Thursday, July 6, 2000
Flamboyant hats topped with tropical fruit, seductive smiles and "come hither" eyes marked the early years of the "dark ladies of Hollywood." One of the first and best-loved was Lupe Velez, who danced her way into fiery roles in American film, closing her career with the Mexican Spitfire series before a tragic death at age 36.
While Latino actors faced limited roles as gangsters, buffoons, bandidos and caballeros, Latina actresses were defined even more narrowly on screen as seductresses who often lost their men to elegant white women, and occasionally as maids and downtrodden characters.
Beauties like Dolores del Rio and María Montez swung their hips and melted men with their accented English in Latina roles from the 1920s to the ''50s, while actresses Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch anglicized their names in an effort to reposition themselves in Hollywood. Westerns dominated the film industry with images of Mexicans and Indians as thorns in the sides of white heroes, and in countless films--like the famous High Noon--Hollywood''s Latin ladies found themselves on the arms of gun-toting Anglos.
The advent of the Great Depression gave rise to "social problem" films that depicted Latinas generally as helpless mothers and widows, while exploring root causes of poverty in powerful movies such as Salt of the Earth (1954). Latina roles expanded in the following decades to include historical and cultural films focusing on civil strife abroad and American gangs, such as 1994''s profile of gang girls in L.A., Mi Vida Loca.
As Latinos began to penetrate the production world in the 1960s, a genre of independent films that more truly represented Hispanic communities in the U.S. emerged from Hollywood. Among the better known of this genre are Jesus Trevinoís'' Yo Soy Chicano (1972), a chronicle of the Chicano movement and Rick Tejada-Flores'' Si Se Puede (1973), a record of Cesar Chavez''s historic activism. These films--many of them documentaries--emphasized the political dimensions of the Latino experience while employing all-Latino casts and incorporating bilingual messages designed for Latino audiences.
Remarkably, although Latinos today make up an estimated 11.5 percent of the nation''s population, they occupy only 2 percent of film industry jobs, according to a recent study by the Screen Actors Guild. Over the past 15 years, Hollywood has produced an average of only one Latino film a year. And while the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek and Elizabeth Pena have drawn national attention, only a handful of Latina roles, including Pena in Lone Star and Lopez in Mi Familia, have stepped out of the fiery bombshell image.
From this history of typecasting, stereotype and prejudice rose Luminarias, written by Evelina Fernandez and distributed by Sand City''s New Latin Pictures. Set in modern day East Los Angeles, Luminarias chronicles the lives of four wealthy Latina women who are successful at work but lonely in love. First produced as a play with the Latino Theatre Company in L.A., the film Luminarias, which was released in May, used a budget of under $1 million to address themes of identity, prejudice, sexuality and assimilation.
Co-founded in 1993 by Kit Parker and Lawrence Martin, New Latin Pictures strives to distribute films for Latino audiences that recognize multifaceted roles of Latinos in American society. New Latin''s debut in distribution was Nueba Yol (slang for New York in the Dominican Republic), a 1996 film tackling issues of immigration, crime and urban disappointment that grossed $1.4 million.
"The American Latino population has come of age, and they want an expressive voice for the American Latino experience," says Martin, whose family has been in the business of Latino film for three generations. The mission of New Latin Films is to speak to the growing Latino audience and its desires by achieving the delicate balance of communicating an experience without imposing a viewpoint.
According to Martin, New Latin picked up Luminarias because it depicts Latina women in new roles that accurately portray the increasing population of professionals and two-income Latino families. Luminarias has exceeded New Latin Pictures'' expectations in the box office, doing what Martin calls "very respectable business."
Luminarias, he says, is a groundbreaker for Latinas on the big screen. "It''s the first film of its kind," he explains, "and in that respect it''s an absolute hit." New Latin has since taken on four movies in the pre-production phase, the first of which should hit the screen next spring.
Kit Parker, president of New Latin Pictures, says that distributing a movie with an all-Latino cast is a tall order. New Latin''s track record in distribution, which encompasses negotiation with specific theaters, sending films, posters and trailers, and general marketing, puts the company in good standing. "Luminarias is successful in that it got into many of the best theaters in the Bay Area and L.A.," Parker says. "It''s not an easy sell but we''ve been doing this for years now."
Cal State Monterey Bay professor of film Caitlin Manning hails Luminarias for countering the passive and one-dimensional stereotypes of Latinas in film in what she calls "very revolutionary ways." "The movie celebrates sensuality and that ''laugh in the face of death'' humor that is so Mexican-Chicano," Manning says.
The characterization of middle-aged professional women opens the way to address lesser known aspects of Hispanic culture, including attitudes toward sex and sensuality. Manning, who was raised in Mexico, says there is "less age-ism in Latino cultures. The lead character in Luminarias [Andrea, played by Evelina Fernandez] is over 40 and very sexy. It''s assumed as just part of who she is, it doesn''t stand out."
Out to compensate for decades of narrow portrayals and negative stereotyping, Luminarias may at times overdo it. Some film critics have pointed to less than stellar acting performances and an overly ambitious host of social issues. While its focus on professional women is indeed refreshing, says Manning, the film offers little acknowledgment of economic problems within L.A.''s Mexican American community. She also points to what she terms "reverse sexism" and bouts of uneven acting.
But overall, Manning believes Luminarias is true to the culture it portrays and marks an important break from the past. "I haven''t seen anything like this that really breaks down stereotypes," she says. "Let''s hope it will have a real impact. If it does, then the portrayals can get more complex."
But while the last 20 years have produced a handful of movies that accurately address issues facing the Latino community--among them La Bamba, El Norte and Stand and Deliver--Martin says Latino representation in film still lags behind the ethnic group''s contributions to society. Pointing to Latino political figures like California''s Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante and Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero, Martin says that "Latino film will define a generation of people coming of age, but it''s still in the definition process."