With recent rise in popularity of shows like Modern Family and Glee, it is important to dissect the role of women of color in these shows and popular culture as a whole. Unfortunately, Latina characters are usually assigned the worst of the stereotypes. In popular Western culture, Latinas embody sex. They have the Latin look of tan skin, dark hair, and voluptuous bodies. They are fiery with tempers that can only be a result of many years chugging tequila and bearing through tropical storms. Yet on the reverse side, Latinas are also painted as the meek, submissive maid or nanny; little women who are only good for cleaning and making tamales.
All the stereotypes of Latin women displayed in popular media are not just false, they are dangerous to the self-confidence of American-born Latinas who are forced to take in these images on a daily basis. Men also suffer from Latin stereotypes, but it is often the women who bear the burden of the most negative ones. Let’s start with the “Latin Look.” There is nothing popular culture got more wrong than this. Perhaps the most dangerous of all the Latin on-screen tropes, it is not only disgustingly stereotypical but it harms Latinas who do not fit the “typical” Latin look at all.
From Cameron Diaz and Demi Lovato to Zoe Saldana and Gina Torres, Latina women come in such a large range of different races and colors that the Latinas depicting and representing all Latin women in the media is not even close to accurate. In fact, Penelope Cruz, who has often been cast as Latina, is from Spain. Penelope Cruz has the Latin Look and thus has been cast in many roles because of it, but as a Spanish woman, she is not Latina. Latinas are usually a mix of either usually Spanish, African and indigenous blood and they sometimes have all three. Gina Torres, a beautiful Dominican actress who has never played a Latina on screen, has been quoted saying, “When I became an actress I quickly realize that the world liked their Latinos to look Italian. Not like me. So I wasn’t going up for Latina parts. I was going up for African American parts.” Torres’ experience is one that is very widespread. There is no place for Black Latinas in Hollywood. Not having anyone to look up to on the big screen and lack of representation kills the confidence of real-life Black Latinas.
Not all Latinas look like Eva Mendes or Salma Hayek. Mendes is Cuban, and as beautiful as she is, and though it is amazing whenever a woman of color makes a name for herself, many Cuban women do not look like Eva. Cubans have African and Spanish ancestry, and as a result Cubans come in a variety of different shades and skin tones, from the light-skinned Eva Mendes to the dark-skinned and equally talented Celia Cruz.
Latin women often play the role of the seductress, like Roselyn Sanchez in Rush Hour II and Marisa Tomei (an Italian-American actress from Brooklyn) in The Perez Family. The seductive, sexy Latinas entice men. This stereotype often crosses into dangerous territory when high school-aged Latinas are showcased with the same promiscuity, such as Naya Rivera’s Santana Lopez or Francia Raisa’s Adrian Lee. Jack Thomas, a writer for Tu Vez, wrote “When white women are prostitutes, they are usually the “hooker with a heart of gold” like in Pretty Woman. When a Latina is a whore, she’s just a slut.” The “La Virgen y La Puta” stereotype is especially idiotic when Hollywood tries to convince its viewers that Latinas happen to be both fiery and uncontrollable while also fitting to be a nanny or maid.
In the second trope we’ll examine, the “La Virgen/the Virgin,” the poor little Latina is trapped in the submissive role of a housekeeper or nanny and is usually rescued by a kind-hearted white man. For an example, look at Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan or Maria from America’s favorite musical West Side Story. Maria is the innocent yet submissive Puerto Rican girl who is swept off her feet by a charming white man. The story writes itself. Yet, with regards to the “La Puta/the Whore” part of the paradox, do a quick Google search of the words “Latin woman” and you’ll find yourself amidst hundreds of links taking you to kinky, exotic porn or dating sites to find the perfectly enticing Latin woman for you.
Currently Hollywood only has two roles for Latinas: the slut and the maid. Actresses such as Salma Hayek and Eva Longoria have worked long and hard to create a place for Latina actresses in the general media but Latin women still have a long way to go until films and television shows have rounder Latina characters.
Written by Alicia V Perez
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Paz Vega as Latina. She is, in fact, Spanish. We regret the error.