Carmen Miranda, Rita Morena, Coco Fusco paved the way
Carmen Miranda is an enduring icon, the flamboyant outsider who makes us love her through sheer force of personality. The "lady in the tutti-frutti hat" (see video at bottom of page) brought an extravagantly seductive surface to American audiences: the exoticism of South America, a sensuality tempered by caricature, and outlandish costumes and fruit-laden "hats" that have an unsuspected origin in the black slums of Brazil. The gaudy turbans, bangles, and exposed midriffs were based on the costumes of the Baiana, the poor black women who sold fruit in Bahia. Carmen's image established a stereotype that lingers today — the oversexed, vulgar, buffoonish, gaudy Latina; also know as “La Payasa”, or the clown. This role was then often pitted against fairer skinned, blonde American actresses in order to offset her appropriate and modest beauty and sexuality. Rita Moreno defines it when she states: "We were oversexed, always left by the guy ... you had to be vivacious, fiery! an exaggeration..." This image paid off in the most tangible terms: in 1945, Carmen Miranda was the highest-paid woman in the U.S. But she was also increasingly trapped, as the roles grew more caricaturish and outlandish, with the mountains of fruit piled atop her head steadily growing, and her accent steadily thickening in order to “appeal” to American audiences. While women like Carmen Miranda paved the way for Latinas in American film, it is necessary to critique their work as a means to an end in an unfortunate period of history. Do these stereotypes still persist in American media? Can we find images of “El Payaso” or “La Payasa” in American media today? Would Pedro in “Napoleon Dynamite” be an example of “El Payaso”?
The Latin Look
Much of what Americans identify as “Latin" depends on a constructed idea of a “Latin Look”. In fact, Latinas come in all races and colors. Most Latinos are a mixture of European Spanish, African and Indigenous ancestry. Did you know that Cameron Diaz –with blonde hair and blue eyes - is a self-identified Latina? What about Zoe Saldana, who starred in the 2009 box office hit, “Star Trek”, as Nyota Uhura? Because of this variety of Latin “looks”, Latinas are able to play many roles and ethnic backgrounds. Jennifer Lopez, who is a proud Boricua, has played everything from Puerto Rican to Italian to racially ambiguous characters. This is often called “racial cross-dressing” and may sometimes work to the detriment of Latin actors. Robert Deniro, Marisa Tomei and Jordanna Brewster have all played Latin roles as a result of their “Latin Look” – dark hair, tan skin, dark eyes – yet none of them are Latino. Is this problematic? Should Latina roles be reserved for Latinas? Why does Hollywood insist on creating a “Latin Look” when it is clear that Latina women come in all colors and races? (see "As a Black Latina, where do I count?" by Shawna White)
La Virgen y La Puta/ The Virgin and the Whore – An American Dichotomy
Why is it that when one types the word “Latina” into any search engine, they are bombarded with explicit sites not suitable for anyone under the age of 18? Some common adjectives used to describe Latinas are “fiery”, “hot”, and “lusty”. Have you noticed that Latinas on television and in movies are either a bad, “hot” Latina, or a "good Catholic girl"? This is called “ the virgin/whore” dichotomy, or “la virgen/puta dicotomía”. Let us use one of America’s favorite musicals, West Side Story as an example. Maria (played by American actress, Natalie Wood, the daughter of Russian immigrants, in the film version) is the passive, innocent Puerto Rican “good girl”, while Anita (played by Puerto Rican actress, Rita Moreno, in the film version) serves as the exact opposite, "the whore". Anita is aggressive, "hot”, and exudes sexuality. Maria’s innocence is emphasized by her relationship with Tony – the “All American” – and her juxtaposition in contrast to Anita, the “fiery” Latina. Is this dichotomy common in other areas of American cinema? Is it persistent today? Would Jennifer Lopez be an example of this dichotomy? What about Penelope Cruz? Are there actresses that defy these stereotypes? Who are they?
Powerful Latinas in the Media
Cristina Saralegui – Creator, producer and director of her own Spanish language talk show, “Cristina”. She also co-publishes “Cristina” magazine, which is a spin-off of her popular television show.
Salma Hayek - Actress, Director, and Television and Film Producer. The first Mexican national to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. She is also one of the Executive Producers for the comedy-drama television series, Ugly Betty based on the Colombian telenovela, Betty la fea.
Judge Marily Milian – First female judge to sit on the bench of the hit show “Divorce Court”. Milian is a lawyer and a graduate of University of Miami and Georgetown Law School
Patricia Cardosa - Director, wrote and directed “Real Women Have Curves”, an empowering movie EVERY girl should see (Latina or not)