), was followed with the priest being treated as a respected figure present for the emotional closing scenes of the film.
Religion was a core theme in this film and receives the utmost respect while Paul Muni sits in brownface. Similarly, Mexican Spitfire (1939) follows the Code’s requirement that “Adultery... must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively” (Motion Picture Association of America). It was neither implied nor shown that Dennis committed adultery with Elizabeth while he believed his divorce to Carmelita was finalized.
Even after realizing the validity of their marriage, Dennis and Carmelita are seen waking up in separate twin beds located in the same bedroom. Implied adultery was avoided, but Carmelita’s strong Spanish accent was encouraged for comedic effect.
The frequent disregard for casting authentic Latinx talent in Latinx roles also extended to Hollywood allowing an Argentinian to play the role of a Mexican, “the producers generalized all Latino people, not realizing Spanish-speaking audiences would notice the mix of accents” (Alcantar). At least authentic to the role of a Mexican woman, Lupe Velez’ accent was believable to Latinx audiences.
With the urgent need to translate popular American films in remakes, filmmakers were complacent with finding any Latinx actor able to speak Spanish. As Latinx audiences watching these translated films in Spanish theaters were quick to figure out, the accent of an Argentinian actor playing a Mexican was obvious and inauthentic. But as movie dubbing became the new technique for translating films, the need for these Spanish-speaking remake actors proved an unnecessary financial investment for filmmakers and the search for Latinx actors once again diminished. To American audiences, the best Latinx-based movies often had few authentic Latinx actors but many harmful Latinx stereotypes.
Filmmakers were also aware of the lucrative American market for talkies with racist storylines about the Latinx community, but learned that not all countries were supportive of such films. A filmmaker oblivious to the racial undertones of their film would seem unbelievable to the socially-conscious audiences of the 21st century, and it did not go unnoticed back in the 1930’s either.
Many pioneers of film in the United States were European immigrants, a racial group that understood the Latinx struggle in adjusting to the language and culture of the United States. But as film pioneers, they also understood that the, “denigration of people of color became profitable,” leading to “[European filmmakers] adopting U.S. racial values" (Rodriguez). Racism sold in the United States, but not the same could be said for Latin American audiences with access to American films, so in 1922, “the Mexican government banned the showing of any offensive movie created by any film company” (Sariñana-Lampson).
This ban caused enough of a financial impact on filmmakers that Hollywood made adjustments to their films. Unfortunately the adjustments were not actively anti-racist, rather loopholes around Mexico’s ban, because the countries of origin for characters became fictional. The darker-skinned characters continued to have Spanish-sounding accents and traditional Spanish costumes, but these films could not be legally banned based on how similar Costa Roja sounded to Costa Rica.
Hollywood began to stray away from perpetuating Latinx stereotypes when United States politics started to focus on good relations with Latin America. This new American sentiment was introduced as the Good Neighbor Policy in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1934. It was during this new period politically inspired films that “emphasized the celebration of Latin-American cultures and themes of friendship and cooperation” (Beltrán).
However, this shift in film themes was not a benevolent nor longlasting American gesture, Hollywood was facing financial losses with the beginning of WWII and the closing of U.S. access to European film markets. The United States film industry turned its focus to expanding their markets in Latin America, and was aware of how to create stories that were not grounds for being banned. Juarez (1939), went as far as showcasing Mexican president, Benito Juarez, as a politician with the same respect for American democracy as President Abraham Lincoln. Focusing on the pitfalls of European politics and intervention, Juarez ( 1939) shines an amicable light on relations between the United States and Mexico. Despite the brownface worn by Paul Muni as Benito Juarez, the impact of the film remained notable enough that “President Lazaro Cardenas urged that the film be presented in the Mexican Palace of Fine Arts, the first motion picture so honored” (New York Times).
As Latin American countries decided to support the Allies in WWII, Hollywood filmmakers decided to embody the role of a good neighbor by commemorating political friendships through film.
The films Mexican Spitfire (1939) and Juarez (1939) were released within a year of one another, and in no way did the latter mark the end of Hollywood’s racism towards the Latinx community. As WWII came to an end and European markets began to reopen for United States export films, the Good Neighbor Policy diminished in importance and the fight against communism became America’s focus. The impact of these films premiering so closely to one another demonstrates that the most integral influences for filmmakers were related to profits and consistently ignored the harm being caused to Hollywood’s Latinx talent.
It should come as no surprise that the same American audiences whose attention was being captured by Blackface minstrel shows, also enjoyed a series of seven comedy films highlighting a tempered Mexican spitfire. Neither should the strategic release of a political propaganda film as the United States was seeking to strengthen support for the Allies in WWII.
The United States’ public perception of the Latinx community was in the hands of Hollywood filmmakers during the late 1930’s and set restrictions on how Latinx talent would be showcased in the industry for centuries to follow.
Emily Calderon is a third year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a major in Business Administration, concentration in Marketing, and a minor in Experience Industry Management, and a guest writer for Women In Film San Francisco Bay Area.