Updated: May 1, 2020
We, the Latinx people of the United States of America, come in all colors and nationalities. We have different slang and cuisine and dances and beliefs and experiences. Some of us grew up speaking Spanish, some English, some Spanglish, and some spoke something else entirely, contrary to common assumptions. Our community is rich with diversity, so why don't we see that when we turn on the TV?
In television shows and movies, Latinx characters are frequently made into overgeneralized caricatures of the race through characteristics such as occupation, actions, and language. The sheer abundance of these instances throughout history reflects persistent ignorance and inaccurate, homogenous views of the Latinx community.
Hispanic tropes permeate various mediums of America’s entertainment industry: this sad truth has remained a reality since Latinxs first appeared on American stages and TV. Trailblazing triple threat Rita Moreno, icon of Latinx American culture, helped pave the way for what would become a common struggle to find Latinx roles in Hollywood that avoided stereotypes or provided any semblance of a serious, respectable role. *
In Moreno’s iconic, Oscar winning performance of Anita in West Side Story, “‘extremely dark’ makeup [was] used on the set for all the white actors playing the Puerto Rican characters. Even she, an actual Puerto Rican, also was expected to darken her skin.” Moreno also “had to speak with an exaggerated accent that made ‘little sense,’” as she revealed in an interview with Mercury News.** The practice of brownface reflects a lack of knowledge regarding the diversity within Latinx culture. Moreno’s experience exhibits that a forced, fabricated accent stems from ignorance and is often accompanied by other manifestations of prejudice.
Moreover, exaggerated accents reveal an underestimation of Hispanics as a whole, as seen by characters Fez in That 70’s Show and Fernando Hernández Guerrero Fernandez Guerrero on Fuller House. Though decades apart, these shows exhibit unchanging tokenism in popular television.
Thickly accented character Fernando Hernández Guerrero Fernandez Guerrero, portrayed by Juan Pablo Di Pace on the Netflix revival of Full House, epitomizes a token minority. Even his name is a rhyming cliché, with no explanation regarding the cultural background of Latinx naming practices. Additionally, his character’s accent and occasional struggle with English becomes the butt of many jokes on the show, further feeding the normalization of stereotypes through humor. In reality, Di Pace speaks English very clearly.
Photo Credit: Linnerooth, Steven. (10 April 2016) Fuller House - Fernando says "scavenger hunt" without an accent! [video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbap_-eJoH8
In Season 1, Episode 12: “Save The Dates,” Fernando pronounces “scavenger hunt” perfectly; the laughter and surprise it receives, as well as his following line that it “sounded like gibberish in [his head], portrays Fernando as lacking competence or intelligence— a trait often assigned unjustly to caricature portrayals of minorities in entertainment.
Fernando also assumes the cliché of Latinx men as unfaithful womanizers, as he is said to have cheated on his wife numerous times. Though the show allows him occasional moments of depth and does depict him overall as a loving father and husband, it ceases to avoid common pitfalls in racial stereotypes.
Fez too is quite the ladies man in That 70’s Show, although his attempts at romance are not nearly as successful. His strange lisp and awkward behavior paint him as an outsider, repulsing the ladies and intensifying a sense of otherness that characterizes token minorities on TV. He also shares with Fernando that his name is rooted in a lack of cultural specificity due to the ignorance of the dominant culture. His name, Fez, is actually a ‘humorous’ acronym for Foreign Exchange Student. Not only is his country of origin left undefined, but he is also frequently referred to as ‘the foreign kid.’*** His identity is defined by the xenophobia that surrounds him.
Photo Credit: Say "America". (2014). photograph. Retrieved from https://imgur.com/r/That70sshow/hOUQKZA
In Season 6 Episode 10: “A Legal Matter” Fez has a similar moment to Fernando’s ‘scavenger hunt’ scene, when his best friend’s father trains him in the pronunciation of America as well as his very skewed version of American history.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve found myself laughing hysterically at the wild antics of characters like Fernando and Fez, choosing to overlook unpleasant racism while I kick back with some good old-fashioned Netflix. The trouble is, while token characters present themselves as harmlessly humorous, we have to look behind the veil of mainstream television to examine what it says, and what it should say, about us.
As a whole, the entertainment industry consistently fails to provide respectful or even accurate representation of Latinx people. Actor Oscar Nunez discusses the need for material made by Latinx artists in an interview with Backstage: “I’m Latino so if I don’t want to be a security guard, a valet, or a waiter, I better create my own stuff.”**** He goes on to express his gratitude for the acting opportunities he’s been given, but expresses that there simply aren't enough for Latinxs in the industry.
As time went on, we’ve witnessed an increase in the numbers of Latinx people represented in entertainment: some of it respected, inspired, and lifted us up. Other portrayals left us more firmly rooted in the past. We have evolved, but certainly not enough.
That’s on the media, but it’s also partially on us. The media has an immense sway over public opinion and the connections we make with racial groups; therefore, the representation it provides can either foster more accurate, comprehensive, and respectful views of Latinxs or further contribute to stereotypes. Yes, the power is in their hands, but our voices can determine what they do with it.
Speak out, stand up, and sé fuerte (be strong). When the media holds up their version of a mirror to our society and you don’t agree with the distorted reflection, raise that voice and take back your right to representation. Remember, entertainment is driven by ratings, so your thoughts are valued! More importantly, discussions on race are imperative to achieving social justice, so take to social media or simply strike up a conversation. Together, our voices will be amplified, unified, and impossible to ignore— one day, We, the Latinx people of the United States of America, will take Constitution promises into our own hands. We will be able to say that we took action to form a more perfect union, establish justice, and promote the general welfare of all people.
*Martin, L. (2008, September 14). Rita Moreno overcame Hispanic stereotypes to achieve stardom. The Miami Herald. Retrieved from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/puertorico/rita-moreno.htm
**Ross, M. (2018, November 28). Even with Rita Moreno joining the cast, is a ‘West Side Story’ remake necessary? The Mercury News. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/11/28/even-with-rita-moreno-joining-the-cast-is-a-west-side-story-remake-necessary/
***Men’s Health. (2019, November 26) NCIS Star Wilmer Valderrama Responds to Internet Comments | vs The Internet | Men's Health [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi5TTA-LUZ4
****Backstage. (2009, February 3) Oscar Nunez Interview [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU3_wrPRNtg