The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term media as “the main means of mass communication (television, radio, newspaper)” and as a media consuming society it is our most significant resource. Types of media include television, radio, film and video, print, photography and electronic (e-mail, the internet, etc.). We use these resources as a means of communication, entertainment, and a means of obtaining knowledge, however, not all the information we extract from the media is true. Regarding cultures, more specifically that of Latin America, we are constantly fed images which are ambiguous and also well known. We commonly refer to these definitions as stereotypes.
Racial stereotypes are defined as “automatic and simplified mental pictures of all members for a particular racial group.” Another definition of stereotype from the Oxford English Dictionary is “stereotypes are a fixed idea or image that many people have a particular type of person or thing, but which is often not true in reality.” A stereotype is a means of simplifying the complexities of our vast world and the people in it. These degrading, simplified ideas of different cultures are then broadcast through the media to audiences who are asked to absorb and accept them without question. Since many people lack any sort of real relationship with members of other cultures outside of the media’s portrayal of them their understanding is quite limited.
Latin America, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “the parts of the American continent where Spanish or Portuguese is the main national language (i.e. Mexico and, in effect, the whole of Central and South America including many of the Caribbean islands).” Latin America is basically the assimilation of all the regions south of the United States or according to the media, the “other” — the “other” defining a region of non-white people who come from an exotic and tropical land. Latin American society is in reality complex, it comprises a broad variety ethnicities, races, and different languages.
The idea of stereotypes are contrasted against what are defined as the “norm,” most commonly concerning Western culture, this idea of the “norm” establishes a hierarchy among the different cultures. This system creates a level of superiority and inferiority and those who exist outside the norm are termed the “other.” For the purposes of this glossary definition, the “other” is the Latin American culture and society.
Through the propagation of racial stereotypes in the media, we begin to assimilate and integrate the common conceptions of Latin America, most specifically those of the people who make up Latin America. Common names for these people are Hispanics, Chicanos/Chicanas, and the most widely used, Latinos and Latinas. Through the media, more commonly television and film, we form our ideas of such communities.
For example, by means of the media we see painted a distinct picture of the male Latin American, or Latino. Since the most influential of media sources is mainstream film, as both a means of entertainment, the public often does not question what is being shown to them and absorbs all information which seems plausible. The repetition of the stereotypes through the media also impacts the public’s acceptance of them as truth.
Early western films first introduced us to ideas of what a Latino is and how latin lovers act. The Latin lover or hero, a figure popularized by Rudolph Valentino, below, appears in early films such as The Kissing Bandit, The Bullfighter and the Lady, and Latin Lovers. More modern examples, featuring Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem, are Zorro, Desperado, and Eat Pray Love. Specifically in Zorro, Banderas plays the strong, romantic male lead who fights for honour and above all love. The latin lover contrasts with another stereotypical and enormously popular figure, especially in popular Western- themed films, that of the unintelligent, cowardly and lazy labourer or alternately the greasy ‘Bandido,’ an alien. We can see these kinds of characters in films such as The Thread of Destiny, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Other common Latin male characters are villains and illegal immigrants (common representations in the United States). Concerning the idea of the illegal immigrant, we think of Latinos being smuggled across the border in the backs of trucks, or finding holes in a fence through which they can cross with the chance of them being discovered by border officials at any moment. Through the media’s influence, we also think of them as standing outside construction sites and stores offering various services or as day labourers working on farms, anything to make money. In the hit television series, My Name is Earl, a female character named Catalina (Nadine Velazquez) is an illegal immigrant working at a motel as a maid. The character is constantly on the watch for police officers and avoids anything to do with the law; she seems content to work for very minimal pay. The villainous character is associated with gangs, drugs, and car theft. The gang member is most common stereotype for Latin American youth, specifically in movies they are depicted as being up to no good, with their baggy, dark clothes and hoods hiding their faces; they are full of menace. These young Latin Americans are usually seen gathered together outside stores (bodegas) or seen creating bright spray-painted graffiti that ties to the idea of vibrancy and colour coming from the Latin American culture.
When it comes to Latina characters, there is one common theme: The sexy, exotic temptress with brown hair, brown eyes, and dark skin, popularized by actresses and recording artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, Penelope Cruz, Shakira or Gloria Estefan. This character is typically animated, expressive and very sensual, she is almost like an object who is pursued by men and appears to be unable to stand on her own. Popular in the 1950s and 60s, Carmen Miranda played an exotic dancer with a fiery temper whose trademark was a fruit-laden hat, a variant of the contemporary fiery Latina. Dolores del Rio, pictured, the first Latina actress with international appeal, was the first to be cast in this way, In Girl of the Rio (1932).
When we think of Latina characters we also think of the stereotypically maternal ‘mothers’ or domestic workers such as maids or cleaning ladies. We can see these characters in such films as The Gangs All Here, Maid in Manhattan, Nine (where all the lead female characters are erotic and expressive temptresses who attempt to seduce the male lead) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Sofia Vergara dyed her hair dark brown to make her look more stereotypically Hispanic for the hit t.v. series Modern Families.
In conclusion, what the public gathers from the projections of Latin America and Latin Americans through the media are negative concepts. The public is bombarded with consistent stereotypes of the immigrant, the latin lover, the bandido, the temptress and the domestic worker, all of which portray Latin Americans in a certain, often negative, light. In reality, Latin America is a region as diversified as any Western society, made up of varying ethnicities, backgrounds, working classes, history, culture and languages.
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