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Life on the Texas-Mexico Border: Myth and reality as represented in Mainstream and Independent Western Cinema

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Film scholars generally agree that with few exceptions, representations of Latinos in mainstream films in the United States have been limited to narrow stereotypes since the earliest days of film. (Berumen, 1995; Keller, 1985; Pettit, 1980). Most often, Latino actors were typecast into roles in the formula Western and crime dramas so popular with United States audiences, depicting the foil for the "American" hero. The roles were clear: those on the United States side of the border were the "good guys," those on the Mexico side of the border were generally not. Even rarer than a rich role for Latinos was a film that tried to address the topic of the Latino experience in the United States.
In mainstream films on the Latino experience, the topic was most often urban crime or the "problem of illegal immigration." (Keller, 1985). A few mainstream films attempted to examine illegal Mexican immigration into the United States-indocumentado pictures-but were little more than formula treatments of complex issues. Most notable of these films are "Borderline" (1980) with Charles Bronson and "The Border" (1981) with Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel. Based on standard narrative formulas, these films could be termed mediocre, at best. Of the few films that tried to go beyond surface treatments of border issues, those that enjoyed the most critical success (although little commercial success) were independently produced films such as "Alambrista!" (1976) and "El Norte" (1983).
Even fewer films have tackled the complex topic of how people living on both sides of the United States-Mexico border negotiate cultural, political and economic identities. But this neglect of border issues doesn't mean that the area was not portrayed in films - only that the portrayals followed "form." In U.S. films, the predominant images of border towns were (and are) negative and stereotypical-the dusty town plaza dotted with loitering Mexicans, glaring from under their sombreros, waiting to indiscriminately rob any Anglo naive enough to enter their primitive, lawless territory.
The tendency towards shallow characterizations and formula narratives is not limited to minority groups and border areas, but is standard practice in the Hollywood film industry, which takes few risks and employs a narrow range of narrative structures and the attendant roles that are easily identifiable by filmgoers. Portraying a character in a stereotypical manner, what Hall (1997) describes as reducing "people to a few, simple essential characteristics," allows viewers to quickly grasp the character's motives, social and educational status, and familial background. But these stereotypes are not neutral - they have the power to set up a symbolic frontier "between the 'normal' and the 'deviant'... between 'insiders' and 'outsiders'..." Stereotypes are not dictated by the medium, however, and Williams (1985) argues that films with rich representations can be "illuminating," especially for Anglo members of the audience. The power of these films lies in their refusal to revert to individualize the case, the refusal to create "exceptions," but to instead represent members of all cultural groups in relation to each other, not just within the context of their own "group."
Although conventional wisdom dictates that typical audiences will not tolerate films deviating from "tried and true" formulas, in the 1990s two award-winning independent films about citizens living near the Mexico and U.S. borders broke through to mainstream distribution and were embraced by Western audiences. With vivid images and compelling narratives, these two films, "El Mariachi" (1993) and "Lone Star" (1996), urged viewers to consider the Texas/New Mexico border in new ways-as contested spaces where different ethnic groups with ties to the region try to resolve conflicts over cultural, technological, and geographical boundaries.
Although the two films offer starkly different narratives, each compelled viewers to reconsider the complex cultural conflicts that have their roots in past centuries but are being played out as the United States and Mexico struggle to redefine border areas in light of the new "global order." Nowhere is that struggle more evident than in the towns that dot the border between the United States and Mexico, and each of these films, "El Mariachi" and "Lone Star," begged viewers to dig deep into their stored memories and amend them to fit this new reality.
In this new reality, the men in white hats are not always the heroes, history is gradually being cast in a different light, geographical borders do not delineate cultural and familial loyalties, and "Third World" residents struggle to take advantage of economic and technological opportunities without allowing their social order to be erased in the process.
A historical brief on film representations of Latino/as and U.S. Mexico border
Although this paper is not designed to address specifically the representation of Latinos in film, a discussion of the U.S./Mexico border in film cannot be addressed without explaining to some degree how Latino/as have been portrayed. As Crouteau and Haynes (2000) note, in the United States media, Whites have defined the "norm" and all other ethnic groups have been measured against this norm. A prime example is "Bordertown," which appears on first glance to be an assimilation narrative, but the narrative "maps" Others in relation to the mainstream. "Mexican-Americans are marginal, Mexican nationals more so, and Chinese Americans even more so" (Berg, 1992). The images of the Border cannot be separated from the images of Latinos, and both are presented in Western film from the "American" point of view.
The earliest movie depictions of Latino/as and Border areas, according to Keller (1985) were "an almost unrelieved exercise in degradation." Early film titles reveal the stereotypical roles offered to Hispanics-many of the early "Mexican" film titles included the term "greaser," beginning with the 1896 Nickelodeon short (Berumen, 1995) and continuing through 1918, when "Guns and Greasers" was released (Keller). Although filmmakers discontinued the use of this perjorative term, U. S. cinema maintained the static and stereotypical portrayals begun before the turn of the century - the dark lady, the bandito and the buffoon (Keller).
As early as the 1920s, the Latino community decried these narrowly drawn, negative images and actors sometimes refused roles that insulted their "ethnic identity and intelligence." But despite ongoing criticism, the Hollywood film industry's responses to cries for more expansive roles for Latinos and more reality-based depictions of Latino communities have been shortlived and often shortsighted. Instead, U. S. cinema alternated between periods of no representation and mis-representation of Latinos.
Most often, mainstream filmmakers responded to cries of mis-representation by creating Latino heroes in the "American" image-borrowing the myth of the caballero from fiction. Most enduring of the mythical caballeros is Zorro, who entered the U. S. lexicon as a cultural icon, and who "like his Anglo counterparts, of similar western series, his modus operandi was to ride in, destroy evil, and ride out, leaving a broken heart or two behind" (Keller, 1985). Often presented in films as a pure-bred Spaniard and/or as a member of the upper class, Zorro campaigned bravely and tirelessly (in true action-hero form) to save Mexican peasants from corrupt officials. Beginning with the 1920 film "The Mask of Zorro." The Zorro films have remained popular throughout the century. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists no less than 62 Zorro films, including the 1998 version of The Mask of Zorro which was a smashing commercial success, opening on 2,415 screens in the United States. The film earned $22 million in its first weekend and by December, 1998, had gross receipts worldwide of more than $194 million.
The caballero, though a mixed representation, was one of the few remotely positive stereotypes. On the surface, Zorro provided an alternative representation of Latinos, one of the few Latino heroes in U. S. cinema, but in the end, his similarity to the "American" hero situates him as an exception to the norm, ensuring that the stereotype of the Latino as inept and corrupt remained undisturbed.
Throughout the century, despite a few rich roles in Westerns and some attempts to present banditos as part good/part bad, most films provided no roles for Latinos. In Westerns and crime films, however, the villain stereotypes were expanded to include sub-types. In the 1970s, as censorship lost its grip on movie content, the bandito role was expanded, but not to a multi-faced rich personality. Instead, the new bandito "practices mayhem, sadism, and sex aplenty...enjoys killing men and raping women..." (Keller, 1985).
The 1980s offered promise that the roles of Latino/as and border areas would be expanded, especially with the burgeoning Chicano film movement in the United States and Mexico. Although a few films offered expanded representations of the Latino experience in the United States, (Zoot Suit," 1982; "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," 1983; "Stand and Deliver," 1987, and "American Me," 1992) but few pointed the spotlight on border areas. Of the few films that addressed topics about the Mexican experience in American, the most expansive roles were in independent films such as "Like Water for Chocolate" (1993). Despite the promise of expanding representations in the 1980s, negative stereotypes dominated film images in the 1990s. Past stereotypes were perpetuated, with a twist to "accomodate and reflect the changing political landscape... the stereotypes were narcotraficantes/drug dealers, criminals, bandits, gang members and undocumented workers. Latinas found themselves inevitably as prostitutes and cantineras..." (Berumen, 1995).
Although the border and its towns have rarely been the topic of films, it has often been represented in U. S. cinema, particularly in Westerns and crime dramas, which generally did not present the area in a positive light. Most often, the Border was represented as a dividing line between civilization and lawlessness, a place of escape for unrepentant gunfighters. In later films, such as Orson Welles', "A Touch of Evil" (1958), the border town represents the most sinister of environments, a "hellish" town, "a nightmare world behind everyday reality" (Nericcio, 1992). If this were just one of many major representations of the border and its towns, there would be little danger of stereotyping, but it is one of few in mainstream Western film, and it exemplifies how border areas are used as settings for the interplay of good and evil.
Keller (1985) notes that the Mexican cinema hasn't fared much better in representing the border areas.
"…while Mexican cinema was entirely capable of releasing from its exploitative, commercial crucible major works of artistic merit depicting popular, folkloric, historical, revolutionary, urban, social class, or other values, it was not capable of such achievement with respect to the depiction of the Chicano lifestyle or even the Mexican culture of the border in any of their significant dimensions or varieties. p. 15"
The Effects of Limited Representations of Latino/as and border areas
Filmmakers have approximately 90 minutes to introduce viewers to characters, establish each person's identity and the story's setting, and then work through the story plot and denouement. Given the time restrictions, portraying a character and setting in stereotypical manner allows viewers to quickly understand a character's motivations and to anticipate his/her interaction with other characters in this environment. For most viewers, Cortes (1992) suggests that movies help organize information about "race, ethnicity, culture and foreignness" and help "organize information and ideas about racial ethnic and cultural groups."
For the dominant group, stereotyping doesn't often result in serious consequences, because a range of "types" are represented. But Dyer (1993 suggests that limiting representations in the media to stereotypical, flat depictions allows members of minority groups to be cast into a role as "other," sometimes with dire consequences. He argues these consequences result because "how we are seen determines in part how we are treated; how we treat others is based on how we see them; such seeing comes from representation."
So, although stereotypes spare viewers some cognitive energy, they often reinforce existing representations. For minority groups, this often means negative representations. Different minority groups have traditionally been assigned different roles to play, but analyses of movie roles and story lines over the past century show that minority ethnic groups have been relegated in all but a few films to portraying the "deviant, less capable other." Until the past few years, for example, African-Americans were limited to five highly racialized roles established in 1915 with the release of D. W. Griffith's controversial film, "The Birth of a Nation."
Hall (1982) argues that the few characteristics and images presented are actually used to "reduce everything about the person to those traits, exaggerate and simplify them and fix them without change or development to eternity." In the case of Latino/as, Keller (1985) argues that the formula movies favored by the early movie industry, with its emphasis on Americanism and the resultant heroes and villains, firmly established a negative role for Latinos as "real" gangsters and outlaws. "The usual components of wish fulfillment such as romance and true love, destroying evil... rewarding good, happy endings and so on, ensured that Hispanic and other outgroup characters would perform for the assembly line the role of vamps, seductresses, greasers, gangsters and the like, ad nauseum."
Many fear that limiting the representation of minority groups to a few negative stereotypes contributes to "subliminal and conscious prejudice against Latinos and other ethnic, racial groups by Anglo Americans, Europeans, and also elitist Latin American and European Spaniards (Rios-Bustamante). This prejudice could occur because stereotypes help symbolically fix boundaries by setting up a symbolic frontier:
"… [between] what belongs and what does not or is 'Other', between 'insiders' and 'outsiders', 'Us' and 'Them'. It facilitates the 'binding' or 'bonding' together of all of 'Us' who are 'normal' into an 'imagined community'; and it sends into symbolic exile all of Them-The Others-who are in some way different-beyond the pale" Hall,(1982), p. 258.
More importantly, Cores (1992) argues that presenting these stereotypical images reinforces existing audience perceptions and may actually "hinder revisionist filmmakers, including Latinos, in their quest to gain critical acceptance of alternative presentations." This occurs because films manipulate images of the "Latin Menace… iconographically generated by groups of gun-toting Mexican horsemen in the Old West or swaggering young Latinos-presumably gangs-in contemporary urban films." These images reinforce perceptions and images of Latinos, and "condition audiences for future movies."
Movies That Make a Difference: "El Mariachi" and "Lone Star"
Williams (1985) argues that despite this tendency for films to reinforce firmly held beliefs, films with rich representations can make help viewers adjust their images to more closely align with "reality."
"El Mariachi," directed by Robert Rodriquez, and "Lone Star," directed by John Sayles, both benefited from the increasing audience interest in independent films that began in the 1980s. Independent films had expanded beyond their art house audiences and were attracting baby boomers, who had tired of formula movies and were looking for more complex story lines. With this broadening of audience demographics came an increased interest from distribution companies, and a search for movies that offered interesting narratives.
"Lone Star" and "El Mariachi" could not be more different in style and narrative: Rodriguez was a first time director and producer who favored action scenes with quick cuts; Sayles favored a more leisurely approach that gently switched between scenes of the past and the present, and allowed the story to unfold through a wide range of characters. Rodiguez hoped to generate enough sales in the Spanish-speaking video market to fund a "real" film; Sayles was following his tradition of making movies that represented areas of conflict in all their complexities.
Yet despite these seeming differences, each movie challenged viewers to question their visions of the border and its inhabitants. Neither eschewed the realities of the area-like much of Northern Mexico and South Texas, the images presented a rocky, dry and often "barren" landscape. But despite these visual images, each presented a protagonist and story line that challenged the status quo and their beliefs about the nature of the place and its people.
Upon its release, Sayles' "Lone Star" was immediately hailed as groundbreaking movie, with a full range of likable characters that challenged stereotypes. As Sayles' narrator, Sam, searches for the "truth" about a decades-old murder and his father's role in it, he provides the audience more than just the "mainstream" point of view - he directs viewers to the complexity of the situation and let viewers see the border situation through other eyes-the recent Mexican immigrant, the assimilated Mexican immigrant who lost her husband to a prejudiced rogue sheriff, the Native American who doesn't recognize political boundaries, and the teacher who wants students to see past the narrowly drawn vision of the region's history, to name a few. The cast of characters is large, but Sayles handles them deftly, and slowly guides the viewer to see each ethnic group in the context of shared history and the influence of other groups.
Rodriguez' movie, on the other hand, has not been seriously studied because it contains negative images about the border and border images. As Noriega (1992) points out, "Chicano film scholarship has tended to ground itself in the strategy of unmasking negative stereotypes while affirming positive images." But List (1992) suggests that it is important to examine how ingroup stereotypes might combat negative images imposed from the outside." She argues that Cheech Marin in "Born in East L.A." (1987) subtly critiques ethnocentrism with his method of "slipping the message into your coffee… so it goes down smooth, but later you feel the effect."
Although Rodriquez makes no such claims about the intentions of his film-it was actually intended as a quick money-making venture-the sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist belies the usual stereotype-not the insatiable "Latin lover or drug dealer," but a "regular guy" looking for the "good life." Rodriguez'protagonist wants to return to his "roots," to search out the simple life enjoyed by his father, the mariachi. He is not the exception, he is the norm-again, a regular guy looking for the life being lost in the pursuit of the American dream "across the other side." He doesn't drive a car as a "typical" urban thug might, nor does he wear the stereotypical uniform. Instead, he wears what most clean-cut young men in the southwestern United States would wear-blue jeans, a button-down shirt and boots. When he crosses the border into Mexico, although the images are familiar, they hint of a different story… a story of mistaken identify, where the mariachi is pursued by an "evil" drug lord, but with a twist. By Rodriguez' design, the greedy, cut-throat is not a Mexican national, but a "gringo" from the other side. And the gringo drives the drug trade, murdering anyone who threatens to disturb his power. The White man from across the other side has disturbed the "natural" order of life in this border strip of Mexico, and in the process, destroyed the mariachi's hopes and dreams.








Berg, Charles Ramirez. (1992). "Bordertown, the Assimilation Narrative, and the Chicano Social Problem Film" in Chon Noriega's (Ed.) Chicanos and Film Representation and Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Berumen, Frank Javier Garcia. (1995). "The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film." New York: Vantage Press.

Cortes. Carlos E. (1992) "Who is Maria? What is Juan? Dilemmas of Analysing the Chicano Image in U. S. Feature Film" in Chon Noriega's (Ed.) Chicanos and Film Representation and Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Crouteau, D. and Hoynes, W. (2000) Media/Society: Industries, images and audiences, 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Dyer, Richard. (1993). The Matter of images: Essays on representations. New York: Routledge.

Hall, S. (1982). The Rediscovery of 'Ideology': Return of the repressed in media studies. In M. Gurevich et al. (Eds.) Culture, Society and the Media. London: Routledge.

Keller, Gary. (1985).The image of the Chicano in Mexican, United Statesand Chicano Cinema: An overview. In Gary Keller (Ed.), Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews, and Resources. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Review/Press.

List, Christine. (1992) "Self-directed stereotyping in the films of Cheech Marin" in Chon Noriega's (Ed.) Chicanos and Film Representation and Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nericcio, William Anthony. (1992) "Of Mestizos and Half-Breeds, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. In Chon Noriega's (Ed.) Chicanos and Film Representation and Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rios-Bustamante, Antonio. Latinos in Hollywood. Floricante Press.

Williams, L. (1985). Type and stereotype: Chicano images in film. In Gary Keller's (Ed.) Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews, and Resources. Binghamton, New York: Bilingual Review/Press.

Wilson, C. and Gutierrez, F. (1995). Race, multiculturalism, and the media: From mass to class communication. 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Author's Keywords:

Texas-Mexico border, film, representation,Independent film, stereotyping
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Powers, Elizabeth. "Life on the Texas-Mexico Border: Myth and reality as represented in Mainstream and Independent Western Cinema" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA, May 27, 2003 <Not Available>. 2009-05-26 <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p111385_index.html>

APA Citation:

Powers, E. C. , 2003-05-27 "Life on the Texas-Mexico Border: Myth and reality as represented in Mainstream and Independent Western Cinema" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA <Not Available>. 2009-05-26 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p111385_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: Film scholars generally agree that with few exceptions, representations of Latinos in mainstream films in the United States have been limited to narrow stereotypes since the earliest days of film. (Berumen, 1995; Keller, 1985; Pettit, 1980). Most often, Latino actors were typecast into roles in the formula Western and crime dramas so popular with United States audiences, depicting the foil for the "American" hero. The roles were clear: those on the United States side of the border were the "good guys," those on the Mexico side of the border were generally not. Even rarer than a rich role for Latinos was a film that tried to address the topic of the Latino experience in the United States.
In mainstream films on the Latino experience, the topic was most often urban crime or the "problem of illegal immigration." (Keller, 1985). A few mainstream films attempted to examine illegal Mexican immigration into the United States-indocumentado pictures-but were little more than formula treatments of complex issues. Most notable of these films are "Borderline" (1980) with Charles Bronson and "The Border" (1981) with Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel. Based on standard narrative formulas, these films could be termed mediocre, at best. Of the few films that tried to go beyond surface treatments of border issues, those that enjoyed the most critical success (although little commercial success) were independently produced films such as "Alambrista!" (1976) and "El Norte" (1983).
Even fewer films have tackled the complex topic of how people living on both sides of the United States-Mexico border negotiate cultural, political and economic identities. But this neglect of border issues doesn't mean that the area was not portrayed in films - only that the portrayals followed "form." In U.S. films, the predominant images of border towns were (and are) negative and stereotypical-the dusty town plaza dotted with loitering Mexicans, glaring from under their sombreros, waiting to indiscriminately rob any Anglo naive enough to enter their primitive, lawless territory.
The tendency towards shallow characterizations and formula narratives is not limited to minority groups and border areas, but is standard practice in the Hollywood film industry, which takes few risks and employs a narrow range of narrative structures and the attendant roles that are easily identifiable by filmgoers. Portraying a character in a stereotypical manner, what Hall (1997) describes as reducing "people to a few, simple essential characteristics," allows viewers to quickly grasp the character's motives, social and educational status, and familial background. But these stereotypes are not neutral - they have the power to set up a symbolic frontier "between the 'normal' and the 'deviant'... between 'insiders' and 'outsiders'..." Stereotypes are not dictated by the medium, however, and Williams (1985) argues that films with rich representations can be "illuminating," especially for Anglo members of the audience. The power of these films lies in their refusal to revert to individualize the case, the refusal to create "exceptions," but to instead represent members of all cultural groups in relation to each other, not just within the context of their own "group."
Although conventional wisdom dictates that typical audiences will not tolerate films deviating from "tried and true" formulas, in the 1990s two award-winning independent films about citizens living near the Mexico and U.S. borders broke through to mainstream distribution and were embraced by Western audiences. With vivid images and compelling narratives, these two films, "El Mariachi" (1993) and "Lone Star" (1996), urged viewers to consider the Texas/New Mexico border in new ways-as contested spaces where different ethnic groups with ties to the region try to resolve conflicts over cultural, technological, and geographical boundaries.
Although the two films offer starkly different narratives, each compelled viewers to reconsider the complex cultural conflicts that have their roots in past centuries but are being played out as the United States and Mexico struggle to redefine border areas in light of the new "global order." Nowhere is that struggle more evident than in the towns that dot the border between the United States and Mexico, and each of these films, "El Mariachi" and "Lone Star," begged viewers to dig deep into their stored memories and amend them to fit this new reality.
In this new reality, the men in white hats are not always the heroes, history is gradually being cast in a different light, geographical borders do not delineate cultural and familial loyalties, and "Third World" residents struggle to take advantage of economic and technological opportunities without allowing their social order to be erased in the process.
A historical brief on film representations of Latino/as and U.S. Mexico border
Although this paper is not designed to address specifically the representation of Latinos in film, a discussion of the U.S./Mexico border in film cannot be addressed without explaining to some degree how Latino/as have been portrayed. As Crouteau and Haynes (2000) note, in the United States media, Whites have defined the "norm" and all other ethnic groups have been measured against this norm. A prime example is "Bordertown," which appears on first glance to be an assimilation narrative, but the narrative "maps" Others in relation to the mainstream. "Mexican-Americans are marginal, Mexican nationals more so, and Chinese Americans even more so" (Berg, 1992). The images of the Border cannot be separated from the images of Latinos, and both are presented in Western film from the "American" point of view.
The earliest movie depictions of Latino/as and Border areas, according to Keller (1985) were "an almost unrelieved exercise in degradation." Early film titles reveal the stereotypical roles offered to Hispanics-many of the early "Mexican" film titles included the term "greaser," beginning with the 1896 Nickelodeon short (Berumen, 1995) and continuing through 1918, when "Guns and Greasers" was released (Keller). Although filmmakers discontinued the use of this perjorative term, U. S. cinema maintained the static and stereotypical portrayals begun before the turn of the century - the dark lady, the bandito and the buffoon (Keller).
As early as the 1920s, the Latino community decried these narrowly drawn, negative images and actors sometimes refused roles that insulted their "ethnic identity and intelligence." But despite ongoing criticism, the Hollywood film industry's responses to cries for more expansive roles for Latinos and more reality-based depictions of Latino communities have been shortlived and often shortsighted. Instead, U. S. cinema alternated between periods of no representation and mis-representation of Latinos.
Most often, mainstream filmmakers responded to cries of mis-representation by creating Latino heroes in the "American" image-borrowing the myth of the caballero from fiction. Most enduring of the mythical caballeros is Zorro, who entered the U. S. lexicon as a cultural icon, and who "like his Anglo counterparts, of similar western series, his modus operandi was to ride in, destroy evil, and ride out, leaving a broken heart or two behind" (Keller, 1985). Often presented in films as a pure-bred Spaniard and/or as a member of the upper class, Zorro campaigned bravely and tirelessly (in true action-hero form) to save Mexican peasants from corrupt officials. Beginning with the 1920 film "The Mask of Zorro." The Zorro films have remained popular throughout the century. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists no less than 62 Zorro films, including the 1998 version of The Mask of Zorro which was a smashing commercial success, opening on 2,415 screens in the United States. The film earned $22 million in its first weekend and by December, 1998, had gross receipts worldwide of more than $194 million.
The caballero, though a mixed representation, was one of the few remotely positive stereotypes. On the surface, Zorro provided an alternative representation of Latinos, one of the few Latino heroes in U. S. cinema, but in the end, his similarity to the "American" hero situates him as an exception to the norm, ensuring that the stereotype of the Latino as inept and corrupt remained undisturbed.
Throughout the century, despite a few rich roles in Westerns and some attempts to present banditos as part good/part bad, most films provided no roles for Latinos. In Westerns and crime films, however, the villain stereotypes were expanded to include sub-types. In the 1970s, as censorship lost its grip on movie content, the bandito role was expanded, but not to a multi-faced rich personality. Instead, the new bandito "practices mayhem, sadism, and sex aplenty...enjoys killing men and raping women..." (Keller, 1985).
The 1980s offered promise that the roles of Latino/as and border areas would be expanded, especially with the burgeoning Chicano film movement in the United States and Mexico. Although a few films offered expanded representations of the Latino experience in the United States, (Zoot Suit," 1982; "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," 1983; "Stand and Deliver," 1987, and "American Me," 1992) but few pointed the spotlight on border areas. Of the few films that addressed topics about the Mexican experience in American, the most expansive roles were in independent films such as "Like Water for Chocolate" (1993). Despite the promise of expanding representations in the 1980s, negative stereotypes dominated film images in the 1990s. Past stereotypes were perpetuated, with a twist to "accomodate and reflect the changing political landscape... the stereotypes were narcotraficantes/drug dealers, criminals, bandits, gang members and undocumented workers. Latinas found themselves inevitably as prostitutes and cantineras..." (Berumen, 1995).
Although the border and its towns have rarely been the topic of films, it has often been represented in U. S. cinema, particularly in Westerns and crime dramas, which generally did not present the area in a positive light. Most often, the Border was represented as a dividing line between civilization and lawlessness, a place of escape for unrepentant gunfighters. In later films, such as Orson Welles', "A Touch of Evil" (1958), the border town represents the most sinister of environments, a "hellish" town, "a nightmare world behind everyday reality" (Nericcio, 1992). If this were just one of many major representations of the border and its towns, there would be little danger of stereotyping, but it is one of few in mainstream Western film, and it exemplifies how border areas are used as settings for the interplay of good and evil.
Keller (1985) notes that the Mexican cinema hasn't fared much better in representing the border areas.
"…while Mexican cinema was entirely capable of releasing from its exploitative, commercial crucible major works of artistic merit depicting popular, folkloric, historical, revolutionary, urban, social class, or other values, it was not capable of such achievement with respect to the depiction of the Chicano lifestyle or even the Mexican culture of the border in any of their significant dimensions or varieties. p. 15"
The Effects of Limited Representations of Latino/as and border areas
Filmmakers have approximately 90 minutes to introduce viewers to characters, establish each person's identity and the story's setting, and then work through the story plot and denouement. Given the time restrictions, portraying a character and setting in stereotypical manner allows viewers to quickly understand a character's motivations and to anticipate his/her interaction with other characters in this environment. For most viewers, Cortes (1992) suggests that movies help organize information about "race, ethnicity, culture and foreignness" and help "organize information and ideas about racial ethnic and cultural groups."
For the dominant group, stereotyping doesn't often result in serious consequences, because a range of "types" are represented. But Dyer (1993 suggests that limiting representations in the media to stereotypical, flat depictions allows members of minority groups to be cast into a role as "other," sometimes with dire consequences. He argues these consequences result because "how we are seen determines in part how we are treated; how we treat others is based on how we see them; such seeing comes from representation."
So, although stereotypes spare viewers some cognitive energy, they often reinforce existing representations. For minority groups, this often means negative representations. Different minority groups have traditionally been assigned different roles to play, but analyses of movie roles and story lines over the past century show that minority ethnic groups have been relegated in all but a few films to portraying the "deviant, less capable other." Until the past few years, for example, African-Americans were limited to five highly racialized roles established in 1915 with the release of D. W. Griffith's controversial film, "The Birth of a Nation."
Hall (1982) argues that the few characteristics and images presented are actually used to "reduce everything about the person to those traits, exaggerate and simplify them and fix them without change or development to eternity." In the case of Latino/as, Keller (1985) argues that the formula movies favored by the early movie industry, with its emphasis on Americanism and the resultant heroes and villains, firmly established a negative role for Latinos as "real" gangsters and outlaws. "The usual components of wish fulfillment such as romance and true love, destroying evil... rewarding good, happy endings and so on, ensured that Hispanic and other outgroup characters would perform for the assembly line the role of vamps, seductresses, greasers, gangsters and the like, ad nauseum."
Many fear that limiting the representation of minority groups to a few negative stereotypes contributes to "subliminal and conscious prejudice against Latinos and other ethnic, racial groups by Anglo Americans, Europeans, and also elitist Latin American and European Spaniards (Rios-Bustamante). This prejudice could occur because stereotypes help symbolically fix boundaries by setting up a symbolic frontier:
"… [between] what belongs and what does not or is 'Other', between 'insiders' and 'outsiders', 'Us' and 'Them'. It facilitates the 'binding' or 'bonding' together of all of 'Us' who are 'normal' into an 'imagined community'; and it sends into symbolic exile all of Them-The Others-who are in some way different-beyond the pale" Hall,(1982), p. 258.
More importantly, Cores (1992) argues that presenting these stereotypical images reinforces existing audience perceptions and may actually "hinder revisionist filmmakers, including Latinos, in their quest to gain critical acceptance of alternative presentations." This occurs because films manipulate images of the "Latin Menace… iconographically generated by groups of gun-toting Mexican horsemen in the Old West or swaggering young Latinos-presumably gangs-in contemporary urban films." These images reinforce perceptions and images of Latinos, and "condition audiences for future movies."
Movies That Make a Difference: "El Mariachi" and "Lone Star"
Williams (1985) argues that despite this tendency for films to reinforce firmly held beliefs, films with rich representations can make help viewers adjust their images to more closely align with "reality."
"El Mariachi," directed by Robert Rodriquez, and "Lone Star," directed by John Sayles, both benefited from the increasing audience interest in independent films that began in the 1980s. Independent films had expanded beyond their art house audiences and were attracting baby boomers, who had tired of formula movies and were looking for more complex story lines. With this broadening of audience demographics came an increased interest from distribution companies, and a search for movies that offered interesting narratives.
"Lone Star" and "El Mariachi" could not be more different in style and narrative: Rodriguez was a first time director and producer who favored action scenes with quick cuts; Sayles favored a more leisurely approach that gently switched between scenes of the past and the present, and allowed the story to unfold through a wide range of characters. Rodiguez hoped to generate enough sales in the Spanish-speaking video market to fund a "real" film; Sayles was following his tradition of making movies that represented areas of conflict in all their complexities.
Yet despite these seeming differences, each movie challenged viewers to question their visions of the border and its inhabitants. Neither eschewed the realities of the area-like much of Northern Mexico and South Texas, the images presented a rocky, dry and often "barren" landscape. But despite these visual images, each presented a protagonist and story line that challenged the status quo and their beliefs about the nature of the place and its people.
Upon its release, Sayles' "Lone Star" was immediately hailed as groundbreaking movie, with a full range of likable characters that challenged stereotypes. As Sayles' narrator, Sam, searches for the "truth" about a decades-old murder and his father's role in it, he provides the audience more than just the "mainstream" point of view - he directs viewers to the complexity of the situation and let viewers see the border situation through other eyes-the recent Mexican immigrant, the assimilated Mexican immigrant who lost her husband to a prejudiced rogue sheriff, the Native American who doesn't recognize political boundaries, and the teacher who wants students to see past the narrowly drawn vision of the region's history, to name a few. The cast of characters is large, but Sayles handles them deftly, and slowly guides the viewer to see each ethnic group in the context of shared history and the influence of other groups.
Rodriguez' movie, on the other hand, has not been seriously studied because it contains negative images about the border and border images. As Noriega (1992) points out, "Chicano film scholarship has tended to ground itself in the strategy of unmasking negative stereotypes while affirming positive images." But List (1992) suggests that it is important to examine how ingroup stereotypes might combat negative images imposed from the outside." She argues that Cheech Marin in "Born in East L.A." (1987) subtly critiques ethnocentrism with his method of "slipping the message into your coffee… so it goes down smooth, but later you feel the effect."
Although Rodriquez makes no such claims about the intentions of his film-it was actually intended as a quick money-making venture-the sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist belies the usual stereotype-not the insatiable "Latin lover or drug dealer," but a "regular guy" looking for the "good life." Rodriguez'protagonist wants to return to his "roots," to search out the simple life enjoyed by his father, the mariachi. He is not the exception, he is the norm-again, a regular guy looking for the life being lost in the pursuit of the American dream "across the other side." He doesn't drive a car as a "typical" urban thug might, nor does he wear the stereotypical uniform. Instead, he wears what most clean-cut young men in the southwestern United States would wear-blue jeans, a button-down shirt and boots. When he crosses the border into Mexico, although the images are familiar, they hint of a different story… a story of mistaken identify, where the mariachi is pursued by an "evil" drug lord, but with a twist. By Rodriguez' design, the greedy, cut-throat is not a Mexican national, but a "gringo" from the other side. And the gringo drives the drug trade, murdering anyone who threatens to disturb his power. The White man from across the other side has disturbed the "natural" order of life in this border strip of Mexico, and in the process, destroyed the mariachi's hopes and dreams.








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