Latino portrayals in
film and television

by Jesús Salvador Treviño

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 14-16
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

On November 16, 1979, NOSOTROS, a Hollywood-based association of Latino actors, held a press conference to protest two CBS Movies of the Week in which Latino gang members figured prominently. While some may consider that NOSOTROS and other Latino groups were over-reacting to gang depictions in the films, STREETS OF L.A. and ACT OF VIOLENCE, a cursory look at how Latinos have been portrayed, first in Hollywood motion pictures, and then in television and other media, will give insight into how modern media have molded popular perceptions of Latinos and the latent and overt messages given the viewer about Latinos, the kind of people they are and the kind of things they do.

Historically, there have been relatively few portrayals of Latinos of any kind in motion pictures and television, particularly when compared to the population size that Latinos represent and have represented in the United States. A review of some of the films which have portrayed Latinos, Mexicans and Chicanos, reveals a succession of abusive stereotypes and denigrating distortions.

As early as 1908, D. W. Griffith's THE THREAD OF DESTINY used the term "greaser" for the Mexican "bandit" type. Later silent films took this portrayal and expanded it in such films as TONY THE GREASER (l9ll) and THE GREASER'S REVENGE (1914). At the time when revolutionaries were struggling to free Mexico from the abuses of the Porfirio Diaz tyranny, Hollywood disavowed revolution in Mexico by using Mexican banditos as convenient foils to the North American cowboy. With the advent of "talkies," the stereotype remained, although it did go through some modifications — such as that of the CISCO KID film series produced during the 1930s and 1940s.

Unlike the traditional Mexican bandit, foul and greasy, the Cisco Kid was a more refined Californio, dashing, a kind of Robin Hood type. Yet he was the exception. His sidekick, "Gordito," or "Pancho" in some films, was a weak, bumbling fool. And the Kid often had as adversaries the greasy bandit types from which the Kid had evolved. The popularity not only of the Cisco Kid, but of the Mexican bandit type in general is reflected in films such as these: CISCO KID AND THE LADY (1940), VIVA CISCO KID (1940), THE GAY CABALLERO (1941), LUCKY CISCO KID (1941), RIDE ON VAQUERO (1941), THE GAY DESPERADO (1935), KING OF THE BANDITS (1947), and BANDIDO (1956).

A second early stereotype was the Latin lover. First popularized by Italian actor Rudolph Valentino, the Latin lover quickly became a film standard, as suggested by these film titles: THE KISSING BANDIT (1948), THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (1951), and LATIN LOVERS (1953).

A third stereotype was to show Latino men, most often Mexican men, as weak, sleepy peons. Few films elevated this character to a starring role. Rather, the ignorant peon occupied the landscape while the North American cowboy enacted scenes of heroism and gallantry. At best the Mexican peon is the nondescript, cowardly audience for a gunfight, a guitarist playing in the background to a romance by the U.S. protagonists, or more commonly, a target for sharp-shooting cowboys. One wonders how such films as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, VIVA MARIA, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, THE WILD BUNCH, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and countless spaghetti westerns, could have been made without the prop of complacent, weak, and illiterate peons whom the heroes could variously rescue, defend, organize, or slaughter-depending on the plot.

Hollywood films have produced equally denigrating portrayals of Mexican and Chicana women. One example is the series of films about the "Mexican Spitfire," films with titles like HOT PEPPER (1933), STRICTLY DYNAMITE (1934), THE GIRL FROM MEXICO (1939), MEXICAN SPITFIRE (1939), MEXICAN SPITFIRE OUT WEST (1940), MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S BABY (1941), MEXICAN SPITFIRE AT SEA (1941), MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST (1942), MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S BLESSED EVENT (1943), and even MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S ELEPHANT (1942). A variant of the Mexican spitfire was Estelita Rodriguez's portrayal of the "Cuban fireball," in such films as THE CUBAN FIREBALL, THE FABULOUS SENORITA, HAVANA ROSE, and TROPICAL HEATWAVE. And another variant was the popular image of Carmen Miranda as a saucy, exotic dancer with fruit-laden hat and fiery temper. Again, the message was the same: the Latin woman represents a hot-blooded temptress obsessed with carnal pleasure.

What these stereotypes of the greasy bandit, the Latin lover, the dumb peon, and the Mexican spitfire all have in common is that they reduce to a one-sided, superficial and exaggerated depiction the real variety and depth and complexity of a struggling people. Significantly, the underlying social issues affecting Latino life in the United States have seldom been addressed in Hollywood films, and hardly ever have Latinos been portrayed as people in control of their lives, capable of standing up for their rights, or having an interest in their own future.

With the notable exception of the film SALT OF THE EARTH (1951), the few films that have attempted to deal realistically with the concerns of Mexicans and Chicanos in the United States have mostly displayed a paternalistic, condescending attitude toward Chicanos and their ability to fend for themselves. A few examples will help to illustrate this.

In BORDERTOWN (1935), Paul Muni plays a Chicano who returns from law school. Despite his brilliance, he manages to lose his first big case in his hometown along the United States/Mexico border. Failing at being an attorney, he resorts to opening a gambling casino at which he becomes quite successful. Predictably, Hollywood cannot have the Chicano excel in legitimate professional forms, only in the clandestine, seamy side of U.S. society — an area presumably more familiar to Chicanos and Mexicans.

In THE LAWLESS (1950), a young Chicano (Lalo Rios) visits a dance that is crashed by a group of wealthy Anglo kids from the good side of town. In the ensuing fight, Lab Rios is arrested; later the police car taking him in overturns, killing the policeman inside, and allowing the Chicano youth to escape. Tempers quickly rise in the town and an ugly mob mood takes over. The Chicano community is powerless to defend its own, and once again he submits to police custody. It takes the publisher of the town newspaper (played by Macdonald Carey) to defend the young Chicano. Despite the fact that a mob destroys his office, Macdonald Carey can enlist the help from the father of one of the boys who originally started the brawl. They get an attorney and Rios is eventually cleared — all through the machinations of the non-Chicanos.

In THE RING (1952), Lab Rios returns as a down and out pachuco[1] spotted by a fight promoter after Rios flees from a street brawl. At first he promises to become a great success. He is renamed "Tommy Kansas" by his manager (played by Gerald Mohr). Soon, however, the manager realizes that Tommy Kansas is not champion material and tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Tommy's efforts to hit the big time. Eventually, Tommy Kansas winds up in the ring with boxing champion Art Aragon, is defeated, and resolves to leave the ring forever.

Aside from the fact that Tommy Kansas eventually leaves the ring, the overall message is that he is a loser — even in one of the few fields in which Chicanos have traditionally excelled. The Lalo Rios character is ultimately powerless, albeit a fighter. The film underscores this attitude when Tommy Kansas and his friends are refused service at a restaurant. Rather than protest, the boys decide meekly to leave. A friendly policeman improbably stops by arid, witnessing the incident, forces the waitress to serve the boys. When asked by the policeman if they have this kind of trouble often, Tommy Kansas replies, "Sure, we're Mexican." While realistic in its portrayal of discrimination, once again the film needs an established Anglo authority figure who saves the day.

In THE TRIAL (1955), Glenn Ford plays a college law instructor who defends a teenage Chicano (played by Raphael Campos) accused of having killed a well-to-do Anglo girl at a beach party. The girl, suffering from rheumatic fever, has actually died of a heart attack and young Campos is really innocent. Yet the townspeople are outraged at what they think has happened and attempt to lynch Campos. The plot of the film revolves around how the Communist Party uses the incident to make a cause celebre of Campos, and subvert the naive efforts of the Mexican American community. Glenn Ford is enticed into defending Campos by a communist attorney (played by Arthur Kennedy) and eventually discovers and foils the plot by the nefarious communists to misuse the sentiments of the well-intentioned Mexican-American community. Here again, the film portrays the Chicano as the dupe. The Mexican-American community becomes an easy pawn to the communists and only an Anglo can see through it all. That the Mexican-American community might conceivably be in sympathy with communist objectives is, of course, never seriously broached.

Although not treated as a major theme in the film, GIANT (1956) did include significant attention to prejudice and discrimination of Mexicans. A subplot of the film deals with the mixed marriage between Jordy Benedict (played by Dennis Hopper) and Juana (a Chicana played by Elsa Cardenas) and shows what happens in Texas society when the couple breaks the unwritten law against mixed marriage. Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), Jordy's headstrong father, has typical racist attitudes toward Mexicans and must finally confront his racism at the conclusion of the film when he is forced to defend his Mexican daughter-in-law and grandson against a restaurant proprietor who has refused them service. This altercation comes after the restaurant owner has also refused service to an elderly Mexican couple to whose defense Bick Benedict has come. While it may be argued that showing an Anglo helping out a Mexican couple in trouble is positive, it may also have underscored the opinion that Mexicans are inherently servile, humble, ignorant and powerless. Despite countless historical incidences in which Texas Mexicans have stood up for their rights, in GIANT they must once again await help from well-intentioned saviors of the dominant society.

While the films mentioned have tried to deal with substantive issues sympathetically, they often missed the mark. One may speculate that this was not due to malicious intent, but merely reflected subtle and unconscious prejudices on the part of writers and producers. The extent of producer bias is more evident in the inherent scorn and ridicule of Latinos in such films as VIVA MAX (1970), in which Mexicans try hopelessly to recapture the Alamo in modern times; in BANANAS (1971), in which every cliché and stereotype of the banana republic is again trotted out on the screen; or in many episodes of the CHICO AND THE MAN television series.

In recent years Latino youthful gang members have emerged in film as updated, modern variants of the Mexican bandit type. National Latino organizations and spokespersons have protested films such as BOULEVARD NIGHTS, WALK PROUD, STREETS OF L.A., and ACT OF VIOLENCE because of the way these films emphasize criminal rivalry between Chicano gang members and because they depict average Americans, sympathetically portrayed, being terrorized by these young criminals.

Criticism of BOULEVARD NIGHTS (1979) centered on the perception that "… the distorted images portrayed in this movie are, in fact, destructive to the Chicano community."[2] The executive producer of the film, Tony Bill, defended the film saying,

"This might very well be a controversial film; I hope this film humanizes people who are otherwise thought of as being from another planet."[3]

Yet Chicano criticism charged that

"… by neglecting the causes of gang violence as well as the work of community agencies and groups in ending barrio warfare, the viewer is bombarded with another stereotype of the Chicano experience."[4]

The film WALK PROUD (1979) was similarly criticized for its excessive emphasis on gang violence and because the lead role was played by an Anglo actor (Robbie Benson) who had to wear brown contact lenses in order to even look Chicano.[5] Although completed in 1979, the film was released only in areas without large Latino populations and has yet to be released in Los Angeles for fear of public outcry.

STREETS OF L.A. (1979) and ACT OF VIOLENCE (1979), two CBS Movies of the Week, were assailed by NOSOTROS, which threatened a national boycott of General Electric, sponsor of the film STREETS OF L.A. The Chicano Cinema Coalition similarly viewed the film ACT OF VIOLENCE as "an act of psychological violence on the Chicano community, pornographic, without socially redeeming significance."[6] Sadly, these four films represent the bulk of films produced in recent years dealing with Chicano or Latino themes.


The 1977 report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, entitled WINDOW DRESSING ON THE SET: WOMEN AND MINORITIES IN TELEVISION, makes the following observation about the roe of television in molding public opinion:

"Audiences place a higher value on television as a source of information and entertainment than on other media … Television does more than simply entertain or provide news about major events of the day. It confers status on those individuals and groups it selects for placement in the public eye, telling the viewer who and what is important to know about. Those who are made visible through television become worthy of attention and concern; those whom television ignores remain invisible." [Page 1]

With the emergence of situation comedies, westerns and cops and robbers programming on television, stereotypic renderings of Latino types were borrowed from motion pictures and incorporated into a variety of television programs. Thus, for example, the comic Mexican buffoon stereotype portrayed early on by Chris Pin Martin as "Pancho" in the CISCO KID film series, evolved into such characterizations as "Pepino" in THE REAL McCoy's television series; Sgt. Garcia in the ZORRO series; and more recently "Chico" in the CHICO AND THE MAN television series.

In similar fashion other Latino stereotypes were brought into television. The Mexican bandit and docile peon became familiar parts of the Southwestern U.S. landscape in television series such as WYATT EARP, CHEYENNE, GUNSMOKE, THE RIFLEMAN, or WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE. The Latino criminal emerged in his own right as perhaps the single most common type of Latino in police series such as IRONSIDE, POLICE STORY, KOJACK, STARSKY AND HUTCH, MOD SQUAD and others.

The foregoing analysis is corroborated in a study by the Communications Department of Michigan State University on "Mexican Americans — The New Minority on Television" (1979). Researchers Bradley Greenberg and Pilar Baptista Fernandez examined 255 separate television episodes during a typical week of programming in each of three television seasons, 1975-76, 1976-77, and 1977-78. Out of some 3,549 characters identified, only 53 could be reliably classified as Hispanic, amounting to about 1.5%.[7]

Of the 53 Hispanic characterizations in the Michigan State University study, about a quarter — the single largest grouping — were bandits, thieves and other criminal types. Another quarter was cast in lowly occupational roles such as car washers, waiters, handymen, construction workers, and the like. Only three characters (restaurant owners) could be considered in the category of "professionals and managers."

Of the 53 characters, 22 were cast in "comic" roles, the most popular being the late Freddie Prinze characterization of Chico Rodriguez in CHICO AND THE MAN. Of the remaining 31 roles, 22 were "serious" characterizations as either law-breakers or law-enforcers ("Ponch" in the CHIPS series). In summary, the study found that,

"… there emerged from this three major role characterizations — the funny Hispanic, the crooked Hispanic and the Hispanic cop."[8]


In a classic study on "How Advertisers Promote Racism" (1969), Dr. Tomas Martinez notes that in addition to the instrumental purpose of advertising (i.e., selling a product), there is a second purpose to advertising which he describes as symbolic. In the case of many advertisements in which Latinos have been featured, Dr. Martinez found that these advertisements

"symbolically reaffirm the inferior social status of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the eyes of the audience. Exaggerated Mexican racial and cultural characteristics, together with some outright misconceptions concerning the way of life, symbolically suggest to the audience that such people are comical, lazy and thieving."[9]

While not necessarily the prime intent of such advertising, Dr. Martinez analyzed how many ads by major American firms have served to reinforce traditional stereotypic notions of Mexicans and Latinos that we have previously seen emerge from motion pictures and television. Dr. Martinez gives a partial listing of some of these advertisements of the late sixties that depicted Latinos in negative ways.




  • Granny Goose shows a fat Mexican toting guns, ammunition — with the message that Mexicans are overweight, carry deadly weapons.
  • Frito-Lay uses the character Frito Bandito implying that Mexicans are sneaky and thieves.
  • Liggett & Meyers shows a character "Paco," who never "feenishes" anything, not even revolution. The ad implies that Mexicans are too lazy to improve themselves.
  • A. J. Reynolds depicts a Mexican bandito, with the stereotype of the Mexican bandit.
  • Camel cigarettes depict a "typical" Mexican village, all sleeping or bored, with the implication that Mexicans are do-nothings, irresponsible.
  • General Motors has an ad in which a white, rustic man holds three Mexicans at gunpoint, implying that Mexicans should be and can be arrested by a superior white man.
  • Lark (Liggett & Meyers) shows a Mexican house painter covered with paint, implying that Mexicans are sloppy workers, undependable.
  • Philco-Ford shows a Mexican sleeping next to TV set, implying Mexicans are always sleeping.
  • Frigidaire shows Mexican banditos interested in a freezer, implying Mexicans are thieves, seeking Anglo artifacts.
  • Arrid depicts a Mexican bandito who sprays underarm as a voice-over says, "If it works for him, it will work for you." The ad implies that Mexicans are the onew who stink the most.


As can be seen from this partial listing, stereotypes that originated in motion pictures persist and negatively reinforce attitudes about what Latinos and Mexicans are and what they can do. Apart from the offensive nature of these depictions, one must look further and question how these images affect the public's perceptions of Latinos. Indeed, one might wonder to what extent social, economic and political inequities that exist with respect to Latinos in U.S. society are not maintained and furthered by these popular misconceptions of Latinos which mass media have created and continue to sustain.

There are no studies that conclusively relate societal stereotypes of Latinos with this group's socio-economic inequality. Certainly class and race inequities are based on structures beyond media images, yet it is not hard to imagine employers, co-workers, teachers, government officials and others perceiving Latinos in ways partially taught to them by media, thus reinforcing inequities.

Indeed, one need look no further than the film and television industry itself to see patterns of employment discrimination that may be fueled by employers' imagined stereotypes. Concurrent with the rise of Latino media activist groups in the late 1960s, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a report in 1969, which found that only 3% of the work force at major Hollywood studios were Latinos — "Spanish surnamed." Similarly, at the three major television networks in Los Angeles (ABC, NBC, and CBS), of a total work force of some 3,495 employees, only 76 persons (about 2%) were Spanish-surnamed — in a city whose Spanish-surnamed population was 20%.

A more recent study by the United States Commission on Civil Rights (Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television, 1977) found that in a sample of 40 television stations, including owned and operated stations of the three major networks and public broadcasting, employment of Latinos increased from 1971 to 1975 from 2.0% to 3.3%, still far below the proportion of Latinos in the general population of some 9%.

It is not surprising that Latinos are depicted in stereotypic negative ways by the mass media when they are also denied access to positions of employment where they might help to produce more realistic and humanistic portrayals of themselves.

Because there has been little research conducted with respect to the portrayal of Latinos in Spanish-language films, television and advertising, this review does not address this sphere at length. However, in the absence of any authoritative studies in this area, a few observations may be ventured.

It is probably safe to assume that some cross-over influence from U.S. films, television and advertising will have penetrated programming originating in Mexico and other Latin American countries (the source of the bulk of Spanish-language programming broadcast or screened in the United States to Spanish-speaking audiences). For instance, in Mexican westerns, it is not uncommon to find the image of the Mexican bandit, peon, or even a typically "loose" woman. Also, in the much watched Mexican telenovelas (soap operas), many of the stereotypes we have seen evolve from Hollywood may occur from time to time. However, an important difference must be noted. In all of these programs, whether films or television, the protagonists as well as the antagonists are Latino or Mexican. Thus, a Mexican hero compensates for the negative image of the Mexican bandit. While there may be an occasional temptress portrayed, we also see positive images of Mexican career women, mothers, wives and women in many occupational roles. The audience then receives a picture of Latino good guys, as well as good guys. Moreover, Latino characterizations, because they are written, produced and directed by Latinos, are less likely to abound with specifically Anglo misconceptions.

With respect to the treatment of Chicano themes in Mexican films, a preliminary survey suggests that a growing number of Mexican films are being produced which deal specifically with the Chicano and the so-called "undocumented" Mexican worker in the United States. This trend began as early as 1954 with the Mexican film ESPALDAS MOJADAS (WETBACKS), which presented the love story between an undocumented Mexican field worker and a Chicana. More recent Mexican films have also addressed Chicano realities in the United States, films such as CHICANO (1976), HERMANOS DEL VIENTO (1976), RAICES DE SANGRE (1977), LOS MOJADOS (1978), LA ILLEGAL (1979), AL OTRO LADO DEL PUENTE (1979), and MOJADO POWER (1980), to name but a few. A study analyzing Latino portrayals in Mexican films, telenovelas and variety shows, outside the parameters of this report, would be greatly illuminating.

 This brief historical overview may appear to indicate little hope for positive media portrayals of Latinos in English-language film, television and advertising. Yet, several recent items point to better possibilities prompted by sound economic incentives:

— A random check of some of the companies mentioned in the report by Dr. Tomas Martinez shows that many of these companies have, in fact, modified their advertising policies in an effort to reach rather than alienate Latino markets. The Frito Lay company, for example, has undertaken an ad campaign utilizing Mexican personality Fernando Escandon to promote their "Tostitos" tortilla product. The result has been a great success: $140 million dollars in 1980 alone.

 — The 19 million-plus Latinos in the United States represent an estimated $40 billion a year in spending power.[10]

 — Major product companies such as Gillette, Coors, Schlitz, Nestle, McDonalds, and many others have taken aggressive promotional campaigns in both English and Spanish language vying for this market.[11]

— Los Angeles and other major cities have seen a proliferation of Spanish-language television, radio, and cable television stations directed at the Latino audience.

 — It is projected that the Latino population will be the largest minority group in the United States by the year 1990, causing many authorities to declare the 1980s, "The Decade of the Hispanic."[12]

With all of this attention to the Latino, it is unlikely that totally negative stereotypes will continue to be fostered (or tolerated) when they are dysfunctional to potential profit gains by advertiser and broadcaster alike. Latinos are coming to realize the kind of economic and political clout they represent. The threatened national boycott of G.E. products by NOSOTROS is only one example of how Latinos may be able to make their sentiments known to producers, programmers and advertisers alike.

Undoing the aftereffects of decades of pejorative stereotypes will take time. A first step toward this goal can be aggressive hiring policies for Latinos in media. As well as sensitivity to Latino portrayals by media executives and advertisers. The fundamental shift to positive portrayals will come when Latinos themselves write, produce and direct films, television programs and advertising which realistically portrays their lives and lifestyles.


1. "Pachuco" is the name given to Chicano youth during the 1940's. The Chicanos dressed in zoot suits and were often the object of ridicule and discrimination.

2. El Popo, April/May, 1979; University of California at Northridge, California.

3. Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1979.

4. El Popo, ibid.

5. Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1978.

6. Variety, November 16, 1979.

7. As with motion pictures, Latinos are significantly under-represented in television when compared to their presence in the general population. 53 characters out of 3,549 represents less than 1.5% of television characters; the Latino population in the United States is about 19 million or about 9% of the total U.S. population. George Gerbner and Nancy Signorielli conducted a 1979 study of Hispanic characterizations for the earlier period of 1970-76. Their study found that of 11,080 characters only 277 or about 1.5% were Hispanics. Thus, there appears to be a reduction in Hispanic roles in recent years.

8. Mexican Americans — The New Minority on Television by Bradley Greenberg and Pilar Baptista Fernandez, Michigan State University Press, 1979.

9. "How Advertisers Promote Racism," Tomas Martinez, Civil Rights Digest, Fall, 1969. Table reprinted with permission of T. Martinez.

10. Los Angeles Times, December 14, 1980.

11. Ad Week, February 9, 1981.

12. Time, October 16, 1978.