Growing up, I always struggled with finding a stable identity of my own. I knew I was Latina, but I felt like I could only relate to Latina women in my family and never the ones on television and film who show how an “actual” Latina was supposed to be and act. In television programs, terms like “exotic” became the norm when describing tanned skinned, seemingly typical Latinas. Yet, it wasn’t until adolescence, when I began religiously immersing myself in pop culture, that I started to realize just how pervasive and damaging this one idea of what a Latina is actually was. I was inundated with images of women who sometimes phenotypically resembled me under the labels of “hot” and “sexy.” They were all different women, but they shared many of the same features: full lips, tan skin, and voluptuous bodies. Posing in tight-fitted clothes and looking seductively into cameras, they were…beautiful, it seemed. Desired. The beauty ideal towards which all Latinas were expected to aspire to.
All of sudden, it made sense. Even though I could only relate my darker features to these women, I began to see why that was enough for me to be labeled Latina. All of the Martinez and Gomez female characters had, after all, beautifully uniform, golden tans coupled with dark hair and eyes. However, because of the perpetuation of this one view of a Latina, portraits of Latinidad — or Latino identity — are misrepresenting or rather entirely excluding Afro-Latinas as well as any blue-eyed or blonde Latinas. In fact, they have been consistently ignored and written off as never having a place in the depiction of Latinas and of the greater Latino culture. Even with the context of racial ambiguity, it seems like media limits Latinas to differ only generationally by juxtaposing broken-English mothers with articulate American daughters; both of which are displayed in Adam Sandler’s Spanglish. However, you will rarely see dark-skinned Latinas go up for those Latina roles in the first place and the same goes for Latinas who are naturally blonde or hold other physical characteristics that don’t “fit” Hollywood’s preconceived notions of what a Latina looks like. In a short documentary on being Afro-Latino in the United States, experienced Afro-Latina celebrities like Gina Torres and Soledad O’Brien openly recount the frustration and challenges they face when combating an industry that constantly demands justifications for their claims to their Latina identities.
Despite this gross generalization of the Latina image in most media avenues, I was, for a time, initially appreciative of at least some inclusion and visibility of Latinas in the music and television scenes. Watching television, I saw Latina women embodying “spicy,” “fiery,” Latin bombshells whose tiny waists and big breasts were met with societal adoration and praises for flaunting the body of a “real” woman. And so, I was proud of the women on magazine covers like Eva Longoria, Sofia Vergara, and Jennifer Lopez whose mere presence I saw as being a great advance for Latino saliency in the public eye and for overall diversity among celebrity women. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when, out of a growing personal interest in my heritage, I started becoming more invested in how Latino life was represented in American society. I then began to recognize the mass stereotypes that the media naturally assigns to Latinas. More often than not, Hollywood’s beloved Latina stars obtained their fame by, in one way or another, enhancing their ethnic stereotypes.
- Gabrielle Solís in Desperate Housewives is the “loud,” “divisive,” housewife whose promotional ads show off more skin than plot foundation for the show.
- Gloria from Modern Family is the “curvaceous,” sun-kissed trophy wife whose accented English is understood as the natural voice of many Latinas: inarticulate yet filled with attractive passion.
Even Latina music stars like Jennifer Lopez, who rose through hip/hop and pop arenas, are constantly photographed showcasing their bodacious behinds and flaunting their plunging necklines and toned curves at awards shows. Although this obsession with sex and the female body can describe the greater disservice media performs against women in general, the lack of Latina role models outside of an industry that constantly critiques appearance results in the widespread dissemination of this single image of what a Latina should look like in order to be successful. The effect on Latina youth is a further damaging consequence, as they make the connection that their value is entirely dependent upon the achievement of that stereotypical and entirely unattainable Latina physicality.
The lack of Latina leaders in America results in young girls solely looking up to Latina celebrities who are appreciated only for their bodies. Without any alternative precedent to follow, impressionable youths start to develop negative body images and go to extremes to obtain these impossible standards of beauty. They see that the only example to follow for proven material success is maintaining that image of being a sex symbol, and so they attach their self-worth directly to their ability to embody sex. As Rita Moreno, one of few performers to ever win all Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Emmy awards, puts her own struggle with fighting stereotypes in Hollywood, “I was stereotyped as a hot Latina with smoldering eyes and hips that wouldn’t quit.” Even though Moreno entered the entertainment industry at a time when Latino actors were scavenging for any available roles no matter how minor, it is important to note that little has changed since then. To this day, few programs have surfaced that publicize multi-dimensional Latino/a characters and successfully maintain their audience base or network support.
One of the few exceptions is Ugly Betty, a TV show, which follows the story of a young, vibrant Latina from Queens who seeks to find herself in the Manhattan metropolis of elite fashion and living. However, after airing only a few seasons, ABC axed the show. Ironically, one of the progressive show’s main actors, Ana Ortiz, is now starring in Lifetime’s Devious Maids; thereby trading one “sexy Latina” stereotype for the other pigeonhole of the submissive Latina housekeeper. This Latina typecasting thus classically expresses the institutionalized stereotyping of media platforms to simplify and cosmetically categorize people into racial and ethnic labels.
The “spicy Latina” ascription is also sometimes seen as innocuous: a stereotype that we Latinas should appreciate as a flattering compliment. However, people fail to see that this label leads to an equally damaging conception of Latinas being a fetish; a hot, mysterious prize to be won. We are seen as these sensual creatures, ready for courtship with any man who is willing embark on an enticing journey to the unknown. Once these modern conquistadors have had their fill and satisfy their curiosities though, we are thrown to the side and subsequently devalued and disregarded as having fulfilled our purpose of submitting to their male domination. This then feeds into the idea of how certain minority subgroups, like Latina women, are further marginalized through fetishization to the point of losing their sexual agency and feeling that their value is solely located in sexually satisfying men.
Don’t get me wrong about the media-prescribed “sexy Latina look.” It is empowering to see strong, sexy Latinas like Jennifer Lopez obtain great success through their own entrepreneurial endeavors and independent action. However, the hypersexualized archetype, virtually empty pool of Latina role models outside of entertainment, and lack of Latina diversity in the media landscape contributes to the limitation of Latina youth potential. According to a study based on Census Bureau statistics, “the dropout rate for Latinas ages 16 to 24 is 30%…compared with 8.2% for whites.” The media then maintains its position as the main distributor machine that manufactures this ideal of the Latina image and perpetuates the cycle of negative body image and self-validation through sexually pleasuring men.
The purpose of the American media establishment has been to maximize profits by providing entertainment to the public, historically at the expense and humiliation of minority groups like Latinos who are heavily stereotyped and depicted as an “other” through their representative characters’ lack of multi-dimensionality. Media’s influences are systemic and both reflect and feed into every aspect of American life and culture. Because of this, it seems futile to attempt large-scale reform on this market that lives on the propagation of racial generalizations and exploitation of already marginalized groups of people. Though it is an honorable task and perhaps even plausible if organized properly, I think it is an important individual step for people to first remain conscious of the common untruths and embellishments television and magazines put forth of Latinas and all people of color.