It is a sad fact that for the better part of its history, minorities have not fared well on film. From the Silent Era into the Golden Age of Hollywood, most portrayals of African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans have been stereotypes. In this respect, Hispanics have fared no better than other minorities. Indeed, the Mexican bandits of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre have been all too typical of the portrayal of Hispanics on film.
This is not to say that even during the Golden Age of Hollywood, positive representations of Hispanics were entirely absent on film. Ricardo Montalban as Police Lieutenant Peter Morales in Mystery Street and the striking miners in Salt of the Earth are two examples of such. This month Turner Classic Movies (TCM) turns its spotlight on Race and Hollywood: Latino Images in Film. Every Tuesday and Thursday TCM is showing films which feature portrayals of Hispanic people.
The films represent a cross section of movie history, from the Silent Era (Ramona, The Mark of Zorro) to the current era (Mi Familia, Lone Star). What is more, TCM is not flinching from the ugly fact that Hollywood did use Hispanic stereotypes. They are not simply showing such positive representations of Hispanics as Stand and Deliver and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, but movies which feature outright stereotypes such as The Mexican Spitfire and In Old Arizona. TCM is also showing films which feature what Raquel of Out of the Past calls "brownface"--the practice in cinema of using make up in an effort to make non-Hispanic actors playing Hispanic characters look more ethnic (for an example of brownface, one need look no further than Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil). Sadly, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hispanic characters often played by non-Hispanics in brownface, and often the characters they played were stereotypes in the extreme.
Fortunately, Hollywood would make progress with regards to Hispanics in films. More positive portrayals of Hispanic characters would appear as early as the Fifties, in such films as Giant. By the Eighties and Nineties such films as Stand and Deliver and Mi Familia would emerge. TCM is showing these films as well, showing that we have made some progress.
TCM's Race and Hollywood: Latino Images in Film looks to be a very interesting overview of the representation of Hispanics in American film. As mentioned earlier, the films range from the Silent Era to the current, from extremely stereotypical portrayals of Hispanics to more realistic, even positive portrayals. Like other minorities, Hispanics were given short shrift from Hollywood for much of its history. It is good to see TCM giving Hispanic people their due.