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A History of Hispanic & Latinx Representation in Film

Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month! From now until October 15, I'll be using my social media spaces to celebrate and highlight creatives of Hispanic and Latinx descent, and I hope you'll follow along!

Firstly, what is National Hispanic Heritage Month (NHHM)? NHHM is a federally observed celebration from September 15 - October 15 that recognizes American citizens' histories, cultures, and contributions whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

On June 11, 1968, California Congressman George E. Brown introduced House Joint Resolution 1299, authorizing the President to proclaim the week annually as "National Hispanic Heritage Week." President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on September 17, 1968. Twenty years later, "National Hispanic Heritage Week" was expanded to a month-long celebration under President Ronald Reagan's administration in 1988. The significance of September 15 recognizes Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua's independence from Spain in 1821. Additionally, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively.

To kick off the celebration, I wanted to examine the history of Hispanic and Latinx representation in film.* With 60+ million Americans identifying as Hispanic or Latinx—approximately 18% of the population—why is there such a lack of representation of these communities in Hollywood? While this is a layered issue with no simple answer, I do think that historical context is important.

*Please note, I am not an expert, just a film and history geek. This is in no way a comprehensive review of Hispanic and Latinx cinema. If you're interested in learning more, I'd highly recommend checking out the additional resources linked below.

A Hispanic Theater in San Antonio, Texas (1938). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Early Hispanic Representation in Film

From cinema's humble beginnings in the 1890s to the early 1920s, there wasn't a solidified film industry like we know it today. Nearly any ambitious entrepreneur with capital could develop an independent studio of their own and start productions. During this period, Latinos from mostly economically privileged backgrounds and had predominantly Spanish ancestry (i.e., could pass as "European") were involved in filmmaking, both in front of and behind the camera, but the rise in popularity of this new form of entertainment also led to an increase in stereotyping.

One of the most popular genres was Westerns, which relied on white American audiences' nostalgia for a romanticized "Wild West" and familiarity with "Manifest Destiny." Manifest Destiny was a widely held cultural belief in the 19th century that American settlers were destined to expand across North America. Any group that threatened westward progress, such as Indigenous Native Americans or Mexicans post-1850, were characterized as adversaries.

Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat the bandit leader in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948). This stereotypical role for Latino actors was extremely common from the silent films of the 1920s and well into the 1950s.

In most silent films, Latino characters, mainly Mexican or Mexican American characters, were often portrayed as "lazy," "untrustworthy," or "aggressive" bandits or passionate, overly sexualized "Latin lovers." These characters were relegated to supporting roles and were rarely substantive. This tactic was another way to "other" Latino characters compared to their white counterparts and further established the concept of the white savior. Frustrated by these offensive portrayals, Latin American countries began boycotting Hollywood films and invested in their own film studios; Mexico's Golden Age of Cinema lasted from 1930 to the 1960s. Hollywood producers attempted to separate negative Latino characters from identification with any particular country, leading to generic, offensive "pan-Latino" representations.

However, in the 1920s, a few light-skinned Latino actors and actresses became international silent film stars, including Dolores Del Rio, Myrtle Gonzalez, Ramón Novarro, Gilbert Roland, and Lupe Velez. While they often played stereotypical roles, it was significant progress for Latinos in the industry.

(L) Silent film actress Myrtle Gonzales is regarded as Hollywood's first Latin and Hispanic movie star. From 1913-1917, she appeared in at least 78 films. (R) Greta Garbo and Ramón Navarro in "Mata Hari" (1931). Ramón is widely considered one of the first big Mexican movie stars and became one of the top box office attractions of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Unfortunately, with the rise of the "talkies" in the 1930s, Latino actors and actresses were criticized for their "ethnic accents." They again were relegated to supporting roles, particularly servants, comedic relief, and villainous characters. With the onset of the Great Depression, audiences preferred the All-American hero (i.e., white actors), and public sentiment scapegoated and perceived foreigners and immigrants as "taking their jobs." As such, most minor Latino-speaking roles were actually white actors in "brownface." This practice continued well into the 1960s, with some of the most prominent examples including Paul Muni as hotheaded Mexican American lawyer Johnny Ramirez in Bordertown (1935), Marlon Brando as Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! (1952), and Natalie Wood as Puerto Rican teenager Maria in West Side Story (1961).

Natalie Wood in "West Side Story" (1961), Paul Muni in "Bordertown" (1935), and Marlon Brando in "Viva Zapata!" (1952).

(L) Publicity photo of Carmen Miranda in Irving Cummings "That Night in Rio" (1941). (R) RKO publicity photo of Desi Arnaz (1940).

In the 1940s, the United States "Good Neighbor Policy" sought to stay out of Latin American countries' affairs, encourage ongoing political ties, and improve its own reputation with these governments. In support of these efforts, Hollywood studios produced and exported films that featured Latin American cultures and themes of friendship and solidarity. They also hoped to recoup some of their financial losses as European markets were closed to U.S. film exports during World War II. The most popular films included biopics and musicals like Twentieth Century Fox's musical Weekend in Havana (1941) and Disney's animated film The Three Caballeros (1945). These musicals "discovered" international stars like Cuban performer Desi Arnaz and Portuguese-born Brazilian singer-actress Carmen Miranda and introduced them to American audiences.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, American Latinos saw an increase in the "social-problem" film genre, which featured authentic storytelling and emphasized exposing real-life social inequities. Films during this period included Irving Pichel's A Medal for Benny (1945), Kurt Neumann's The Ring (1952), and Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954).

These films were a stark contrast to the "feel-good" movies seen during the Good Neighbor Policy era. Still, they were more accurate portrayals of the American Latino experience. Unfortunately, this momentum was short-lived with the Red Scare and the rise of anti-communist sentiment; any filmmakers critical of the U.S. government or thought to have ties to countries like Cuba, Guatemala, or the Dominican Republic were blacklisted.

A Revival of Chicano and Latino Cinema

During the Civil Rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly the Chicano and Puerto Rican civil rights movements, activists fought against discrimination against Latin American communities. They demanded acknowledgment in all U.S. social institutions, including mass media. With greater access to higher education, training opportunities, and employment for Latinos in the U.S. television and film industries, Chicano and Latino creators could tell their stories their way.

Luis Valdez's short film "I Am Joaquin" (1969), based on the epic poem by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales, celebrated Chicano identity and laid the groundwork for Chicano cinema.

Chicano and Latino activists also began producing short films. These activism shorts are generally considered the first wave of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Cuban-American cinema. These early activist-filmmakers, many of whom were also the first Latinos admitted to film schools, included Moctesuma Esparza, Sylvia Morales, Jesus Salvador Treviño, Susan Racho, and Luis Valdez. These films were often anti-Hollywood and shunned industry-wide, historically stereotypical portrayals of Chicano and Latino characters and emphasized pride in people and culture. Many early Chicano films were documentaries produced on tight budgets that highlighted social issues and celebrated Mexican-American culture and identity. These films included Valdez's I Am Joaquin (1969), David Garcia's Requiem 29 (1971), Treviño's Yo Soy Chicano (1972), Racho's Garment Workers (1975), and Morales's Chicana (1979).

Eventually, filmmakers like Luis Valdez and Moctesuma Esparza made their way to the mass media. Director and screenwriter Luis Valdez made his wide theatrical debut with 1981's Zoot Suit, an adaptation of his Broadway production and based on the racially fueled Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s. The film received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical and was admitted to the National Film Preservation Board's National Film Registry for cultural significance in 2019. Valdez went on to write and direct La Bomba (1987), a biopic about Ritchie Valens starring Lou Diamond Phillips in his first starring role a few years later. La Bomba also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical and was admitted to the National Film Preservation Board's National Film Registry in 2017.

Producer Moctesuma Esparza is best known for his documentary Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country (1977), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, Short Subjects. Esparza has gone on to produce critically acclaimed hits such as The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), Gettysburg (1993), Selena (1997), and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999).

Due to new opportunities for Latino filmmaking, Latino film representation, and Hollywood's newfound interest in Latinx audiences, the media dubbed the 1980s the "Decade of the Hispanic." In addition to Valdez's Zoot Suit (1981) and La Bomba (1987), major studio productions included Gregory Nava's El Norte (1983), Leon Ichaso's Crossover Dreams (1985), Cheech Marin's Born in East L.A. (1987), and Ramón Menéndez's Stand and Deliver (1988).

The 1990s and early 2000s continued seeing progress in Latino storytelling, with films like Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi (1991), Edward James Olmos' American Me (1992), Gregory Nava's Mi Familia (1995) and Selena (1997), and Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves (2002). Similarly to the 1920s, this renewed interest in Latino storytelling also led to a rise in Hollywood film stars of Hispanic and Latinx descent, including Javier Bardem, Benjamín Bratt, Rosario Dawson, Salma Hayek, Jay Hernandez, John Leguizamo, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Peña, Michelle Rodriguez, Zoe Saldaña, and Benicio del Toro.

John Leguizamo in "Romeo + Juliet" (1996), Jennifer Lopez in "Selena" (1997), and Benicio del Toro in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998).

The Future of Hispanic & Latinx Representation

Unfortunately, like most minority groups, representation in Hollywood has been severely lacking and inconsistent. According to a recent study released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, an analysis of the top 1,300 box office films from 2007 to 2019 showed that approximately 5% of speaking characters in these films were Hispanic or Latino.

Data courtesy of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study "Hispanic and Latino Representation in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,300 Popular Movies."

Of these characters, only 3.5% were leads or co-leads in their respective films. The study also concluded that Hispanic or Latino characters are often plagued by stereotypes like "the foreigner" or "the criminal." In 2019, of the 94 Hispanic or Latino characters featured in top box office films, 8.5% were immigrants, 37.2% did not speak English, and 30.5% spoke English with an accent. That same year, top-billed Hispanic or Latino characters were characterized as criminals (39.5%), in organized crime (6.7%), or involved with a violent crime (40%).

Behind the camera is the same story: a lack of representation and resources. Across the 1,300 top-grossing films from these 13 years represented in the study, only 35 directors were Latinx; only three were women. Hispanic and Latinx casting directors only accounted for 3.3% of the industry, whereas Hispanic and Latinx producers accounted for 3%.

Corey Hawkins, Gregory Diaz IV, and Anthony Ramos in "In the Heights." Hawkins was the only Afro-Latino actor featured in the film adaptation.

Another problem facing Hispanic and Latinx representation in film is a lack of intersectionality and diversity. The Inclusion Initiative's study found that across the 100 top-grossing films from 2019, only five featured a Hispanic or Latinx character with a disability. Only two films featured an LGBTQ Hispanic or Latinx character. Furthermore, across the 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, only six lead or co-lead roles were held by Afro-Latino actors; three of these films were from 2019.

In 2021, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical, In the Heights, was riddled with controversy and accusations of "colorism." With only one Afro-Latino actor in the main cast, filmmakers essentially erased the Black Latinx experience from a neighborhood whose real-life population is predominantly Afro-Latinx. While filmmakers in the late 2010s and early 2020s have made basic attempts to feature intersectionality and diverse Latinx characters in their films—like Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Detective Renee Montoya in Birds of Prey (2020), and Camilo, Félix, Antonio, and Dolores in Encanto (2021)—representation is still woefully insufficient.

Clockwise: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse's Miles Morales is Afro-Puerto Rican; Encanto's Antonio, Camilo, Dolores, and Félix are Afro-Columbian; and Birds of Prey's Renee Montoya is Afro-Latina.

To counteract these troubling statistics and encourage actionable change, the Inclusion Initiative recommends:

  • Talent agencies and casting directors can cast a wider net to recruit and sign Hispanic and Latinx talent.

  • Studios and production companies can adjust their casting processes to ensure representation in small and large roles and ensure that new directors from Hispanic or Latinx backgrounds are considered for top projects.

  • Film festivals and nonprofits can support or create initiatives that specifically target and nurture Hispanic and Latinx creatives.

  • Legislators can create tax incentives for productions with Hispanic and Latinx individuals above the line and fund arts education that promotes filmmaking as part of the curriculum to reach potential filmmakers at a younger age.

Despite these statistics, there are films with positive Hispanic and Latinx representation—we, as audiences, just need more. More inclusivity in front of and behind the camera, and not just once in a while, but consistently. Please feel free to leave your recommendations of positive Hispanic and Latinx filmmakers because I'd love to watch them! The best way to combat stereotyping and encourage change is by supporting authentic storytellers and their art.

If you need some film suggestions, check out 10 Great Films to Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month!



National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month:

History of Hispanic Cinema:

Contemporary Hispanic & Latinx Cinema:


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