How Hollywood has stereotyped Latin America as the land of salsa, drugs, poverty
Richard Peña, former director of the New York Film Festival, on how, Hollywood has misappropriated Latin American culture for decades now
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) was a superficial sequel to the cult classic original film. There was virtually no difference in the story lines — a young girl meets a boy, and goes on a journey of self- discovery and sexual awakening, through dance. Havana Nights followed the same premise, except, this time, instead of it being set in 1960s America, it was set just before the Cuban Revolution, in 1958. Fidel Castro was rallying his assault on the corrupt Fulgencio Batista regime. And amidst the political unrest, a young girl meets and falls in love with a Latin boy. They meet in secret to dance and indulge in sexualised salsa dancing at local clubs.
Funnily enough, all Cubans know how to salsa. Oh, and they use it as an expression of freedom.
This is Latin American culture as Hollywood sees it. And the cultural appropriation doesn’t stop at salsa dancing. Latin America has time and again been depicted by Hollywood as corrupt and unstable. The entire continent, including Mexico — which is geographically not included in the region — has famously been the ‘other America’ — the different, not-as-good America. Even in Havana Nights, the male protagonist, in the beginning of the film, aspires to move to the US in search of ‘a better life’.
Stereotypes attached to the people of Latin America are popularly those related to anarchy of thought — those of comfort and familiarisation with violent environments. Gloria Pritchett (Sofía Vergara) from Modern Family, for instance, speaks casually of murders in her village, and how women in her family aren’t averse to killing their husbands if need be.
The history of drug cartels, too, are commonly attached to Latin American countries. Popular TV series Breaking Bad largely fostered the belief that America’s drug problem stemmed entirely from Mexico and its drug lords. Even the comedy film, We’re the Millers (2013) featured a road trip to Mexico to score large quantities of marijuana. To be fair, the political unrest and corruption depicted, sadly, isn’t exactly untrue. But to simply depict it without context or further explication simply fosters stereotypes and lack of critical thought.
This is one aspect where Narcos got it right — featuring two simultaneous perspectives on the violence in Colombia. It takes us inside the American camp that was looking to eradicate drug trade in Colombia, but also showed us how the Colombian government effectively dealt with the matter at hand. The argument remains that though Narcos is a Netflix property, it was largely administered and executed by Latin American film-makers and producers, giving it authenticity.
Yet, there is a gradual, yet certain change in how Latin American culture is depicted. Most recently, Netflix’s Sense8 cast three Latin American actors, one in a leading role. It followed the life of a mainstream Mexican actor, without featuring any neighbourhood violence.
In terms of cinema, the recent Star Wars instalment, Rogue One, gained brownie points for casting Mexican actor Diego Luna. Moreover, he retained his accent throughout the film, bringing representation to an entire race of people who are bogged down by stereotypes.
Peña is a professor of film studies at Columbia University, and former director of the New York Film Festival.
Be there: A Panorama of Latin American Cinema is a lecture series on Latin American cinema, organised by Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in collaboration with Columbia Global Centers, Mumbai. It will be held from March 10 to 14.
Where: Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, Byculla
For the full schedule of films to be screened, visit bdlmuseum.org