Celebrating Latino Heritage Month

In celebrating Latino Heritage Month (September 15th-October 15th), we begin with an overview of Latinos in the entertainment history.

As early as the 1920s, the era of silent films, the Latino community was incredibly under-represented in the entertainment industry, and when there were roles for Latinos they were generally very small parts. Did you know that Latino characters weren’t even portrayed by real Hispanics? They were actually played by non-Latinos in what’s known as brownface. As for the real Latinos? They were used as a general ethnic type.

During the 1930s there still weren’t many opportunities for Latinos in the movies aside from franchisees like Zorro. However, from this decade emerged names such as Chris Pin-Martin, Leo Carrillo, Duncan Ronaldo, Lupe Velez, Pedro Armendariz and Cesar Romero. Latina actress Rita Hayworth also emerged from this time, but again, mostly in smaller films. The 1940s brought us Carmen Miranda but most Latinos were background actors.

The 1950s was a small turning point for the community with the making of East L.A., starring Rita Moreno and Lalo Rios. East L.A. is an American film starring Latinos, playing as Latinos, talking about Latino issues. Also in the 1950s I Love Lucy hit the small screen and Desi Arnaz joined Lucille Ball for all of her crazy antics.

Did you know that Raquel Welch’s real name was actually Jo Tejada? In the 1960s she made the big change in order to be more relatable to her American audiences. The ’60s was a dry period for Latinos in film, but the theatre started picking up. Luis Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965, two years after his play “The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa” was born.   Films from this decade…West Side Story, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Strangers in the City, 100 Rifles and Popi.

In the ’70s Latino Cinema, or rather movies with Latino characters and themes or Latino actors, started reappearing in independent films. The ’80s continued following the pattern the ’70s and it was during this time frame Edward James Olmos came on the scene. But just like in the ’60s, Latino theater made another leap forward with the formation of Culture Clash and the Latino Theater Company created back-to-back.

Finally in the 1990s there was a breakthrough of Latino characters in American film and television, but there was still the problem of the number of real Latinos playing Latinos being lower than the number of Anglos playing in brownface. And with the breakthrough that began in the ’90s, in the year 2000 and beyond the real progress was made with the creation of popular shows like Dora the Explorer, George Lopez and Ugly Betty and films like Pride of Glory, Spanglish, Day Without a Mexican and Mexican American.

Over the course of the next 30 days, I’ll be profiling a new Latino/Latina.

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