Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film

    by Frank Javier Garcia Berumen

    New York: Vantage Press, 1995. 271 pp. $18.95

    In The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film, educator and historian Frank Javier Garcia Berumen analyzes the portrayal of Chicanos, Mexicans, and other people of Hispanic heritage in American movies, particularly those developed and released by Hollywood. As both a teacher of American history and an avid movie buff, Garcia Berumen argues that educators teaching American history require a clear understanding of the ways in which political, racial, linguistic, and other types of bias influence the portrayal of Chicanos and other Hispanics in American film. Garcia Berumen is particularly concerned with the connections between the education of Chicanos and Hispanics and the negative images projected of them in film and related media (TV, videos, etc.). Building on his experiences as a professional educator who is also Hispanic, Garcia Berumen's book is an effort to analyze the significance, and the pervasiveness, of negative images of the Chicano/Hispanic in American film. Ultimately, Garcia Berumen hopes that the reader will comprehend how such powerful and consistent messages evident in American films influence all filmgoers' understandings of the role of Chicanos/Hispanics in American history. In addition, Garcia Berumen's book begins to inquire into the extent of the impact of negative stereotypes and images on Chicanos' and other Hispanics' sense of self within a historical context, and of how this ultimately affects educational attainment. In his words, "education remains the most important issue facing the Hispanic community as statistics reveal a dismal picture across all levels: elementary, secondary, and postsecondary" (p. 224). As yet another generation of Chicanos and Hispanics is subjected to negative, incorrect, and potentially damaging stereotypes, Garcia Berumen offers this book, as comprehensive in its range as in its level of detail, that examines how the economic, political, and social dimensions of American society, in particular racial and ethnic stereotypes, shape the images of the Chicano and Hispanic in visual media like television and films.

    Garcia Berumen begins his review of the history of the Chicano/Hispanic image on screen with the first movie to deal with Hispanic culture — a rather obscure nickelodeon short about a Mexican bullfight released in 1896 during the silent screen era — and then works up through the present. In each chapter, Garcia Berumen demonstrates the power of the dominant political and social contexts of the times, and how each of these contexts influenced movies and television images, particularly the portrayal of the Chicano and the Hispanic peoples and their cultures.

    In his introduction, Garcia Berumen explains that the purpose of his book is to "chronicle the portrayal of the Chicano and Hispanic in American film" (p. xi). He assesses the portrayal of the Latin American experience in American film, noting that Chicanos and other Hispanics "generally underwent the same and identical fate of stereotyping" (p. xi). He reviews the history of the United States as it expanded into the West, and of the Spanish expansion into Mexico and what is now the western half of the United States. By detailing the Manifest Destiny ideology behind U.S. geographical and economic expansions, Garcia Berumen illuminates the sociopolitical and economic effects of the conquest of the Mexican and Native American peoples. In the context of peoples dispossessed of land, legal rights, and political power, Garcia Berumen traces the development of cinematic practice around the predominant societal mores and governmental policy of the times. In such a context, "racism and prejudice festered and flourished, and people of darker skins were the primary victims: Hispanics, Blacks, American Indians, Asians" (p. xiii). He continues,

    If art reflects life, then the American film reflected the prevailing images of people of color within the context of the times, periodically racist and frequently stereotypical. Thus, the Hispanic was inevitably portrayed as lazy, unintelligent, greasy, criminal, and "foreign." Their contributions culturally, economically, and historically were never properly documented or appreciated. History was revised to suit the public's conceptual whim and fancy with the minimum of historical accuracy. (p. xiii)

    Garcia Berumen argues that throughout each decade of this century, "issues or concerns of Hispanics in this country were not addressed, or the films dealt with them in only a handful of exceptions" (p. xiii–xiv). He shows that the portrayal of Chicanos and Hispanics in film mirrors the image of them fostered by the media (e.g., poor, ignorant, immigrant bandit), as well as their relationship to the dominant society vis-à-vis their political, economic, and social status. Hollywood filmmakers shared these stereotypes and were not adverse to making them known to the public through their films. Garcia Berumen points out that even though Hollywood filmmakers stopped the practice of using Anglos to portray Blacks and Asians on screen long ago, Anglos have continued to portray Chicanos and Hispanics into the contemporary era. Throughout the films of this century, and even in those of the late 1800s, actors, writers, and directors often brought their personal prejudices to their work, which, when combined with general ignorance about Chicanos and Hispanics, created

    a screen world of cultural inaccuracies and stereotypes: sombreros and serape-draped Mexicans taking siestas on sidewalks; Mexicans consuming only the three diet staples of chile, tacos, and liquor; the Hispanic inevitably seeking political and social guidance, acceptance, and "enlightenment" of the Anglo. (p. xiv)

    Garcia Berumen believes that the negative stereotypes portrayed in these predictable and permanent images of waiters, bandits, Latin lovers, prostitutes, gang members, and drug dealers — people generally incapable of thinking for themselves — were and are most destructive in that they provide no positive role models for young Chicanos and Hispanics who aspire to the American dream. A key element of that dream is access to — and success in — education.

    Garcia Berumen's work unites his two main personal and professional interests: the cinema and education. In The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film, he relates his own experience growing up, and explains his beliefs about understanding and teaching history. His childhood was spent primarily in East Los Angeles, speaking Spanish and going to the movies with his parents. He traveled between Mexico and the United States with his parents, observing the contrast between the positive roles and attitudes Chicano/Hispanic protagonists were given in Mexican films, and the negative stereotypes of the roles they were given in American movies. Even as a child, Garcia Berumen observed that when he saw Chicanos/Hispanics — reflections of himself and people like his family and friends — in American movies, the images were degraded and demeaning. Later, he began to understand that stark contrasts between North American and Mexican social attitudes allowed such different presentations of the same people to be perpetuated in American films.

    At the age of eleven, Garcia Berumen noticed that he and his siblings began doing poorly in school. He attributes this change in school performance to what he perceived as low self-esteem, and a corresponding identity crisis. Like his siblings, he began to feel ashamed of his cultural heritage, socioeconomic class, race, and language. He and his siblings began to refuse to speak Spanish and to have conflicting feelings about their identity. When his parents became aware of this, they decided to take their children to Mexico for the summers to be in contact with Mexican relatives and, more importantly, with their culture. It was during the first of these trips to Mexico that Garcia Berumen saw that Mexican people were professional, articulate, educated, "normal" people with a legitimate source of income and a sense of who they were. He began to discover his rich cultural and historic heritage, and to compare it with the distorted history presented to him in everything from American television and movies to the images available to those his age through instructional curricula and textbooks at school. Garcia Berumen's life work as a teacher of young, predominantly Chicano/Hispanic students in East Los Angeles has been committed to informing them about their own history so that they may compare it to the revisionist versions they see in the movies and in their educational institutions and texts. In this way, he hopes to help Chicano/Hispanics resist the negative images prevalent in American society and the tendency of U.S. films to fracture their identity, both of which contribute to their feelings of worthlessness and academic failure. In Garcia Berumen's view, "if education doesn't contribute to students' self-esteem, you lose 'em" (personal communication, May 1996). His book is an attempt to help Chicanos/Hispanics and others understand how and why Chicano/Hispanic identity is reflected in film and similar media, to enable them to cope better with and contribute to improving a society that is still replete with negative — and potentially destructive — media images of Chicanos/Hispanics.

    Garcia Berumen's book reviews the images portrayed in history and in the present from the perspective and experiences of a person who is Chicano/Hispanic. Instead of simply summarizing and presenting the types of Chicano/Hispanic images put forth in Hollywood films, however, he seeks to understand the connection between these and the real-life experiences of a person of such descent, relating the images to their impact on his, and others', sense of self-worth and history. In Garcia Berumen's view, more accurate renditions of history allow the people to see themselves as they were and are, not as openly racist filmmakers choose to portray them. The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film is a first step in the direction of film criticism that makes plain the economic, political, and social background of popular films in their creation of racist myths and stereotypes based on the Chicano/Hispanic image. He moves beyond a simple reading of film images as they appear on screen to explain to the reader some of the factors involved with why those images appear as they do.

    As a resource, The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film is an essential tool for anyone studying or teaching the history of the United States. Such a text is even more crucial now that educators enable their students to interrogate and scrutinize images that are supposed to represent them or others who are also members of the American community. In the era of "critical pedagogy," "critical theory," and "revisionist history" we need resources that are able to tie together many of the strands that constitute American history. In particular, we need researchers who are able to make connections between aspects of American life that sometimes seem disparate, like images of gangsters on TV and low school achievement. Today, increasing numbers of young people spend more time viewing television and movies than ever before. Undoubtedly, those who watch will internalize the stereotypes they constantly see that reflect, and are reflective of, the cultural and political biases that shaped and continue to shape the Chicano and Hispanic image in American film. We look forward to an upcoming book by Garcia Berumen, which will focus more closely on the relationship between Chicano/Latino images in American film and school achievement. While The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film is only a beginning in terms of understanding the history of Chicanos and Hispanics in film and similar media, it is a beginning worth reading.

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