A couple of days ago, I learned through a friend’s fb post that actor/director Diego Luna (of Y Tu Mamá También, as well as Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights fame) is making a film about the one and only Cesar Chavez, Mexican American civil-rights activist and the co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. The film is currently entitled, Chavez. Now, I don’t ever get especially hopeful or excited about any of Hollywood’s “Hispanic” films, but in this case I am crossing my fingers that it will at least be decent enough to use in one of my undergraduate classes.
Apparently Rosario Dawson has just signed on to play Dolores Huerta, the other co-founder of the UFW. The choice of Dawson surprised me; aside from having long hair, I just don’t think they look much alike. Here is Huerta, back in the day:
Meanwhile, here is the Dawson:
At first, I thought, maybe America Ferrera would have been a better choice, but it turns out that she already was cast in the role of Chavez’s wife Helen in the film…because, you know, there’s slim pickins if you’re seeking recognizable Latina actors in Hollywood. Btw I’m not the only one who envisioned Ferrera as Huerta; check out this homage to Huerta from Glamour magazine a couple of years back:
In any case, I’m bracing for the usual outrage on the part of many Chicanos that one of our most beloved she-roes will be portrayed by someone who is not of Chicana or Mexican descent. Just remember back to the late ’90s when some folks freaked out when another beloved Chicana icon, singer Selena Quintanilla, was to be portrayed by Puerto Rican actress Jennifer Lopez (btw it was the 1997 movie Selena that inspired JLo to launch her singing career…so now we know who to blame: director Gregory Nava.) And on a similar note, many were angry that Italian American Madonna would be playing Argentina leader Eva Peron in Evita. We can thank god, I suppose for small mercies: Salma Hayek ended up portraying Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in Frida, though I encourage you to read Isabel Molina-Guzman’s powerful critique of that film in her excellent book, Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Media.
Anyway, in cases like the Huerta-Dawson match-up, the people get up in arms and cry out, “There wasn’t a single Mexican American actress you could have found to play Huerta?!” In fact, such commentary has already started: You can scroll down to some of the poorly-worded and ungrammatical replies to a HuffPost article about how nervous Dawson is to do justice to the role. Among the responses is this one:
…this is poor casting. Dawson looks nothing like Huerta. It’s a joke! UFW was not co-founded by a black woman. [emphasis added]
Comments like these expose a sensitive issue within many Latina/o communities: race. Latina/os are far from racial or ethnic homogeneity; we can lay claim to diverse racial backgrounds, which accounts for a wide-range of physical appearances even among people in the same family. However, some like to fancy the idea that Mexicans are primarily a “lighter” blend of native and Spanish peoples, while people from Carribbean countries are typically the darker ones, thanks to their African “blood.” But this is simply not true–even Mexicans have African ancestry, and if this is news to you, then I suggest you read Martha Menchaca’s Recovering History, Constructing Race asap. Nevertheless, those in our communities with lighter skin and fairer features are frequently praised as more beautiful than the darker ones among us. Even in mainstream entertainment, Latinas like Dawson and Zoe Saldaña are more often cast in African American roles or as the “exotic” beauties in sic-fi and action films, because studio execs can only envision “Latina” to look like JLo, Hayek, Penelope Cruz, etc. (And most of the time, they are supposed to sound like Sofia Vergara.)
To me, this outrage is misplaced. In the end, I don’t care who plays Huerta, as long as she does a good job at it. If she were a Chicana actor, sure, that would be great, but as my friend Michelle pointed out in our conversation on this topic earlier today, what’s more important is the fact that, by reaching mainstream audiences, a film like Chavez can raise awareness about his and Huerta’s accomplishments and therefore broaden people’s general understanding about Chicana/o history. Moreover, Michelle rightly noted that in the case of Selena, many Chicana/os didn’t really know who JLo was, and many Nuyoricans didn’t know anything about Selena, but in the end, we all went to see the movie and learned a little something. (I will admit that until seeing the film, I didn’t even know that Selena was born in the US and that English was her first language…which means I prolly should hand back my Chicana identity card. Also, one last excellent observation from Michelle: there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of backlash when Chicano Edward James Olmos was cast as Bolivian math teacher Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. It seems that perhaps Chicano outrage only flows in one direction!)
Rather, the real issue that should be getting people worked up is the dire lack of representation of Latinas in the mainstream media as a whole. That is the true problem. It would be so refreshing to see a Latina in a role that isn’t specifically marked as “Latina.” We need roles that don’t require the performance of the usual ethnic stereotypes. One positive portrayal, for example, is Diana Maria Riva, who plays the role of Lieutenant Ana Ruiz on the TV show The Good Guys. In the show, she is a police lieutenant who just happens to be Latina. They don’t make a big issue out of her ethnicity: She doesn’t speak in a “Latin” accent, dress in a stereotypically ethnic way, or interject “Ay, caramba!” and the like into her conversations. She just goes about her job like a real person would.
That’s how I feel I live my life: I am Latina (specifically, of course, Mexican American). My ethnicity is an important part of my identity, but it’s not all of it. For example, I am a university professor, and despite my ethnicity, I don’t usually go to class dressed like this:
Which is not at all to say it is not my dream to do so…if only because I’d really love to see my students faces when I enter the room.
Anyway, there has been a lot of commentary lately about the lack of people of color in the HBO series Girls, which is set in Brooklyn, a borough that has a minority white population (for insightful examples of said commentary, check out Kendra James on Racialicious and this post by Dodai Stewart at Jezebel). It seems to me that it takes much more work to erase the people of color from mainstream media (particularly shows set in New York and Los Angeles) than it does to just show them as real people going about their daily business. So to all the studio execs and TV and film writers out there: Make it easier on yourselves! Take the characters you’re already writing about, and just cast a Latina in the role. Magic may happen–she may still seem like a real person…even though she’s Latina!
I’m just saying that when there are a broader range of Latina roles in the future–when we’ve been liberated from playing the grandmas, maids and sluts–then there won’t be so much pressure on films like Chavez to get the casting exactly right. Then we Chicana/os can find something better to complain about.