Sexy Señoritas and other Imperial Fantasies: US Foreign Policy, Domestic Fictions, and the Latina Body

The most succulent item of all/The United Fruit Company Incorporated/reserved to itself . . . the delectable waist of America. (Pablo Neruda) [1]

The “delectable waist” of America is more than a geographical border between North and South: it functions as critical sign in the defining metaphors of nation, difference, and sexuality framing US foreign policy rhetoric and cultural politics. While Neruda imagines the “body” of America as the whole of North and South America, the very act of forging a national identity involves a dis/membering process – an often-violent project of differentiation and exclusion. As metonym for Latin America, the Latina[2] body has figured prominently in a variety of US cultural narratives and political allegories, often situated in ambivalent or adversarial relation to ideals of “white” femininity or American national identity. Yet despite the enduring presence of the “Latin woman” in the national imaginary, much of this cultural history remains segregated-separated by disciplinary boundaries or marginalized in ethnic or Latino/a film studies departments. In this essay, I situate Latinas in the midst of this history, suggesting the ways that the Latina body has been central in the articulation of North-South political relations and in the process, proposing a more complex and dialogical view of American popular culture generally and US film history specifically.

The Latina body has long been an ambivalent presence in the US cultural imaginary, alternately delighting, enticing, and instructing popular audiences. Deployed as sign of ethnic, gender, and class difference, Latina bodies have invoked a range of diverse and contradictory meanings.[3]  The ideological construction of “American identity” (and by extension, “American interests”) entails more than assimilation into the particulars of lifestyle or normative cultural values; it has historically involved the foregrounding of physical characteristics said to best represent “Americanness” and register moral and intellectual fitness. In this sense, the Latina body has functioned as sign of cultural and sexual difference in articulations of “American” identity since the early 19th century, when a mass reading and viewing public began to constitute a dominant social body in the US. The fledgling empire had given rise to an increasingly urban, working and middle-class, industrialized society. Mass audiences, most of them immigrants, looked to popular entertainments such as “story-papers” and sensational adventure novels to give shape to their collective aspirations. Doing so required differentiation – an “Other” to provide, in Judith Butler’s words, “the necessary ‘outside’… for the bodies which, in materializing the norm, qualify as bodies that matter” (16). Narratives of race and gender served as crucial vehicles in this process, for as Amy Kaplan argues, mid-19th century “narratives of domesticity and female subjectivity” were “inseparable from narratives of empire and nation-building” (583). The Latina body’s racially marked sexuality represented a threat to the “American” social body, a foreign other against whom the ideals of the domestic self, particularly its narratives of white femininity and moral virtue, could be defined. At the same time, the Latina body provided a titillating alter/native: a transgressive sexuality that made her eroticized exoticism an object of desire.

The US’s continental expansion brought Latin America and especially Mexico into popular discourses by the early 1800s. While the grand narrative of Anglo-Saxon Manifest Destiny served to justify the acquisition of land, it also complicated myths of racial and national purity. Reginald Horsman has convincingly shown that most isolationists and anti-imperialists in the 19th century believed that territorial expansion threatened to contaminate the national body by incorporating inferior races. Popular and political narratives registered and accommodated this tension: both those who favored and those who opposed annexation of Mexico employed erotically charged, gendered rhetoric to defend their positions. Mexico figured in such debates – and in the corresponding sensational novels of the period – as a desirable, potentially assimilable cultural and geographical terrain or as a racial and moral threat to the “American” body politic. Shelley Streeby has demonstrated that the US-Mexican War (1846-48) evoked gendered tropes of Anglo masculinity, with Mexico-as-woman figuring in debates about immigration, territorial expansion, and nationhood. Relations between the US and Mexico, Streeby asserts, were “often imagined as relations between male and female. In a wide range of discourses, US national strength was metaphorically aligned with manhood, and Mexico was figured as a woman” (84). As a result, questions about what kind of woman Mexico was, “about whether ‘she’ was an appropriate romantic partner for the United States, were inseparable from debates about the boundaries of race and the significance of empire for the white republic” (84). The US’s continental expansion was also imagined through imperial romances in which a definitively “whitened” version of the Latina body appeared as a desired object and potential marriage partner; of course, the authors of these tales repeatedly asserted the heroine’s “Castilian” lineage and “aristocratic” beauty.

Just as the US-Mexican War figured prominently in the mass-produced imperial romance novels and adventure tales of the 19th century, it popularized and engendered concepts of race and nation that would serve as the defining metaphors of 20th century US foreign policy and its concomitant cultural forms. Much of the silent film era’s mediation of Latin American identity reflected the political climate of the period, most particularly the residual hostilities resulting from territorial disputes and clashes with Mexico. While Latin America eyed the rising military and economic power to the North with increasing suspicion, the US flexed its muscles and posed an increasingly powerful challenge to Latin American sovereignty. As Ella Shohat has argued, Hollywood’s rise coincided with the height of imperialism. Mainstream cinema served to disseminate cultural myths and thus “operated as an epistemological mediator between two spaces – that of the Western spectator and that of the culture represented on the screen” (42). In Shohat’s view, the history of dominant Western popular culture representations comprises a series of ethnocentric articulations of power and “forms part of the same Eurocentric discursive continuum that includes such disciplines as geography, historiography, anthropology, archeology and philosophy” (41).

Early 20th century mediations of the Latina body appeared most frequently in film Westerns. As the pretty señorita anxious to give herself (and her territory) to the Anglo male or as the hyper-sexed and treacherous foil to the virtuous Anglo heroine, the Latina body figured in gendered and racialized tropes of nation and empire-building. Similarly, the dark-skinned Latin male persona emerged as the stock film villain. These convenient villains, to use Blaine Lamb’s term, were usually Mexicans portrayed generally as “greasers” in a slew of films with titles such as Tony the Greaser (1911), Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914), The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908), The Greaser’s Revenge (1914), The Girl and the Greaser (1915), and Guns and Greasers (1918).[4] Posed against the tall, handsome Anglo cowboy, the “greaser’s” body – undisciplined, unkempt, and racially marked – signaled his moral depravity and legitimated past and future conquests in love and war.

The series of border and resource disputes that characterized US-Mexico relations throughout the 19th century made their way into popular film narratives. Allen Woll’s seminal work in the early history of Latino/a film depictions has argued that films such as Let Katie Do It (1915) and Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) “justify what could otherwise be viewed as American theft of Mexican soil” (215). Woll points out that in both films Mexicans are so rapacious and Americans so much the “embodiment of the bourgeois American values of family and property, that historically determined territorial conflicts are displaced onto very simplistic moral grounds: the fight for territory becomes the defense of family against the fiendish lust of the Mexicans” (216). As ideological apparatus, the stereotype not only denigrates the Other, but also reinforces the virtues of self and imagined community – positing a coherent national identity despite the accompanying ideological contradictions. Woll argues that in films such as The Americano (1916), Yankees are called upon to “save” inept Latin American governments from themselves, with the hero Douglas Fairbanks as the “imperialist par excellence” who assumes the burden of handling Latins possessing “little or no control over the affairs of their own political system” (27). Other early examples of this narrative in which Latin American nations need conquering Anglo males to set them straight or save the day include Conspirators (1909), Soldier of Fortune (1914), Yankee Girl(1915), Yankee Doodle Jr. (1922), Hot Paprika (1936), and Torrid Zone (1940). As Alfred Charles Richard argues, the overwhelming frequency of films featuring Anglo superiority over his neighbors south of the border fostered a “national consciousness that expected to win, to be in charge, to control those shown to be inferiors” (Hispanic Image xxxiii).[5]

The Mexican Revolution, which had broken out in November of 1910, contributed fresh fodder to the grand narrative of Anglo manliness and Mexican cowardice. Richard claims that the Mexican revolution actually fueled the growth of the early motion picture industry, providing a stock of villains and a colorful political landscape. Richard’s comprehensive filmography, which comprises over 1800 films produced between 1898 and 1935, supports his assertion that “the convenience of an enemy so easily found just across the border aided the rapid growth and development of the film industry” (1898-1935: xxiv). Between 1914 and 1916, Mexico was the subject of over three hundred films; of the total seven hundred and fifty films produced between 1910 and 1919 that Richard surveys, about 55% focused on Mexico. Moreover, from 1911 to 1920 over half of each year’s production featured Mexico or Mexicans as primary themes (xxv). US interventions in Mexico in 1914 and 1916, Richard contends, provided “the public with pictures of a land filled with lawless bandits and dirty treacherous greasers” (xxv). Films such as The Mexican HatredA Mexican Spy in AmericaAt Mexico’s Mercy, Arms and the Gringo, and Captured by Mexicans, all produced in 1914, offer a sampling of this rendering.

Led by rebel commanders such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, the revolution initially toppled the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and installed Francisco Madero as President. Diaz had been so amenable to foreign investors that during his presidency most “Mexican industry and much of her land had passed into foreign hands” (Brownlow 90). American investment alone constituted 40% of Mexico’s total foreign investment, with William Randolph Hearst owning property in Mexico amounting to about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Yet in 1911, A Prisoner of Mexico romanticized the revolution and depicted Madero as a hero – despite the fact that then President Taft supported Madero’s opponent, Victoriano Huerta. But by 1913, the tide had turned: Woodrow Wilson had been elected president, Madero had been murdered and Huerta had proclaimed himself president of the republic. Wilson withdrew Washington’s support and Hollywood followed suit: Richard notes that between 1912 and 1914, approximately 250 features focused on Mexico, with 245 offering unfavorable depictions of Mexicans as sinister and lecherous (1898-1935: XXV).

Kevin Brownlow sheds light on other events that figured into filmic projections and public attitudes toward Mexicans generally and Villa specifically. Villa’s men had raided Hearst’s ranch and stolen 60,000 head of cattle, which were reportedly distributed among the peons. Hearst used his considerable clout by instructing his newspaper editors to “launch a full-scale attack” representing Mexico as a “potential enemy of the United States and urging the government to send in troops to restore order” (90). By 1914, Hearst had begun extending his news empire into motion picture theaters, releasing his first Hearst-Selig News Pictorial with a decidedly anti-Villa message. In 1916, he financed an incendiary serial, Patria, which depicted an allied Mexico and Japan invading the United States.[6] At the same time that the Hearst newsreels played in theaters across the nation, Mexican politics and Hollywood cinema would forge intimate ties through Villa himself, who in 1914 agreed to allow the Mutual Film Corporation to film his battles and executions for a fifty-fifty share of film profits. This extraordinary contract between revolution and entertainment stipulated that if actual battles produced no satisfactory footage, Villa would “stage one especially for the cameras” (92). The practice of staging events and presenting them as “documentary” newsreels was not uncommon, and in fact, was a crucial component in Hollywood’s role as propaganda machine. For example, Hearst cameraman Tracy Mathewson had admitted that despite three years in pursuit of “action” across the border he had never captured a battle scene. Yet in the March 1917 issue of Photoplay an article carrying Mathewson’s byline recounted his courageous filming of a punitive expedition led against the Mexicans by General Pershing. The article paints a compelling picture of Yankee courage under fire: “‘Action!’ I cried. . . . ‘Give ’em hell, boys. Wipe out the blinkety blank dashed greasers!'” (qtd. in Brownlow 101). Such vivid accounts and dramatizations could garner popular support for a variety of national and foreign policy initiatives.

Mediations of Latina sexuality served these filmed renditions of “regenerative violence”: while the Hispanic male functioned as inept and villainous scoundrel in these films, Richard points out that the “hot-blooded, fiery Hispanic whore” was invariably “easy with her favors, especially for blond hair and blue eyes” (Contemporary xv). Thus images of Latino villainy continued to endorse and justify white male privilege, while the comely but immoral Latina bolstered his desirable masculinity. During these pre-WWII years, the “hot Latina body” pined endlessly for the Anglo male, reinforcing his dominance and paving the way for his sexual and imperial conquests.[7] In Captain Alvarez (1914), Myrtle Gonzalez plays a rebel heroine who falls for the Anglo “savior” of Argentina. Dolores del Rio turned down a part in The Broken Wing because the role was denigrating to Mexican identity, as it depicted a “cantina girl” who cheats on her “Mexican bandit” boyfriend for an American pilot.[8] The 1930 film, A Devil with Women, is set in a mythical South American country where the señoritas are wild for the Anglo lead (played by Victor Mclaglen) and the Hispanic males are generally stupid or incompetent. A further sampling of this formula includes Fighting Bob (1909), A Cowboy’s Generosity (1910), The Struggle for Life (1911), Chiquita, the Dancer (1912), The Sword of Valor (1924), and Driftin’ Sam (1928). In all cases, the Latina body is a metonym for a feminized Latin America so desirous of the great North American’s superior attributes that she surrenders her bounty in the hope of earning his favor.

Ironically, during the ’20s and early ’30s, Hispanic males found themselves temporarily riding Valentino’s “Latin Lover” wave, though his exoticism and excess libido relegated him to the realm of sexual fantasy.[9] In retrospect, as erotic object, the “Latin Lover” phenomenon represents a kind of kinky fling in the popular imaginary, one that could not pose an enduring threat to the “real” subject – the Anglo male. Thus the Latin Lover’s cinematic appeal was short-lived; his novelty as sexual object wore off, while he retained his role as convenient villain. The fiery Latina body, however, remained consistent throughout the period, providing, in Arthur Pettit’s words, “as much sexual titillation as current censorship standards” permitted (61). As signifier, her erotic sexuality served to affirm the desirability of the Anglo male and by extension, his national superiority; it also served as moral foil to her more principled feminine counterpart, the wholesome “all-American gal.” Coincidentally, the “slimy Mexican” male persona, presented in various guises and national configurations, would consistently prevail whenever the nation needed to define its borders or identify its enemies.[10]

Positioned within discourses of nation, “American” identity is intimately connected to collective imaginings of racialized, gendered star bodies. Whereas concepts of identity are intangible and elusive, stars are significant for their ability to make such metaphysical notions into “a visible show.” It is this “visualizing of identity” Richard Dyers notes, “which makes the bodies of stars and the actions performed by those bodies into such a key element of a star’s meaning” (40). With the onset of World War II, the Latina star body would help to romanticize the US’s relationship with Latin America, turning what had been a dysfunctional male-female relationship at its best and a hostile one at worst into a love affair between compatible partners.[11] After all, Roosevelt’s Pan-American Day speech in April of 1933 had “repudiated the ‘erroneous interpretations’ of the Monroe Doctrine that justified U.S. intervention, and extolled ‘the principle of consultation’ and the ‘promotion of commerce’ as the bases for improved hemispheric relations” (Roorda 88). Perhaps, as historian Clayton Koppes remarks, “‘The Good Neighbor’ policy was United States hemispheric hegemony pursued by other means” (80). In any case the primary embodiment of this now apolitical, carefree South America was Carmen Miranda, the “Brazilian Bombshell” in exaggerated headdresses and platform shoes. Familiar to American audiences as the generic “South American girl,” Miranda’s bared midriff and gyrating hips would provide Americans with frivolous, samba-dancing images of an undifferentiated landmass somewhere South of the border. Critics actually referred to Miranda’s exposed midriff as the “torrid zone,” conflating Miranda’s body with Latin America, “equating her ‘equator’ with that of the planet’s, the ‘torrid zone’ of South America” (Roberts 11). The titles of Miranda’s first three U.S. films between 1940-41, attest to her role as all-South American girl: Down Argentine Way, That Night in Rio, and Week-end in Havana. Miranda’s ethnic star body served as a synecdoche for Latin America; her banana-laden headpieces in The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat enact the “agricultural reductionism” of Latin America but also function as “phallic symbols, here raised by ‘voluptuous’ Latinas over circular, quasi-vaginal forms” (Shohat 236). [12]

Coincidentally, at the height of Miranda’s US popularity, the largest grower and marketer of bananas, United Fruit Company, created the half-banana, half-woman cartoon character, Chiquita Banana. Modeled on Miranda’s lavish reinterpretation of the Brazilian market woman, this feminized banana served as the “friendly face” of the company seen by American housewives. Cynthia Enloe suggests that Miranda’s movies helped to make “Latin America safe for American banana companies at a time when American imperialism was coming under wider regional criticism” (124). Between 1880 and 1930, the US had colonized or invaded Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Nicaragua, each valuable for plantation crops. Unlike Hollywood’s Latin American male, “Miranda personified a culture full of zest and charm, unclouded by intense emotion or political ambivalence” (127). This feminized Latin America, with its subjunctive status and compromised sovereignty, is reflected in the notion of “banana republics.” Despite United Fruit Company’s use of the Chiquita cartoon as cheerful façade, however, the company had been involved in numerous labor disputes with its Latin American workers since 1918.[13] During the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, United Fruit exercised its powerful control over the leaders of the republics in which it operated. As historian Stephen Schlesinger has demonstrated (1999), the United Fruit Company became a “swaggering behemoth” by applying a range of strong-arm tactics including bribery, fraud, extortion, and tax evasion.

As the Brazilian Bombshell played out her brief role in this international drama, the Good Neighbor policy also conveniently served as justification for friendly relations with Rafael Trujillo, the military dictator trained by U.S. marines during U.S. occupation of the country. The iron-fisted “Generalissimo Trujillo” ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his (CIA-backed) assassination in 1961.[14] While the former initiative in the region, the Monroe Doctrine, had justified US occupation and “the exercise of an international police power” on the island nation in 1904 and between 1916 and 1924[15] (anti-communist fears would again send 23,000 US troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965), the mood in Washington favored non-intervention. Thus a highly complimentary biography would introduce Trujillo to the American people in 1936. The book, written by Lawrence de Besault and published in Washington, DC by the Washington Publishing Co, teemed with obsequious testimonials from American and European businessmen. Ironically, the dedication read, “to all those that love liberty, order, peace, progress and work.” [16] Even more ironic is De Besault’s endorsement of Trujillo as a worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, presumably for settling “border disputes” with Haiti. The year after the book was published, the Trujillo regime’s “Operation Perejil” was responsible for the genocide of between 10,000 and 15,000 Haitians. [17]

Nevertheless, Hollywood played its part in this cozy political romance through the lovely film actress Maria Montez, another pretty face on the geopolitical stage. In 1943, Montez was awarded the Order of Trujillo from the dictator’s daughter at a lavish ceremony in New York for “her efforts toward promoting friendly relations” between the United States and her native land, the Dominican Republic. The official press release cited Montez’s role in advancing friendly relations between the two nations; no doubt Montez’s sophisticated demeanor and (fair-skinned) beauty, as Roorda suggests, “directed public attention at home away from those neighbors ruling with the iron fists and toward those dancing with the fruit hats” (29). Miranda and Montez clearly “presented a more attractive side of their home nations to theatergoers on the home front than did the authoritarian leaders of those states” (29).

Maria Africa Vidal de Santo Silas was the ideal embodiment of Dominican cultural identity for both US audiences and Dominican elites of her day. Trujillo’s regime sought to “whiten” its Dominican constituency and to preserve its “racial superiority” over its Haitian neighbors.[18] Maria Montez possessed an erotically charged air of sophistication that delighted and scintillated audiences without offending racist sensibilities. The daughter of a Spanish diplomat, Montez exuded a mysterious otherness that allowed movie studios to cast her in romantic roles opposite “white” male leads. After all, the North American Production Code of the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America, which oversaw film content from the 1930s until its official end in 1966, explicitly forbade “miscegenation.” [19] After co-starring with Montez in Mystery of Marie Roget (1942), Nell O’Day recalled Montez “was very unpopular with all of the hair dressers, the wardrobe people, and anyone else she considered to be in the ‘servant class.'” Perhaps by way of explanation (or justification) O’Day added that Montez “really was charming with the people that she thought were her equals. It probably took her a while to understand that the people in the working crews of film-making were not servants.” [20] Montez built a movie career playing a series of all-purpose exotics in escapist adventures – Arabian seductress, Polynesian Princess, Gypsy siren. She bore a series of catchy names such as the “Dominican Dynamite,” “Caribbean Cyclone,” “Tempestuous Montez,” and while critics panned her acting abilities, audiences flocked to see her often scantily clad body in a variety of endangered predicaments. [21]

The Latina body would generally fade into the background during the years following World War II, mostly as housemaids (invariably named Maria) or cantina girls.[22] Then in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, himself a former Hollywood actor, would again blur the boundaries between Hollywood film fantasies and national politics, seasoning his political speeches with one-liners from popular films; one of his favorite lines, “Go ahead, make my day,” came from a Clint Eastwood movie, a Hollywood actor who also once served a term as mayor of Carmel, California. Reagan’s self-proclaimed aim in his Hollywood career was to employ cinema as a political platform, and he called Hollywood a “grand world-wide propaganda base.” [23] He was adept at exploiting Hollywood’s provocative myths, for example, capitalizing on the popularity of the Lucas trilogy not only in naming and promoting his Star Wars missile defense system but also in demonizing the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” Similarly, Reagan’s policies and rhetoric would bring Latin American themes back to celluloid.

Michael Rogin argues that the Reagan presidency marks a “convergence in American political demonology between political discourse and personal symbols, between private and public history” (xvii). In Rogin’s view, the “inflation, stigmatization, and dehumanization of political foes” is at the center of American politics (xiii). These demonizing processes conflate discrete individuals or groups into a single, menacing body with ideological, cultural, or other differences assuming epic proportions. Rogin describes a specifically American variant of political demonology that takes its shape from “the expansionist character of our history; and the definition of American identity against racial, ethnic, and gender aliens” (xiv). This mapping of geographical and cultural borders – physical and symbolic markers of identity – gives shape and meaning to both political discourse and mass entertainment forms. As Rogin points out, “Throughout American history the subversive has threatened the family, property, and personal and national identity” (68). These monstrous threats may reside within our borders – as Indian savages or black rapists – or just beyond – as communist guerrillas or drug kingpins. In any case, they provide compelling themes for political campaigns and movie plots alike, registering and exploiting collective anxieties and expressing, in Rogin’s words, “the buried dynamics of a repressive political consciousness” (238).

During his presidency, Reagan strove to embody presumably “American” social values, drawing on a wealth of cultural narratives as a means of legitimating his political objectives. At the same time, Hollywood films offered a vehicle for selling the US government’s Central America policy to its constituency.[24] From a foreign policy perspective, the Reagan era stands in stark contrast to FDR’s. Rather than shunning intervention, Reagan’s administration engaged in continuous covert and overt activities in the various revolutions ravaging Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Hollywood, for its part, provided a slew of films that overturned the notion of South Americans as happy and carefree and replaced it with images of corrupt governments and murderous rebels. Latinas were noticeably absent from a majority of these films, except as occasional gun-slinging guerrilleras or sex pot consorts for ruthless drug dealers and dictators. While Hollywood attempted a few films critical of US foreign policy in Latin America during the Reagan years, such as Under Fire (1983), Salvador (1986) or Romero (1989), these featured prominent Anglo male and female leads (with the exception of Raul Julia’s masterful Romero), reaffirming once again the ineffectiveness of Latin others in matters of self-governance or social order.

The notion of a distinctly “American” culture is tied to the hierarchies of its national mythology – organizing, informing, and challenging its various political undercurrents. In metonymic relation to Latin America, the Latina body has figured as a kind of negotiable currency, its exchange value fluctuating according to market and political conditions. In the current climate of post-NAFTA economic policy, US culture is again redefining itself in the context of territorial expansion – now admitting Mexico and other Latin American nations into a hemispheric “free trade” zone where transactions and goods can flow unencumbered across national borders. Once again, expansion and trade raise questions about the extent to which the US national body will be “invaded” by such cultural and political exchange, especially given that Mexico has used NAFTA as a bargaining chip in renegotiating immigration policy with the US. Once again, there arises a tension between, on the one hand, a desire on the part of US multinationals to incorporate (and domesticate) Latin America into the US global economic order, and on the other, the fear that the social body will be corrupted or violated by “their” drugs and vices.[25]

But in today’s transnational media markets, the Latina body’s ambivalent signifying role is syncopated to the rhythms of market forces. US Latino/as are a marketable, profitable target audience, dishing out over $500 million at the box office and wielding an overall spending power of $400 billion a year; among US minorities, Latino moviegoers outnumber non-Hispanic blacks and represent the fastest growing admissions group in the US.[26] Given the fresh incentives generated by a global US economy and its increasing interdependency, Hispanic-themed media have emerged as a vehicle for shaping images of and for Latino/as, and for conveying normative ideals of cultural citizenship and “belonging” (Davila). An iconic Latina femininity, reconfigured to meet the demands of the marketplace, advertises products and lifestyles identified with US consumer society at home and abroad, serving as enticing emblems of equal access and transcultural consumer pleasures. Latina star bodies participate in these broader socioeconomic processes. Interracial romances, such as Maid in Manhattan (2002) or Fools Rush In (1997) help assuage racial and class anxieties by reflecting a reassuring vision of national unity and harmony. The commercial success of US Latina film directors such as Patricia Cardoso or actresses-turned-producers like Salma Hayek is also expanding the kinds of film roles available to US Latina actresses. Latina-centered films, however, still do not have the wide distribution networks needed to reach mass audiences; many remain accessible primarily in cosmopolitan areas with “art house” theaters or to students in large urban universities with Latino/a or film studies programs. Yet the usual repertoire of spitfires, bombshells, cantina girls, and drug molls is undergoing revision. A crop of so-called “crossover” Latina stars – many born and raised in the US – now mediate a “new” and decidedly multicultural America.


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[1]  In 1950, Chilean Nobel-awarded poet Pablo Neruda published a mock epic poem about the history of Latin America with a chapter entitled “The United Fruit Company.” My epigraph is excerpted from the poem’s opening lines: “Jehovah divided his universe:/ Anaconda, Ford Motors/ Coca-Cola Inc and similar entities/the most succulent item of all/ The United Fruit Company Incorporated/reserved to itself: the heartland and coasts of my country/the delectable waist of America./They rechristened their properties:/the “Banana Republics.”
[2] My practical application of the term “Latina” in this essay refers generally to US inhabitants, both native and foreign-born, of Latin American and Hispanic Caribbean descent. Despite the homogeneity implied by such labels, however, “Latinos” in the US remain a diverse people whose histories, language usage, and circumstances may differ significantly and who may not speak Spanish or share other identifying criteria. I here “invoke the category,” to use Butler’s words, “as a site of permanent political contest” (222).
[3] Extended analyses of this film and media history include Rodriguez-Estrada (1997); Rios-Bustamente (1992); Valdivia (2000); Lopez (1991); Noriega (1992); Beltran (2002); and Mendible (2007).
[4] See Carlos E. Cortez, “Chicanos in Film” in Rodriguez (1997) for further examples and analysis of this history.
[5] Latin American governments recognized the political implications of such persistently negative depictions. In 1919 the Mexican government formally protested, then in 1922 banned US films portraying Mexicans unfavorably. By 1936, Spain, Panama, Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Argentina and Chile had each protested or prohibited the showing of various US movies.
[6] Brownlow contends that the Wilson administration was outraged by the negative portrayal of the Japanese in particular, as Japan had become an important ally in a united effort against Germany. The film’s producers ended up using title cards to identify all the characters, regardless of their uniforms, as Mexicans.
[7] Actresses Beatriz Michelena and Myrtle Gonzalez were among the first Latina “leading ladies” of the silent screen. Gonzalez, a native Mexican Californian, made her film debut in Ghosts in 1911, receiving star billing in more than 40 films until her early death in 1918 of influenza. Michelena’s first film, Salomy Jane, was produced by California Motion Picture Corporation in 1908. See Geoffrey Bell, The Golden Gate and the Silent Screen: San Francisco in the History of the Cinema, NY, Cornwall Books, 1984: 67-98.
[8] Fidel Murillo, “Dolores del Rio se ha negado a filmar una cinta denigrante.” La Opinion (24 May 1931).
[9] Interestingly, Carlos E. Cortes points out that most “Latin Lovers” were actually Italian or Spanish actors. Ramon Novarro, “the archetype Latin lover, rarely played a Latin American” (128). See Cortes in Rodriguez (1997).
[10] For a discussion of the revival of this persona in the 1980s and ’90s, see Alfred Charles Richard’s Introduction to Contemporary Hollywood’s Negative Hispanic Image, 1995.
[11] While Hollywood was called upon to serve as “goodwill ambassador” to Latin America, a Senate subcommittee in 1941 had investigated Hollywood’s allegedly pro-interventionist film propaganda. Testifying before the committee, Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota claimed that in the movie capital “one speaks not of the foreign policy of the United States but of the foreign policy of Hollywood” (qtd. in Lorence). For the full record, see US Congress, Senate, Committee on Interstate Commerce, Hearings, Propaganda in Motion Pictures, 77th Congress, 1st Session, 1941.
[12]  For a fascinating documentary on Carmen Miranda, see Helena Solberg’s Bananas is My Business, 1995.
[13] In 1928 Colombian banana plantation workers led an unsuccessful strike against United Fruit Company demanding a six-day workweek and 8-hour days. The army responded by firing into the crowd of demonstrators, declaring a state of siege, and ending the strike. This event is referred to as the “Bananera massacre of 1928.” In 1998 the Cincinnati Enquirer published a series by veteran investigative reporter Michael Gallagher documenting the company’s brutal business practices in Central America. A company informant had provided Gallagher access to the company’s internal voice-mail archives. Chiquita sued the Cincinnati Enquirer, which then fired Gallagher and paid Chiquita $10 million to settle the case. The history of the United Fruit Company also includes (often violent) labor unrest in Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica. For a discussion of United Fruit’s use of harmful biocidal agrochemicals in Central America, see Marquardt, 2002. For a description of working conditions in a Latin American banana plantation, see Smith, 2002.
[14]  See Diederich, 2000.
[15] Theodore Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904, in Congressional Record, 58thCongress, 3rd session XXXIX, 19.
[16] A sampling of the author’s near epic description of Trujillo’s heroism is worth quoting here:
“This book tells a story that is not only interesting, but amazing. It is . . . the story of one of the world’s strongest personalities . . . . How a demoralized nation, after centuries of bitter oppression, followed by eighty-six years of civil strife, revolution, bloodshed and poverty, leaving its citizens bitter, hungry and disillusioned, could in the space of five years be welded into an organized, disciplined, working, patriotic, united and enthusiastic body of men, women and children, is a miracle – a miracle that has occurred. It is well worth knowing the man who accomplished that miracle” (Foreward).
[17] For an analysis of the trope of “primitivism” in relation to Dominican national identity and the massacre of Haitians, see Valerio-Holguin.
[18]  See Derby, 1994.
[19] For the code’s full text, see Stanley and Steinberg, 1976.
[20]  O’Day, in personal correspondence with Stephen Potter. Potter met O’Day at a film festival in Charlotte, NC in 1981 and they corresponded for about four years. I wish to thank Mr. Potter for sharing this information with me and for graciously granting me permission to cite the quote. See “Nell O’Day,” online
[21] Like Carmen Miranda, Montez would endure as a favorite of camp and drag performance artists. Avant-garde filmmaker Jack Smith paid homage to her in an essay published in Film Comment in 1962, “The Perfect Film Appositeness of Maria Montez”: “Her eye,” he wrote, “saw not just beauty but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty…one of her atrocious acting sighs suffused a thousand tons of dead plaster with imaginative life and truth.”
[22] A notable exception is the beautiful Katy Jurado, who brought dignity to her numerous roles in Hollywood westerns during this period, despite her differential status as the “other” woman in films such as High Noon(1952) or Arrowhead (1953). Ironically, the popularity of television westerns in the 1950s would actually provide Latino/as with three times the number of roles available to them today. See Missing in Action: Latinos in and out of Hollywood. Report commissioned by Screen Actors Guild, The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 1999.
[23] Quotations, Springfield Leader and Press, June 7, 1952, p 3 and Springfield News Leader June 8, 1952, B4.
[24] See Stephen Prince (1992); Michael Paul Rogin (1987); Robin Wood (1986).
[25] The US Congress recently passed the Secure Fence Act, which authorizes construction of a 700-mile wall along the US-Mexico border at an estimated cost of $6 billion.
[26] See “Loco for Hollywood” in Hispanic  
11.6 (June 1998): 16.

Created on: Friday, 1 December 2006 | Last Updated: 8-Dec-06

About the Author

Myra Mendible

About the Author

Myra Mendible

Myra Mendible joined Florida Gulf Coast University as founding faculty in 1994, serving as co-founder of the English program and then as English Program Leader between 1998 and 2000. Dr. Mendible’s scholarship and teaching engage a range of theoretical, disciplinary, and cultural perspectives, with primary interests in media culture, ethnicity and gender, and the politics of emotion.View all posts by Myra Mendible →