In the silent movie era, Mexican American actor Ramon Novarro starred in the blockbuster “Ben-Hur,” helping bring MGM Studios to prominence. Mexican American designer Bill Travilla created the iconic white dress Marilyn Monroe wore on the subway grate in “The Seven Year Itch.”
Those are just some of the examples and stories — from unsung Latino artists to some of the world’s most beloved stars — in Luis I. Reyes’ recently published book, “Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film.”
“Latinos have been involved in the film industry since the beginning of Hollywood,” said Reyes, a scholar and the author of several books about the history of Latinos and the film industry. “We are not recent immigrants or new arrivals to this world. We were there from the beginning.”
Latinos have been present across every decade of Hollywood history, Reyes points out, taking a comprehensive look from the silent era to the present day.
The book chronicles the groundbreaking careers of Latino actors from Lupe Velez and Carmen Miranda to Raquel Welch — but it also unearths some fascinating stories. In the 1933 classic “King Kong,” two crucial members of the special effects team were Mexican Americans. Among the people congregated in Rick’s Café Americain in the classic movie “Casablanca” (1943) were several Latinos playing supporting roles as Europeans.
Besides the temperate climate, one of the reasons the motion picture industry originally went west in the 1910s, Reyes said, was the availability of a large labor pool. Southern California’s population of Latino and immigrant workers was an ideal fit for the nascent industry.
Reyes said Hollywood films often reflected the politics of their time — and that had an influence on Latino roles.
In the 1930s, as the U.S. promoted the Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America, Hollywood responded by producing films featuring Latin American performers (such as Carmen Miranda) set in South American locales. Later, in recognition of the participation of Latinos in the armed forces, war movies featured actors like Desi Arnaz and Anthony Quinn.
Reyes also documents the long tradition of activism among Latino artists.
In 1969, Ricardo Montalban founded the advocacy group Nosotros to promote more positive depictions of Latinos in the entertainment industry. In 1970, Hispanics protested at the Academy Awards over the portrayals of Latinos in movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In 1992, a planned film biography of Frida Kahlo (starring Laura San Giacomo) fell through amid protests over the lack of opportunities for Latino performers. A decade later, Salma Hayek produced her own Frida Kahlo movie and was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the iconic artist.
The importance of 'balance' in Latino roles
Hollywood has “come a long way” in terms of opportunities for Latinos, Reyes said, pointing to stars like Jennifer Lopez and Oscar Isaac and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Reyes doesn’t mind seeing stereotypical roles, such as cartel leaders and drug lords, “as long as there is a balance and we see doctors, lawyers and law enforcement figures, as well.”
Yet the entertainment industry has been slow to fully incorporate Latinos into the workforce. Studies by the Government Accountability Office, the University of Southern California and other groups consistently show that Latinos are underrepresented in the film industry.
Just this year, UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report documented “enormous gains” by women and people of color, but Latino representation still lagged. While Latinos are roughly 18% of the U.S. population, Latinos accounted for 7.1% of leads, 7.7% of overall cast members and 5.6% of writers in major films.
“The typical Hollywood executives seem to have a very binary view of diversity,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, the director of the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA. “When they are pushed on inclusion, they have been somewhat responsive to African Americans, yet they continue to overlook Latinos.”
Many top executives, in Ramón’s view, have outdated or inaccurate perceptions about Latinos. “There is a serious lack of understanding about our community. Many executives see Latino audiences as niche or believe that we are mostly immigrants (which is not true) or that we are only interested in Spanish-language content.” Instead of strategizing about how to reach Latino audiences, Ramón said, studios are too often “kicking the can down the road.”
Julissa Calderón, one of the stars of the acclaimed Netflix series “Gentified,” said she has seen progress in Hollywood representation, especially since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2020. “I feel like we’ve seen a shift in roles and representation. Although we are just scraping the surface, it is long overdue — and we are doing it.”
Calderón said there have been more opportunities lately for Afro Latino performers. “Terms like ‘Afro Latino,’ ‘Afro Latinx’ may be new, but we are not new. ... We have always been here. It is only now that we are embracing our Blackness, celebrating it, that we are finally being seen by this industry. Slowly but surely, we are shaking up the narrative in Hollywood.”
Calderón is frustrated by the continuing practice of “brownface,” whereby Latino roles go to white actors. The recent film casting of James Franco as Fidel Castro, for instance, angered some Latino performers. “It is like a slap in the face,” Calderón said. She pointed out that many Latino and Cuban American actors could bring a sense of authenticity, accuracy and lived experience to that kind of role.
For Felix Sanchez, the chairman and a co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, the entertainment industry “sometimes feels like a gated community that keeps changing the locks on us.”
“One door is open for a little while, but soon it is closed, and we have to look for another one to open,” he said.
Sanchez cited Eugenio Derbez in “Coda” (2021) as an example of a well-written Latino film character. “He was multidimensional, his character was at the heart of the story, and he was authentically Latino in a film that happened to be about another minority group, the deaf community.”
Sanchez believes one reason for the overall lack of Latino representation in Hollywood is that “the foundational stories of Latinos are not well understood.” American culture and society still see history through a Black/white lens, he said, assuming Latinos are recent arrivals and immigrants, “rather than people who founded this country and who are the most historically significant ethnicity.”
In its forward, actor Jimmy Smits praises the book as another “giant step towards shining a vivid spotlight on inclusion, stereotype-smashing, and transcendent talent in Hollywood cinema.”
Reyes remains optimistic about the future for Latinos in Hollywood. From Quinn, who was Mexican American, in his iconic role as “Zorba the Greek” (1964) to Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe (2022), Latino performers have time and again proved they can play a variety of roles if given the chance, Reyes said.
“Latinos are breaking barriers,” Reyes said, “and that reflects reality, too. People want to see characters that they can identify with on screen — so the tradition of Latinos in Hollywood will continue on and only grow in the future.”