Growing Up in America - The Changing Face of Mexicans or Hispanics on American Television
The information in this article is anecdotal, and based on the experiences, observations, and opinions of the author.
Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Hispanics - growing up during the "Golden Age of American Television" as I did, I don't remember these as the usual descriptions given to the characters played by Hispanic actors. The characters they were most often called on to portray tended to be "Old Villager", "First Bandito", "Second Indian", "Fourth Train Robber", "Cantina Dancer", and the like, mostly minor roles. But what would those great Westerns, both the movies and the television shows, have been without some of the wonderful Hispanic actors who added such character and texture to those early "white-bread" productions.
Their cultural impact on American television has broadened, though, since those early years. They have moved from being members of a down-trodden, oppressed culture that relies on "our" heroes to come and save them ("The Magnificent Seven"), into the mainstream.
Arguably there are still some not-so-subtle overtones of that thinking, with Hispanics often cast as the bad-guys of the month - the ubiquitous Mexican drug lords who prey on their own people, but we now see them in the role of potential savior as well just plain folk. We see Hispanic actors playing cops, paramedics, doctors, detectives, sometimes as lawyers, school teachers and principals - as regular people in all walks of life, and as heroes in their own right.
Heroes of Yesteryear
There were, however, a few exceptions, though they all seemed to belong to another era - colorful Hispanic heroes who strode the trails of the old west, righting wrongs and smiting evil-doers. Heroes such as El Zorro, played with great verve and dashing swordsmanship by Guy Williams, whose real name was Armando Catalando.
Anyone who has seen the show also remembers Henry Calvin's portrayal of Zorro's comic foil, the bumbling Sergeant Garcia.
Zorro was not alone - in fact he was a fairly late entry into the field, Several heroes purporting to be of Mexican or Californian origins had already graced the small screen in the early 1950s.
The Cisco Kid, played by Duncan Renaldo, also had the obligatory sidekick, a stout, and stout-hearted fellow named Pancho, played by Leo Carillo. Together, they rode the dangerous and dusty trails of the Old West, righting wrongs and saving folks from bad guys.
Former silent film actor, Gilbert Roland, also played the Cisco Kid and had another starring role on television in the long-running series High Chaparral. Born Luis Antonio Dámaso
de Alonso in Cuidad Juárez, Mexico, Roland's career on the Silver Screen spanned several decades, and he played a variety of "hot-blooded, Latin lover types".
The Last Bastion
Film and theater have traditionally taken on the role of agents for cultural change, holding up the mirror to reflect what is perceived to be wrong, or what needs to be changed. Changing role models, racial and cultural diversity, sexual orientation, gender bias - all these are generally topics for explorations on a larger scale.
Television, particularly American television, has tended to be a reflection of "what is". Ground breaking TV comedies, dramatic series, and specials aside, television has in general played the role of reflecting the comfortable cultural picture we have of ourselves, or the picture of what we would like to project as the best picture of our society, of what is normal and acceptable.
The iconic comedy series, "I Love Lucy" featured a Cuban actor in a lead role, but he was surrounded by an-all Caucasian cast, and was the quintessential, "hot-blooded Latino musician". Though at the time of the show, Desi Arnaz was an immensely famous and popular band leader and night club entertainer, I wonder if we would have accepted the plot line as readily had Ricky Ricardo been a "hot-blooded Latino" brain surgeon.
Through the '60s and '70s, there was not a dearth of roles available for Latino or Latina actors. With a few notable exceptions such as the character Eric Estrada played on "Chips", (whose character had an Italian name, actually), Hispanic actors appeared mainly as drug dealers, gang members, distraught parents - in short, some kind of society's evil-doers or their victims.
Though they were becoming more a part of the every-day landscape of television, they were still relegated to supporting roles or bit parts as were African-American and First Nations actors.
Gradually, though, those bit parts began to hold their own with the series stars. Witness Edward Olmos' Detective Lieutenant in the '80s hit series "Miami Vice". Originally a rasping whisper from the shadows, his character emerged to become at least as important as to the series as Crocket and Tubbs.
Olmos returned to television to re-cap Lorne Greene's role as Commander Adama in the re-make of Battlestar Gallactica.
The films of this Tony nominated actor include "Zoot Suit", "Stand and Deliver", "Wolfen", "Blade Runner", and "Selena". My personal favorite is still his portrayal of Jaime Escalante, the crusading teacher of "Stand And Deliver".
Another "Miami Vice" alumnus, New York born actor Jimmy Smitts has certainly added to the growing presence of Latino actors on television, From playing Crocket's original partner, Eddie Rivera, to his role as smart, hip, and sexy lawyer, Victor Sifuentes on "L.A. Law", and again as straight-arrow detective Bobby Simone in the popular NYPD Blues, Smitts has always been active in raising the profile of Latino actors.
In addition, he helped found the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts to "advance the presence of Latinos in the media, telecommunications and entertainment industries".
From Stereotype to Archetype
We've come a long way from the "Frito Bandito" caricatures or strictly "Latin lovers" that were imposed by Hollywood casting and our insular sensibilities. Our world has shrunk considerably since the 1950s. We can no longer hide behind our white picket fences and pretend we all live in an "Ozzie & Harriet" re-run.
The world around us isn't just around us any more, it's right next door, behind its own version of our white picket fence, and as much a part of our lives as the Sushi Bar on the corner, the Latina nurse at the Medi-Center, and the Senor Frog's Taco Palace up the block from where we work.
Television, always a conservative medium, and among the last to react to change, now reflects this same cultural diversity in many of the top-rated dramas and sit-coms. Where once a Desi Arnaz was remarkable, we don't think twice about an ethnic mix of cast members - if anything, an all-white cast is now a remarkable thing.
To quote Leonard Cohen: "Hallelujah"
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© 2010, Text by Imelleda, All rights reserved
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