Aug. 9, 1996
Scholar Reviews Latinos in Film
By Jennifer Wagner DeNoma
UW-RF News Bureau
Carlos Cortes, a film historian from University of California-Riverside, talked to high school teachers about how Latinos are portrayed in film during a minority film institute at UW-River Falls July 30-31.
The main problem, he says, is the violence. Movies like "Scarface," a depiction of Cuban-American gang life, create an impression that Latinos are more violent than other Americans. The urban "Gangsta" movies of the 1990s portray Latinos as drug dealers, pimps and social problems. If Latin women are not portrayed as floozies or as prostitutes, they are often individuals who sing, dance, and entertain-like Carmen Miranda or Charro.
However, Cortes doesn't suggest teachers censor those images in the classroom. To the contrary, he thinks teachers should show students clips of those movies, if only to illustrate a point. "Teachers can use those [bad] films to show what is wrong with those messages and to help students think critically."
"From those films, students can understand what causes us to think about what we do about a group of people-not just Latinos, but blacks, Indians, women, men, Midwesterners, whoever."
Cortes, a Mexican-American, has been studying film history for the past 25 years. He studies not only Latinos in film, but also how broad historical issues and other minority groups are filmed.
The UW-River Falls institute, "Cinematic Representations of America's Ethnic Minorities," is a four-week intensive institute instructing secondary school teachers on film use when teaching minority literature, history and social studies. It is funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Cortes also explored the concept of "borders," a metaphor he feels is an especially strong motif in films depicting Latino characters. He explained that borders are not only geographic, like the border between Mexico and the United States, but are cultural, racial, sexual and internal.
The movie "La Bamba," based on the life of Richie Valens, the 1950's Mexican American rock singer who died in a plane crash with Buddy Holly, illustrates many of those borders.
In the film Valens, portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips, crosses a geographic border when making a road trip with his brother to old Mexico. In Mexico, he crosses a spiritual border when he undergoes a religious ceremony performed by a Mexican Indian. Back home in Texas, Valens crosses a cultural border from the barrios to middle class suburban life when he visits his white girlfriend Donna.
Cortes says the theme of a cultural border between whites and Latinos are repeated in many other popular films, such as "High Noon," and "West Side Story."
Cortes' favorite film, however, is "El Norte," which depicts Guatemalans who emigrate to the United States. He thinks the film is especially good because the characters are multidimensional, and multidimensional characters dispel the stereotypes that exist about Latinos.
"There is a tremendous variation between Latin groups, and even within specific Latin groups" says Cortes. "The best films are those that show a wide range of characters."