U.S. Latinos and film: introduction
El hilo latino: representation,
identity and national culture

by Chon A. Noriega, Guest Editor

from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 45-50
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006

While it is now fashionable to dismiss the "image of" studies of an earlier generation of film scholars, it is ironic that Latinos lack an "image of" book within the field and, perhaps as a consequence, are not "reflected" in current film theories, criticisms, and histories.[1][open notes in new window] Even when issues of identity and identification seem to settle upon a Latino "image," say Pearl Chavez in DUEL IN THE SUN, there is no mention of a Latina identity, one inflected by the star-driven masquerade of racial and gender difference.[2] It is, to quote Adrienne Rich, "as if you looked into the mirror and saw nothing," leaving one in the unenviable position of defiant invisibility or of reforming something that is just plain wrong.[3] The emergent Latino film criticism, then, must engage in a "politics of representation" to the second degree, concerned not just with issues of "Latino" representation and self-representation within the media, but also with the possibilities for the articulation of such critiques within academia itself.

At the most basic level, Latino film criticism encounters a field with a limited appreciation of ethnic studies, history, social sciences, and, oddly enough, the other visual arts. That literature and literary theory serve as the lingua franca for the field, of course, says as much about its institutional development vis-à-vis English Departments as it does about its "racial formation" within the post-civil rights university.[4] This leaves one to wonder about the applicability to cinema studies of Kenneth Burke's notion of literary debates as a "heated discussion" that unfolds in an eternal parlor, where one necessarily enters and leaves in medias res.[5] While one may be able to find another, more progressive metaphor — one sensitive to class, gender, and racial connotations — there would no doubt remain certain historicist assumptions about the arrival and assimilation of "new" topics and approaches. But consider that scholarship on racial and ethnic "images" emerged in the departments and disciplines cited above, while at the same time "the field" developed elsewhere, in English Departments, Communication, and Film Schools. Thus, a linear narrative for the discipline, cast in the terms of European immigration and assimilation, obscures the fact that debates over representation have taken place in other rooms, other buildings, other communities.

One such "other" space can be found in the alternative Latino film festivals, which originated in Chicano, Puerto Rican and Cuban American communities as a response to invisibility in the mainstream. Since the early 1970s, these forums have played a central role in articulating issues of Latino representation and self-representation within historical, cultural, racial and political contexts. But while the festivals, along with professional groups and coalitions, provided an institutional basis for a "Latino" cinema, the films themselves often dealt with the thematics and aesthetics of isolated Latino groups.

Thus, in the early 1990s, the festivals became the site for the question: Is there "un hilo latino" that connects these works to each other? At the 1990 CineFestival in San Antonio, Texas, Latino scholars and filmmakers addressed the question, "What is Hispanic Cinema?" A year later, the debate continued in New York at the National Latino Film and Video Festival, this time centered on the question of whether the Latin American concept of "mestizaje" provided an adequate framework for the various Latino cinemas, one based on hybrid racial, cultural, and aesthetic formations.[6]

Poised at the end of the concurrent Decade of the Hispanic and Reagan Revolution, these panels provided a timely opportunity for Chicano, Puerto Rican and Cuban American filmmakers, programmers and scholars to debate both imposed and self-designated attempts to construct a "Latino" identity. Such efforts can be traced back to two distinct impulses in the Americas: one in the pan-American political visions of Bolívar and Martí; and the other in the divisive racial politics of the United States since the 1950s. In the civil rights era, Chicano nationalism formulated a U.S. version of the raceless or mestizo continent of Martí, although the ends of such mestizaje varied widely, from separatism to cultural pluralism to a reformist notion of assimilation in which mestizaje racialized the ideology of the melting pot. But, U.S. institutions responded to the demands of Blacks and Latinos through the framework of the ethnic paradigm, even as reforms addressed and limited themselves to de jure or institutional racial discrimination. Thus, for example, the census categories for Latinos stress linguistic difference and European origins; in other words, ethnicity: "Persons of Spanish Mother Tongue" (1950 and 1960); "Persons of Both Spanish Surname and Spanish Mother Tongue" (1970); and "Hispanic" (1980 and 1990). Indeed, for Latinos, institutional and governmental programs often understand "race" as a matter of ethnic and class differences.

In other words, civil rights reforms undercut the radical ideologies of a "raceless" or race-conscious society, suggesting instead that race or color was not the real issue. In the 1970s and 1980s, neoconservative theorists were able to rearticulate these radical ideologies in terms of a "color-blind" society in which race no longer mattered, although neoconservatives avoided the logical conclusion that distinct racial groups would then cease to exist at some point. If overt racists proposed segregation and cultural nationalists countered with collective rights and mestizaje, neoconservatives simply denied the importance of race in social policy, but maintained its existence, thereby providing an indirect mute back to "separate, but equal."

In U.S. social thought, "race" is often substituted by other social categories, or made a subset of ethnicity, which helps to explain the conceptual slipperiness of racial politics. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant note, the ethnic paradigm uses racial categories as ethnic ones when it comes to people of color.[7] In other words, Italian American and Hispanic American are treated as equivalent categories, although the latter includes Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban American, and a dozen other national groups, each with distinct histories and experiences, both in terms of country-of-origin and of immigration. Furthermore, the ethnic paradigm imposes a set of expectations derived from the history of European immigration upon racial-become-ethnic groups for which "immigration" was not necessarily the case: Indians, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Failure to meet these expectations, then, signals a failure in the racial group itself, rather than underscoring the history of slavery, conquest and exploitation through which these groups came to be in the United States.

The particularities of the Latino experience and its relation to the national culture have rarely been addressed in the United States, since the sociological literature and cultural theories on race and ethnicity are often formulated upon a Black-and-White dualism. If Latinos reveal the paradoxes and arbitrariness of such a dualism, it is in part because they have had to negotiate between its bipolar terms. In the pre-civil rights Southwest, for example, Mexican Americans were legally defined as "White," while socially defined as "Black," with segregation of public facilities and lynching. As "Whites," Mexican Americans were able to defeat school segregation attempts in the 1930s (you can't separate Whites from Whites, it was argued), but had no legal basis to confront racial discrimination and under-representation (after all, a "White" Mexican American can't complain about an all-White jury, or an all-White city council).[8]

But, conceived of as social categories, Latinos and Latin Americans are neither a race, nor an ethnic group. As an ethos or ideological position or cultural identity, Latinos are mestizos or a mixed-race peoples, although Latin America also includes all un-mixed racial groups and has experienced the same European immigration waves as the United States.[9] In addition, indigenous cultures continue to survive and contest the Latin American nations constructed around an ideology, if not always a practice of mestizaje. What then is the basis for understanding "Latinos" or "Hispanics" as an ethnic group, beyond linguistic and religious similarities (with significant regional differences) and a common history of Spanish colonialism and United States imperialism (with significant regional differences)?

The fact that "Hispanic" emerges as a U.S. census category suggests the difficult play between race and ethnicity, as the government seeks institutional control through homogenization ("Hispanic"), and social movements undertake radical change through the formation of a collective identity ("Latino"). Contradictions and ironies abound. In response to the question posed at CineFestival — "What is Hispanic Cinema?" — the filmmakers situated themselves within national (of being "American" filmmakers) and nationalist (Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban American) contexts. The supposed intermediary category — Hispanic or Latino — was rejected because, as each filmmaker concluded, "We are too different." In other words, the filmmakers could identify with "American" because they defined it solely in terms of equal access to the nation's institutions, whereas "Latino" implied a cultural identity that promised neither the access of "American" nor the cultural specificity of "Chicano" et al.

What is doubly ironic, however, is that the speakers had to situate themselves within the pan-group category implied in the use of "we" — in order to assert the essential differences that made belonging impossible. A similar strategy had to be undertaken in order to secure access to national funding sources and distribution channels. Thus, for Chicano and Puerto Rican media professionals, the category "Latino"/"Hispanic" served as the imagined fulcrum for leveraging access to a "mainstream" arena for films about Chicano and Puerto Rican topics.[10] This strategy developed because — in the popular imagination, governmental classification, and mass media distribution — specific Latino groups are not understood in national terms. Latino, then, is not so much an identity position as it is the hilo/thread for a social movement to re-map "America,"[11] and — in a more immediate sense — for negotiating the representation of specific histories/identities as part of the national culture.

While the ideological and institutional struggle continues over the pros and cons of a "national" name for groups of Latin American or mestizo origin, at some point the various positions fall back upon a common narrative: the tale of the "sleeping giant." At the appointed time [usually, during an election year or census), so the story goes, the giant will awaken and lumber en masse to the nation's shopping malls and voting booths, pushing $144 billion in disposable income and 13 million votes in one direction.

It is, depending on the storyteller and the audience, either a horror story or a romantic comedy, the moment in which the melting pot cracks, or acquires a picante inflection. If storybook and cinematic monsters embody or contain social contradictions — to be killed off in the narrative resolution — then the "sleeping giant" acquires its fearful dimensions from its conflation of the bipolar terms of the ethnic paradigm: assimilation and cultural nationalism. After all, from whatever perspective it is argued, the prophesied moment that the "sleeping giant" awakens is both the moment of its "arrival" in the "mainstream" (just like all the other immigrant groups) and the moment of its "racial formation" as a distinct sub-national market and bloc in the United States (unlike all the other immigrant groups). As it is told, neither moment can occur without the other, with structural assimilation dependent upon a collective identity and practice sizable enough to command recognition from and the transformation of the "mainstream." What the "sleeping giant" threatens/ promises, then, is the end of the mainstream itself. But like any horror film, the "dreadful pleasures" of such a scenario reside in part in the reassurance of its impossibility.

It is important to note that I am not talking about assimilation and cultural nationalism in the usual sense of an "identity politics" played out between these two essential extremes. In other words, defining Latino identity is not the issue. That is not the moral of the tale of the "sleeping giant," because it should be obvious that such a monster is more imagined than real: There are too many contradictions within the diverse cultures and political strategies grouped together under the term "Hispanic" or "Latino."[12] The question, then, becomes how are notions of Latinidad used for competing purposes at various levels of social organization?

What is of interest, is that both the dominant culture and Latino groups seek to embody the above contradictions within the allegorical figure of the "sleeping giant." And, as a consequence, Latinos are imagined or represented as "potential citizens" rather than as actual ones.[13] The struggle over civil rights, political representation and cultural pluralism, then, becomes an agenda for some future date, with the onus placed upon a hypothetical image for the Latino community. And while the giant sleeps, it has no past and no present. Instead, political discourse engages in such concepts as "border culture" and "latinization," which offer vague (and unfulfilled) hopes and fears for the future.[14]

This is a difficult critique to articulate, because it seems to imply that Latino activists and intellectuals have undertaken a leveraged buyout of Latinidad based on its future performance (in consumption, reproduction, electoral politics). And if so, at what price? Perhaps that we enter national political discourse on an allegorical level, always standing in for something else. This goes beyond stereotypes, since Latinos cease to be "represented" by their own image. Rather, Latinos become overt and coded images for politics by other means:

"Popular ideology often makes use of racial themes as a framework by which to comprehend major problems, be they the declining U.S. dominance in the world, dislocations in the workforce, or the fiscal crisis of the state."[15]

With regards to Latinos, these racial themes and images are, as Arthur Pettit noted, "localized"[l6] — the illegal alien of the border, the vato loco of East L.A. — which reinforces the notion that Latino issues are a matter of "local" politics, even as Latino themes and images are mobilized as allegories for the nation. Thus, the federal response — immigration reform, "war on drugs" — serves the nation, but not the Latino community, which exists somehow apart from the nation. While Latino themes and images circulate within national political discourse, actual Latino representatives are rarely part of that discourse. And when they are, they are represented as a "Latino sacrifice" whose proud heritage and bilingual skills can be offered up to save or redeem the mainstream.[11]

In the past two decades, it has been the Latino filmmakers and artists who have taken up the issue of a "politics of representation," challenging, subverting, and providing alternatives to the "mainstream." Latino-oriented media institutions and alternative cinemas emerged as a direct outgrowth of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, as Chicano and Puerto Rican students, activists and community groups engaged in a decentered social movement that made few distinctions between art, culture and politics. The initial demands for access to the mass media sought a "tool" for communication that crossed the boundaries between political action, intercultural dialogue, cultural heritage, and artistic expression. Only later did the movement split into distinct professional/institutional formations within the state and federal government, the university, the film and television industry, and the arts community/market.

Despite the recent history of Latino-produced film and television, organized resistance to Hollywood's stereotypical depictions of Latinos dates back to at least the 1910s. In South Texas, Spanish-language newspapers published editorials against the silent "greaser" films, organizing boycotts against local theaters.[18] In the 1920s and 1930s, La Opinión in Los Angeles criticized Hollywood, while it also gave an account of the behind-the-scenes protests of Mexican-born actors Dolores Del Rio and Ramon Novarro.[19] In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Asociación Nacional México-Americana (ANMA) demanded employment of Mexican Americans in the mass media, while it successfully boycotted or protested offensive radio and television programs, hit songs, and movies.[20] Likewise, in New York, dozens of Puerto Rican organizations responded to discrimination and stereotyping in the print and electronic media.[21]

Strangely enough, however, current Latino civil rights organizations and elected officials never raise the twin issues of representation and employment within the film and television industries, although these same groups are acutely aware of the political and sociological impact of media representation and, more often, non-representation. Instead, since the 1910s, the articulation of a Latino "politics of representation" has taken place at the local level, from the Spanish-language press to community pressure groups, and has been — as a consequence — framed in the ethnic or regional terms of specific Chicano and Puerto Rican communities.

To be sure, Latino media professionals and national organizations have challenged the industry over the past two decades; but, as Director Jésus Salvador Treviño concludes, these efforts have been constrained by the fact that its advocates also work within the industry and are subject to cooptation and blacklisting.[22] While these groups have not been able to change the terms of the debate within the industry, they have been able to effect relative reforms and increases in independent production and public television syndication. Since 1974, the National Latino Communications Center (Latino Consortium) has acquired and syndicated Latino-themed media to public television.

In the past two years, as a result of coalition and grassroots efforts, NLCC and the other minority consortia have been able to restructure into independent entities that also produce and fund minority-themed media. On a regional level, groups such as Cine Acción (San Francisco), Latino Collaborative (New York), Latino Midwest Video Collective (Chicago), and Latino Writers and Filmmakers of the 1990s (Los Angeles) have provided technical support, non-broadcast distribution, re-granting, and other services to independent film and videomakers.[23] Within Hollywood, Hispanic Academy of Media Arts and Sciences (HAMAS), National Hispanic Media Coalition, and NOSOTROS have lobbied on behalf of increased Latino employment (and visibility) within the industry. But, as Treviño and other filmmakers note, Hollywood studios and television networks remain intransigent in the face of these internal pressures.

While I do not want to overstate the case, it does seem as though film critics have a central role, if not a responsibility in these issues and struggles. The "politics of representation" is not just a matter of access and alternatives, but also of the critical frames of reference for Latino representation and self-representation. Despite the odds, more and more Latino work is produced each year, although distribution itself has not increased, and the press can do lithe more than an annual half-hearted proclamation that this will be the year of the Latino filmmaker. It is up to the emergent Latino film criticism to develop appropriate frames of reference that can account for the historical, cultural, aesthetic and linguistic operations of these texts.

What are the vernacular traditions and genres that Latino filmmakers draw upon or transform? How does bilingual dialogue and code-switching provide an alternative model for narrative structure and audience reception? Are there Latino "sensibilities" that inflect the film's aesthetics and/or reception? How do the Latino cinemas complicate the historiography on Hollywood, U.S. independent cinema, New American Cinema, New Latin American Cinema?[24] These questions have an impact beyond the field of film studies, insofar as they provide granting agencies, distributors, and programmers with alternative interpretive contexts for Latino-produced media arts. This has become painfully clear to me as I have curated exhibitions and have also served on selection panels, nominating committees, and media curriculum projects, where Latinos must either fit the pre-established categories or risk invisibility and inclusion that is merely "affirmative."

In putting together this special issue, I have tried to include a wide range of materials that give insight into the topic: essays, statements by artists and organizations, interviews, and poems. The contributions can be grouped into four categories:

1. Overviews of alternative cinemas. Ana López and Lillian Jimenez provide interpretive histories for Cuban cinema-in-exile and Puerto Rican cinema in New York, respectively. Frances Negrón examines Puerto Rican women's film and videomaking, both on the island and in New York. Finally, Latino Collaborative and Cine Acción provide statements of purpose.

2. Several authors consider recent Chicano feature-length dramas that circulated within and subverted mainstream distribution channels. Christine List examines the "politics of language" in Isaac Artenstein's BREAK OF DAWN (1988), a self-distributed feature that later aired on PBS' "American Playhouse." Kathleen Newman argues that El Teatro Campesino's LA PASTORELA (1991) — which first aired on PBS' "Great Performances" and has since become an annual Christmas special — reconstitutes the "nation" and "mainstream" around the Chicana protagonist. Carmen Huaco-Nuzum provides a brief, yet provocative reading of Edward James Olmos' AMERICAN ME (1992), a controversial gang film. Finally, Charles Ramírez Berg takes a practitioner-oriented approach to the issue of "breaking into" Hollywood, formulating a series of subversive strategies for Latino screenwriters who intend to work within the Hollywood paradigm.


1. My contribution as guest editor was made possible through research support and faculty development grants from the Center for Regional Studies and Southwest Hispanic Research Institute at the University of New Mexico. In particular, I wish to thank José Rivera, Tobías Durán and Vangie Samora for their generous support, and Eddie Salazar y Tafoya for his research assistance. In putting together this introduction, I have benefited from conversations with Teshome Gabriel, Ana López, and Kathleen Newman.

2. I refer, of course, to Laura Mulvey's "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by King Vidor's DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)," which is reprinted in Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), pp. 29-38. In her critique of Mulvey's position, Carmen Huaco-Nuzum offers an extensive consideration of the mestiza spectator in DUEL IN THE SUN. See, "DUEL IN THE SUN: Mestiza Representation and Negotiations," Society for Cinema Studies Conference, Pittsburgh, May 2, 1992.

3. Adrienne Rich, "Invisibility in Academe," in Blood, Bread & Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), p. 199.

4. Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that race must be seen as a "central axis" of social relations, rather than as a factor in other social categories, such as class: "We use the term 'racial formation' to refer to the process by which social, economic, and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings" (61). See Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge. 1986).

5. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941), p. 110-111.

6. See the festival publications, which include relevant statements and essays: Tonanztin 7.1 (Jan.-Feb. 1990), a publication of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio; and Cine de Mestizaje: National Latino Film and Video Festival (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1991).

7. See Chapter One, "The Dominant Paradigm: Ethnicity-based Theory," pp. 14-24.

8, Tomás Almaguer discusses these contradictions in relation to Chicano historical revisionism in, "Ideological Distortions in Recent Chicano Historiography: The Internal Model and Chicano Historical Interpretation," Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 18.1 (Spring 1987): 7-28. On the first successful challenge to school segregation, see Paul Espinosa's docudrama, THE LEMON GROVE INCIDENT (1985), available through Cinema Guild.

9. This is, of course, little known in the United States, where historical awareness is often replaced by an unconscious nationalism. David Desser, for example, marvels that "the American [sic] experiment in building a culture has been a multiracial, multiethnic experiment unique in the annals of modern societies." In Lester Friedman, ed., Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991). p. 388.

10. It is of note how few Latino-produced film have attempted to define a "Latino" culture, history, or identity. Those that have done so tend to examine the place of Latinos in national electoral politics.

11. See Juan Bores and George Yúdice, "Living Borders/ Buscando America: Languages of Latino Self-Formation," Social Text 24 (1990): 57-84.

12. The debate over "Hispanic" versus "Latino" is never over who is or is not included in the category (both refer to the same aggregate), but rather over the cultural and political function of each term.

13. I refer to José Vasconcelos' phrase for the indigenous people of Mexico as "potential Mexicans" who were to be incorporated into the nation through language and literacy programs. Vasconcelos was the Secretary of Education (1920-1924) and author of La raza cósmica (1925), a philosophical treatise on mestizaje. See Susan Dever's discussion of Vasconcelos in relation to the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, in "Re-Birth of a Nation: On Mexican Movies, Museums, and María Félix," Spectator 13.1 (1993; in press).

14. The fear of "latinization" developed in large part in reaction to the 1980 census and increased migration from Mexico and Central America. See, for example, Thomas B. Morgan. "The Latinization of America," Esquire (May 1983). On its cover, U.S. News & World Report (August 18, 1985) proclaimed, "The Disappearing Border," asking the question implicit in the discussion of "latinization": "Will the Mexican Migration Create a New Nation?" In response to these warnings, border artists, including the Border Arts Workshop (San Diego), described that new nation as a "third country" or "border culture" that offered a new model for race relations and intercultural dialogue in the United States. While the politics of these two movements are diametrically opposed, in terms of rhetorical strategy, both "latinization" and "border culture" base their calls for reform/dialogue on a doomsday vision of the near future, often anchored in the "empiricism" of dates: 1992, 2000, or that forecast date when Latinos become the largest U.S. minority and California majority. It is a strategy that — to borrow Robert Young's words — "asserts the Truth of History while constantly projecting forwards and deferring its proof." White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 33, also (on dates) pp. 45-46.

15. Omi and Winant, p. 112.

16. Arthur Pettit, Images of the Mexican American in Fiction and Film (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980), p. xv,

17. Kathleen Newman, "Latino Sacrifice in the Discourse of Citizenship: Acting Against the 'Mainstream,' 1985-1988," in Noriega, ed., Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), pp. 59-73.

18. José E. Limón, "Stereotyping and Chicano Resistance: An Historical Dimension," Aztlán: International Journal of Chicano Studies Research 4,2 (Fall 1973): 257-270. Rpt. in Chon A. Noriega, ed., Chicanos and Film, pp. 3-17.

19. Antonio Rios-Bustamante, "Latinos in the Hollywood Film Industry, 1920-1950s," Americas 2001 (January 1988): 6-12.

20. Mario T. Garcia, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology & Identity, 1930-1960 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 216.

21. See the article by Lillian Jiménez in this issue.

22. Jesus Salvador Treviño, "Lights, Camera, Action," Hispanic (August 1992): 76.

23. See the statements by Cine Acción and Latino Collaborative in this issue; and Raúl Ferrera-Balanquet, "The Videotapes of the Latino Midwest Video Collective: A Manifesto," Cinematograph 4 (1991):149-152.

24. Cultural critic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto provides provocative explorations of Latino vernacular concepts (mestizaje; "recuerdo, discubrimiento, voluntad") and sensibilities (rasquachismo), together with their relationship to alternative media. See, the interview on mestizaje in Cine de Mestizaje: National Latino Film and Video Festival (New York El Museo del Barrio, 1991), n.p.; "Imagining a New World: Thoughts on Latino Media," ImMEDIAte Impact: A Publication of Media Network 1.3 (Spring 1992): 2, 7-8; and "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility," in the exhibition catalogue, Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 (Los Angeles: UCLA Wight Art Gallery, 1991), pp. 155-162. Bores and Yúdice (cited above) discuss the use of language and music in Latino, cultural expressions; and I examine the use of vernacular genres in Chicano cinema in Noriega, ed., Chicanos and Film, pp. 156-164.