U.S. Latinos and the media:
theory and practice

by Chon A. Noriega, Guest Editor

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 57-58
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

In the articles in the two special sections on "U.S. Latinos and the Media,"[1] [open notes in new window] the approach to Latino representation and self-representation has focused on "speaking" in the broadest sense of the term. Who gets to speak — that is, to make films? What are the thematic, generic, and ideological characteristics of Hollywood films about Latinos? How have social conditions and production constraints determined the types of films Latinos have made? What strategies might allow Latino filmmakers to both enter and subvert the system? And what do filmmakers themselves have to say about their work and its contexts?

The general assumption is that Latinos have been excluded from the film and television industries. As such, one can posit something called the "Latino media arts," "Latino cinema," or "Latino film and video" as a discrete category that exists, for the most part, outside these industries. But if such a category is first constituted on the basis of exclusion, most analyses (including my own research) attempt to substantiate it on the basis of a coordinated or coherent opposition to "Hollywood" and as a sphere of cinematic practice with pre-existing cultural, aesthetic, or ideological affinities — albeit multiple and shifting ones. In other words, exclusion remains an assumption, an abstract or undifferentiated catalyst for Latino film and filmmakers, rather than a concurrent object of historical inquiry.

Even so, the assumption of Latino exclusion is by and large an accurate one, although — as a number of the articles in the last issue reveal — a few Latino filmmakers have been able to reach the "mainstream." In their careful delineation of the "subversive strategies" used in Latino narratives, scholars such as Kathleen Newman, Carmen Huaco-Nuzum, and Charles Ramírez Berg begin to suggest the political contours or "social space" of the industry itself. What is at stake is access to the "mainstream," defined here as those industries which produce and/or circulate the discourse of an "imagined community."

But while these scholars argue that the "mainstream" can he subverted by Latino filmmakers, they also acknowledge, in quite different ways, that the "mainstream" (in its industrial configuration and practices) also structures the discourse that it circulates. In other words, it is not just an issue of introducing new content into a value-free communications system, but of minorities entering into the exclusive social space that produces and sustains the "mainstream." In the former approach, one could ostensibly gain access by learning a "formula" or making an economic or demographic argument for more diverse programming. The assumption was that one could step directly from theory to practice, or, in Henri Lefebvre's terms, from "mental space" to "social space." The latter approach is political.

What these articles point to is a need to examine the social structure of racial exclusion (in its legal, political, and economic dimensions), rather than its quantitative fact. In the end, that structure may have more coherence, and may represent a more effective site of intervention, than an ideological analysis that limits itself to Hollywood narratives. But if that is so, how can scholarship which touches upon pressing social issues lead to effective change within the industry? In fact, should it even try? There is no easy answer, although it is an important question to ask along the way, so that the relationship between theory and practice is more direct, rather than one of cooptation into the processes of institutional racism.

The previous special section on "U.S. Latinos and the Media" (JUMP CUT 38) included overviews of alternative Latino cinemas and media groups, close readings of recent Chicano feature-length dramas that circulated within and subverted mainstream distribution channels, and a practitioner-oriented approach for Latino screenwriters who intend to work within the Hollywood paradigm. In this special section, the essays fall into three categories:


Several scholars provide alternative readings of "classical" Hollywood films, revealing the ways in which an identity politics has been constructed around these texts. Alberto Sandoval articulates a "Puerto Rican" reading of WEST SIDE STORY (1961) that has long circulated within the Puerto Rican community, a reading that stands in opposition to (and is obscured by) the film's ostensibly liberal notion of "America." Included, also, is a cluster of poems from Tine Villanueva's ust-published collection, Scene from the Movie GIANT, which traces the author's coining to consciousness to the film's penultimate scene.[2] in "Pato Donald's Gender Ducking," José Piedra explores the confusion of gender and sexual identity in the political discourse on Latin America, examining the Disney animated paean to the Good Neighbor Policy, THE THREE CABALLEROS (1945). In counterpoint to the above essays, Christopher Ortiz examines the problematic representation of "race" within the "other" Hollywood, the subculture or alternative industry of gay pornography.


Harry Gamboa, Jr., and Willie Varela discuss their recent work in the context of careers that began in the Chicano Movement of the early 1970s. Gamboa, a Los Angeles writer, conceptual artist and photographer, co-founded the Chicano art collective Asco (1972-1987), turning to video in the mid-1980s. I have reprinted the "No-Movie Interview" by Gamboa and Gronk, which reveals the centrality of the cinema and a "politics of representation" in Asco's performances and public art, as well as the individual works of Asco members (also, Patssi Valdez and Willie Heron). Willie Varela, a photographer and Super-8 filmmaker living in El Paso, situates his work within seemingly opposing movements: the auteur-orientation of New American Cinema and the social orientation of the Chicano Art Movement. Since 1992, Varela has also worked in High-8 video, producing his first narrative, A LOST MAN (1992), and an ongoing series called Border Witness Tapes. In her interview with video pioneer Edin Velez, Lillian Jimenez explores his complex body of work as it intersects with the video art world and efforts to define and support Latino media production. Finally, in "Pocha Manifesto #1," Sandra Peña-Sarmiento reclaims and redefines the Mexican derogation pocha as the socio-aesthetic principle for a new generation of Chicana filmmakers, artists and writers. Interestingly, at about the same time that Peña-Sarmiento started producing video art under the banner of Pocha Productions, Chicano Secret Service, a comedy group comprised of three recent UC-Berkeley graduates, began to self-publish Pocho Magazine, an irreverent send up of both Chicano and mainstream cultures. In 1993, the group conducted an elaborate media hoax, promoting a State of the Pocho (STOP) Summit hosted by the National Pochismo Institute (NPI). The announcement appeared in Hispanic Magazine, among other places.[3] In her manifesto, Peña-Sarmiento identifies the cultural and gender biases that operate within both the Chicano community and the national culture.


In the final essay, I reflect on my own experiences testifying before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. I provide a summary of my presentation, inflected with occasional hindsight, before considering the broader implications of the hearings and of the strategies available to the scholars and advocates who testified. This article is at best a provisional statement that embodies some of the contradictions I have encountered as my research leads me into the gap between theory and practice.


1. My contribution as guest editor was made possible through research support and faculty development grants from the following sources: Southwest Hispanic Research Institute, University of New Mexico; Department of Film and Television and Office of the Chancellor, University of California, Los Angeles; and the American Council of Learned Societies.

2. Tino Villanueva, Scene from the Movie GIANT (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1993).

3. For more information, contact Chicano Secret Service, P.O. Box 63052, Los Angeles, CA 90063.