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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Latina Women on Screen: A Realistic Portrayal?

Latina Women on Screen: A Realistic Portrayal?

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.

  • Christen Cromwell

    This was such a great article. I know it’s over 50 years old now, but I always hated that Natalie Wood portrayed Maria in “West Side Story”. She didn’t even do her own singing! I would love to do and see more work with Latina actresses.

  • Ms Duran

    Love this article, I’ve had this conversation so many times! These portrayals affect us all in daily life and personal interactions, in both subtle and very blatant ways. Example: someone once told me that I’m probably a “fiery” lover – thanks, mainstream media. I’ve learned that the best way to dispel the myths is to make a strong statement with your personality and actions, they’ll figure out that there’s much more than what the media is telling them!

  • Sierra

    Paz Vega is Spanish.. It’s ironic you point out Penelope Cruz is not at all Latina, and then list another Spanish actress as a Latina.

    • Jess Mary

      Thank you for bringing that to our attention. We regret the error and have issued a correction.

  • Emma

    This is an awesome article!!

    • Mana Capo

      this article it is missing one thing,spaniards are latinos too, the LATIN language it is an european language, was also the official language of the Roman Empire, and stil the official language at the Vatican (go to any ATM machine at the Vatican and the machines are in Latin language) the latin language was born in Italy Province of Lazio,so Italians french spaniards (except vasco it is not a latin language) portuguese and in some way romanians are LATINOS, latino americano was an invention of the french during the 1860′S to conquer Mexico with Napoleon III so the public opinion of those years will not critized him for doing that,(remember 5 de mayo 1862) but before that the region was known as Hispano America and also as a Ibero America,we just happen to speak spanish thats it,they are some african countries where they speak spanish are they Latino africans just because they speak spanish?or Filipinos where they used to speak spanish until the begining of the 20 century but still having spanish last names are they latino asians?we in the American continent are a mixture of races known as MESTIZO (except Argentinians and Uruguayans) but if you do not like the way they portray us hispano americanos the best way it is to boicot the movies that are doing that and E mail them and let them know that we are not happy about it, but how ironic i have seen many old mexican movies and they portray gringos as dummies

  • Clic Linx

    This is a stupid article. So you are saying Penelope Cruz is not Latina. Why then does she have a Latin last name and speak a Latin based language like Spanish?

    Also I hate the word Latino/Latina because it is a Pan-ethnic term. It is to broad and general of a term like Asian. There are many countries in Latin America and in the Caribbean. Just like there are many countries in Asia. Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Indians from India and Pakistanis are all Asian but they are all different ethnic groups.

    Meaning they are not the same just like Dominicans and Argentinean are not the same. Just because you speak the same Spanish language does not make you the same. Caribbean like Dominican Republic, Cuba is more African and White European Hispanic based and Argentina is more White Hispanic European based with some Native Indigenous. Mexico, & Guatemala is more Indigenous with Spanish/European based.

    2nd As far as a Latina stereo type look it is and will always be Mexican. I am sorry to tell you but the reason for that is that they are the majority in this country. The reason for that is because Tejas now Texas, New Mexico previously Nuevo Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and California use to be part of Mexico. They have been in the southwest longer than Anglos or any other people that includes Hollywood California. Look at Los Angeles as a prime example. Mexican Americans outnumber every other Hispanic/latino group. Look at the Alamo and look up Santa Ana.

    You also should look up who brought the word Latine America to the New world and why. It was brought by the French and introduced into Mexico. Later it spread north to Northern parts of Mexico now the United States. You can also look up LuLac and who started that organization and where it was started. It was started by Mexican Americans in Corpus Christi.

    Anglos have been dealing with Mexican/ Mexican Americans since the westward expansion and after they bought the Louisiana purchase. They then went into Texas. Puerto Ricans ended up becoming part of the U.S in 1898 and then became U.S Citizens in 1917 due to the Jones act. This is why they are the 2nd largest Hispanic group in the United States. Anglo Americans have had less experiences with people from the Caribbean. Cubans started becoming U.S Citizens when they started to defect from Cuba in the late 1950′s due to the Batista Regime and then Communism.

    If you look at cities like Laredo and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico they are sister cities liek San Diego and Tijuana. There are many sister cities along the border of the United States and Mexican border than ended up being separated due to the United States claiming the new territory like they ended up claiming Puerto Rico from Spain.

    Black Latinas or Afro Latinas will never be mainstream because they are actually a minority in a minority. Most of them come from the Caribbean countries but if you compare them to Mezo Latinas which are the majority they will always be outnumbered. The lighter looking Afro Latinas that can blend in may have a shot but the darker ones will find it harder to land any significant roles if they are looking for a mainstream latina.

    Really I hate the term Latina and because Movie producers are not specific they always will have problems. If they were like we need a Puerto Rican girl or Dominican girl for this part then it would make it easier. However since they probably don’t know where PUerto Rico or Dominican Republic is they just use generic broad terms. Listen if they wanted a Mexicana Chicana, Tejana, or Chola for a part then it would be more specific and they wouldn’t have Afro Latinas auditioning for parts they are not wanted for.

  • Lenna Garay

    Saludos desde Puerto Rico / Greetings from Puerto Rico,

    I’m a Puerto Rican “Latina” (although I prefer the term “Hispanic”, as it is far more inclusive and less offensive), and I’m really proud of being so. I think it’s time for Americans to take control of their brains, and not let Hollywood and other forms of mass media take rein of their lives and ways of thinking/acting. I’m tired of all the stereotypes and racism that us minorities have to endure. After all, Hispanic women can, too, be smart and successful, regardless of their ancestry, language or skin color. NO, we’re not sex-crazed animals with huge boobs, long and dark hair and a perfect ass. In fact, Hispanic American females (not singling out “Latinas” in the US, but including Spanish and Latin American girls, also) can be extremely diverse and DO NOT fall into a single category. Sadly but true, ignorance STILL keeps the United States from being the democratic nation that the founding fathers wanted it to be… that land of pseudo-equality and pseudo-freedom that the government and media still insist today on selling to the world. I find no comfort in a country that dares to open its arms to the world offering peace and bullshit dreams, but then shuns you for being different (meaning, not white). That, guys and gals, is very, truly disappointing.

    Two thumbs up on this eye-opening article!

  • Marieli Bustamante

    So I am guessing that you are one of many who believe that Dominicans are the poster children for all Afro-Latinos. I say this because I know for a fact that if you would have done some research on Gina Toress you would know that she is a proud Cubana like myself. Afro-Hispanics are in all of the new world. explore Colombia, Panama, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Peru…etc…etc…I wonder if Dominicans have picked up on this. I know that from reading many articles I have.

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  • Francesca

    Seriously Spaniards are not Latino? It’s in the name, sweetie.

    The term ‘Latino’ in modern usage denotes countries or people whose language derives from Latin. Therefore, Italians, French, Romanians, Spaniards and Latin Americans, etc they are ALL Latinos. Those Latinos who speak Spanish, are further categorized as ‘hispanic’ – a term which comes from the Latin term for ‘Spain’: ‘hispania’

    Wow, you’re really spewing the ignorance today.

    • XxxYODAxxX

      Hmmm i met a girl in college that was basque and born in spain. She didnt speak spanish. So your comment is not entirely true.

  • Laura

    Love the article but I really need to point out that Spanish people are
    in fact Latin (or Latinos/as if using the Spanish word) just like the Italian, the
    Portuguese or the French as they all speak a language that comes from the Latin and
    share common cultural heritage. Now, central and south America
    were mainly colonized by the Spanish and the Portuguese so that part of the America is
    usually (and rightfully, I might add) referred as America Latina because of the
    huge influence of the Latin culture. Being said that, calling a Latino/a
    Americano/a just Latino/a is not really big deal (especially if the
    conversation is about only American population) but please keep in mind that
    the Latins (or Latinos/as) and the Latin
    culture are from some countries of Europe and one of them is Spain.

    p.s English is not my first language so I apologize if I made some
    mistakes ;)

  • Laura

    Of course Romans aren’t the only cultural influence of Spain but I can assure you spanish consider themselves as a latin civilization or latinos if you will. Just consider that the Latin Union was created in Spain and is obviously a country member of it.

  • Nessa Quez

    I was looking for an article like this. Because of the medias depiction of Latina/hispanic woman, I have been looked upon for one reason only, as a hot latina in the bedroom. SO ANNOYING! I was talking to my sister about this and we have had difficulty, years in finding a soul-mate because of this stereotype. No one would take us seriously! It is/was horrible. Going on dates was another joke, to the point being told what you said above about being like Jennifer Lopez or Sophia Vergara. Hate it. Very disappointing and sad. Luckily she married someone who look beyond that nonsense and unfortunately, I am still having problems. And dont get me started on the Latin men because a lot of them refuse to educate themselves and become thugs, leaving us latinas with little to no options in the dating world. Just want to scream.

  • Daniela

    Look, Maria, I get it, when it comes to race in Latin America we are very mixed, and yes I use the proverbial we because I am a latin woman. Truth is that after a couple of generations most of us think of ourselves as latinos, as mestizos, I can recite you all of my ethnical ancestry, and it wouldn’t change my identity as a mexican. Genes don’t matter that much because we are all part of a bigger cultural and ideological background, our countries were formed in the same way, we speak the same language, we were forced to unite under the same faith.
    As South Americans go we have a lot of variety, some of us are criollos, some are mestizos, some are afro-isleños, but we share most of what makes us one single kind of people, we are brothers and sisters, we come from the same place.

    you should go read some of Simón Bolivar’s speeches about howwe should unite as one people. Would be nice for you to know more about our shared history.

  • miky

    Isn’t Gina Torres Cuban, not Dominican?

  • Veronica

    There are better portrayals of latina women on the tv show Brooklyn Nine Nine: Amy Santiago and Rosa Diaz.

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  • Rozzy

    If you want to change Latina stereotypes, don’t blame Hollywood and start with the Telenovelas. They’re the ones that have initiated this stereotype amongst Latinas. I’ve had to deal with it my entire life and what we used to mostly watch at home growing up was Univision.

  • Heywood Jablowme

    Vasquez from Aliens takes the cake.