No Country for Latin Women at the Oscars

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WOMEN IN CINEMA: When it comes to handing out Oscars for acting, the Academy has always maintained gender equality. Female actors are recognized just as their male counterparts are. However, when it comes to Latina/Latina Americans, they are prodigiously under-represented at the Academy Awards.

Throughout the Academy Awards’ history – we’re talking back to 1927, when Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress – there have been 163 Oscar-winning actresses in both acting categories (this includes repeat winners and ties). Out of those 163, only three, or 1.8 percent, were Latina/Latina American.

Rita Moreno (Puerto Rican) won for West Side Story in 1961. Mercedes Ruehl (Cuban-American/Irish) won in 1992 for The Fisher King. And, more recently, Penelope Cruz (Spanish) won in 2009 for Vicky Christina Barcelona. Furthermore, these three women won in the Best Supporting Actress category, meaning no Latina/Latina American has ever won a Best Actress Academy Award.

The number of Latina/Latina American nominees isn’t any more inspiring (I’m talking barely in the double-digits zone). A close look at the characters these nominees portrayed paints the unflattering, yet true picture of the stereotyped representation of Latinos in film.

Salma Hayek (Mexican) was nominated in 2003 for portraying Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in Frida; Fernanda Montenegro (Brazilian) was nominated for her role in Central Station, a foreign-language film from Brazil in 1999; Catalina Sandino Moreno (Columbian) was nominated in 2005 for playing a Columbian drug mule in Maria Full of Grace; and Adriana Barazza (Mexican) was nominated in 2007 for her role in Babel in which she played a Mexican nanny.

These selective roles could only have been played exclusively by a Latina/Latina American actress. These actresses have limited opportunities and are stuck playing characters of the same race, or other ethnicities. For example, Katy Jurado (Mexican) was nominated in 1954 for her role in the western film Broken Lance, in which she played a Native American and Susan Kohner (Mexican/Jewish) was nominated in 1960 for Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, where she played a light-skinned African-American who could pass as white.

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Dolores del Rio in a publicity still.

This is not surprising. Latinos/Latin Americans have been negatively represented early on in the history of the movies. The Mexican man was Hollywood’s first bad guy – just think back to the ethnic stereotypes of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There were minor roles for Latina/Latina Americans in early film history, many of them dyed their hair lighter or changed their name to pass for white, e.g., Dolores del Rio, Rita Hayworth, Raquel Welch. For a Latina/Latina American actress, having light skin means having the opportunity to play more roles, sometimes leading roles. There are still Latina/Latina American actresses passing for white – or at least less “ethnic,” to put it crudely – in order to get parts. Sometimes, the actress is used interchangeably, playing different races or ethnicities in different roles, such as what Kohner did throughout her career. Contemporary actresses like Jessica Alba (Mexican ancestry), Rosario Dawson (Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban descent) and Zoe Saldana (Puerto Rican/Dominican) have played various or mixed races in different roles.

Sometimes fame can supersede stereotypes. For example,  Jennifer Lopez (Puerto Rican American) got her big break playing Mexican American singer Selena in the film of the same title, and once her fame skyrocketed she began taking roles that were race-neutral (an actress of any race could have played the part), such as in romantic comedies like The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan and Monster In Law. However, actresses like Lopez are the exception, rather than the example. Latina/Latina American actresses just don’t have the same opportunities as Caucasian actresses.

The statistical representation of Latinos in film is actually grossly lower than the actual representation of Latinos in the U.S. Hispanics, alone, made up 17 percent of the U.S. population with 53 million in a 2012 study by the U.S. Census Bureau. Another study found that Latinos were the “heaviest moviegoers in 2012” and accounted for 25 percent of all movies seen in 2012, according to a 2013 study released by Nielsen.

With a quarter of our population made up of Latino/Latino Americans, one would figure the opportunities for Latina/Latina American actresses would increase, or at least improve, but Hollywood has remained the predominantly white industry that it’s always been. For example, the aforementioned roles, such as Frida, could not have been played by a white actress. However, the female leads in Gravity and Blue Jasmine could have been played by an actress of any race.

Latino roles in Hollywood are also sometimes miscast, where a non-Latino plays a Latino part. Natalie Wood played a Latina in West Side Story opposite Moreno, both Madonna and Faye Dunaway were cast as Evita Peron in different projects and Jennifer Connelly was cast opposite Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, despite the fact that the woman her character is based on is Salvadorian. Latino parts have also been miscast. Think back to Al Pacino in Scarface; or Anthony Hopkins, who once portrayed Pablo Picasso in 1996s Surviving Picasso; and, more recently, Ben Affleck portrayed Tony Mendez – of Mexican ancestry – in 2013s Academy Award winning Best Picture Argo.

FruitvaleStation_Kiss_MichaelBJordan_MelonieDiaz_DavisAwardGoing back to the Academy Awards, there were some pretty stellar performances this year from Latina American actresses. Melonie Diaz (Puerto Rican descent) churned out a career-defining performance in Ryan Coogler’s debut film Fruitvale Station and Eva Mendes (Cuban-American) gave an emotionally weighty performance in The Place Beyond the Pines. However, the Academy seems to give precedent to past award winners – who are all Caucasian – like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence and Cate Blanchett (the latter two of which will likely win) who are nominated for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress this year. Lupita Nyong’o, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave, is the only non-Caucasian actress nominated this year; she is of Kenyan descent, and she plays a character that could not have been portrayed by a non-African/African-American.

oscars-gorgeous-pic31To add some bitter irony, the coveted Oscar that rarely finds its way in the hands of a Latino was inspired by a Latino. In 1929, the statue’s design supervisor Cedric Gibbons asked Mexican director Emilio Fernandez to pose in the nude for a sketch. The sketch later became the basis and inspiration for the now famous statuette, created by artist George Stanley.

Since the early days of cinema, negative stereotypes of Latinos have permeated the silver screen and they continue to persist today. Latina/Latina Americans don’t have the same opportunities as “white” actresses, unless they are already veterans or accomplished actresses (Cruz, Hayek, Saldana), celebrity actresses (Lopez, Alba) or are able to hide their ethnicity by white-washing their appearance.

The simple solution would be to cast more Latina/Latina American actresses in parts without racial precursors. Unfortunately, this duty rests upon the filmmakers. It wouldn’t hurt Woody Allen, David O. Russell, Martin Scorsese and Alexander Payne to cast non-Caucasian women in their films once in a while. In the 86 years since the Academy began awarding Oscars there has yet to be a Latina/Latina American win Best Actress. This sad fact will not change unless there are more sympathetic directors aware of this plight, willing to put aside racial conventions and cast outside of the norm.