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Cuestiones con Cruz: Why are Latinos continuously portrayed by white actors?

With a push for the movie and film industry to be more inclusive and diverse, a new age of a racially diverse Hollywood is being advocated for. White actors playing non-white characters have been publicly denounced, and the very action of it has been a hindrance for celebrities’ careers. 

Severe cases such as Elizabeth Taylor portraying famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra or Shirley Temple donning blackface to depict a Black slave child have been chastised, as well as more recent cases such as Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead role for a remake of an iconic Japanese anime/manga called “Ghost in the Shell.”

Despite these advancements for holding production companies accountable for actors to not portray characters outside their race, the Latino sector of the community continues to be overlooked. According to the U.S. Census, 49% of Los Angeles is Latino. However, a mere 7% of major films in 2019 featured a lead Hispanic or Latino actor. 

It has continued to be accepted for white actors to portray Latino characters. This offense has been committed repeatedly and to such an extent it often goes unnoticed. 

For example, Antonio Banderas has portrayed countless Latino characters. Although he speaks Spanish, he was born in Málaga, Spain, but seems to like to put on an air of not conforming to a certain racial group. He told Univision, “I’m happy to be Hispanic, happy to be a Spaniard, happy to be Latino.” It is a nice sentiment that he is happy to be considered a Latino, the bottom line is that he is not. A Latino is defined as someone with Latin American origin. His hit role as Zorro and its feline counterpart, Puss in Boots, fall in this category while Banderas does not.

Even his counterpart in “The Mask of Zorro,” Catherine Zeta-Jones has portrayed Latino characters more than once. Outside of her role as Elena Montero, she has also depicted the real-life Colombian drug lord, Griselda Blanco. In the movie “Cocaine Godmother,” the actress from Welsh descent speaks with a heavy Spanish accent, despite not speaking the language, nor having any ancestral ties to Latino heritage. 

In “Evita,” a movie about the iconic political figure Eva Perón, Madonna plays the titular role. Eva’s husband, Argentine president Juan Perón, was also played by the non-Latino, Welsh actor, Jonathan Bailey. 

In some cases, audiences are often trained to forget the inaccurate race representation when the character is used for comedic reliefs. Characters like Jack Black in “Nacho Libre” or Hank Azaria as a Guatemalan domestic worker in “The Birdcage” are both portraying Latinos, but doing so with the purpose to make the audience laugh. The fake thick accent is more forgivable when it's accompanied by a cheeky one-liner. 

When looking back at the history of Latinos depicted in film, arguably the most notorious depiction that set the precedent is 1934 “Viva Villa.” Mexican hero, Pancho Villa, was depicted as an uncouth, slobbering drunk. Played by white actor Wallace Beery, Villa could be seen galloping around on his steed and succumbing to the vices of alcohol. In reality, Villa was a respected general who spearheaded alcohol prohibition in Mexico. 

Moctesuma Esparza, CEO of Maya Cinemas, discussed the film in the documentary “Latinos Beyond Reel- Challenging a Media Stereotype” and detailed how damaging it was for him to see the Mexican hero to be portrayed with such offensiveness and inaccuracy. 

“This depiction that I saw in Hollywood, with Wallace Beery having played that role, was poison, that it was poisoning my mind, distorting the image of what it was to be a Mexicano,” he said. 

The responsibility of changing these narratives and ensuring these injustices stop occurring falls on the creator of the films, the white actors and consumers. Directors and producers need to be conscious of their casting as well as white actors need to turn down roles with which they do not fall into the racial group of their character. Lastly, the audience needs to be aware of the media consumer. 

Yes, it is OK to laugh at “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”– that movie is hilarious. However, it is important to be conscious and understand the history of misrepresentation of Latinos in Hollywood.

Alyssa Cruz is a sophomore studying journalism and Spanish at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. What are your thoughts? Tell Alyssa by tweeting her at @alyssadanccruz

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