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"Impact of Stereotypes of Mexican Americans Created by Selected Films: 1920s-1960s" paper by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1988-03-24 to 1988-03-26


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Unpublished manuscripts file. Presented at the Social Science Conference of the National Social Science Association, Newport Beach, California.

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man000954. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Roosevelt Fitzgerald
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
This paper will explore and analyze some of the historical and sociological implications of the role a component of electronic media has had in promulgating negative stereotypes of people of Mexican descent. Further, it will consider the impact which those stereotypes have had not only on the manner in which the subject group has been perceived by others but also on how those same stereotypes have affected the self-concept of the subject group.
Previous studies have examined the depiction of the Mexican character in film and we are able to determine that that portion of the problem, at least, is fairly new. George Roeder’s work of 1971 provides us with, one of the earlier, more comprehensive efforts for the first half century of movie making (Roeder, 1971). Three years later, Allen L. Wolf produced two studies of the problem. The one addressed the status of the Mexican in the United States (Wolf, 1974a) and the other highlighted the international ramifications of Hollywood’s treatment of Mexicans and its effects on our "good neighbor policy" (Wolf, 1974b). The following year, Blaine P. Lamb, went a step further in showing how the Mexican was a "convenient villain" for Hollywood producers (Lamb, 1975). In 1980, Arthur G. Pettit helped us better understand the connection between popular literature of the late nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the movies and how Mexicans were presented in both mediums- (Pettit, 1980). The transition was important because the fiction of the time provided the basis for movie plots.
In each study, to one degree or another, we have been shown what the stereotypes are and even, in some cases, where and how they might have originated. In considering Roeder’s work, which takes us the farthest back in Hollywood film history on this subject, there can be discerned a consistent trend toward denigrating those of Mexican ancestry. The characters, males and females, may vary but the images projected have rarely been positive.
Early in his administration as President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, at a film festival in New York City, proclaimed, in effect, that what the remainder of the world learns about the United States, it learns through the movies. That comment could be expanded upon by adding that what many Americans learn about the United States, especially it multi-cultural/ethnic/racial populations, is also learned through the movies.
The first motion picture to be commercially exhibited in the United States was shown at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall of New York on April 23, 1896 (Morris, 1968:628). From its earliest days, the,movies have been a major source of entertainment for Americans whose lack of sufficient hard data concerning the history of their country, has been a major part of the reasons why many have accepted that which is viewed on the "silver screen" as being more factual than it actually is. Even though the technology and content was fairly simple at the outset, it soon evolved to the position of serving very complex functions, "As do all mass media and to some extent all art, they mirror the concerns of their age, reflecting conscious and unconscious aspects of the culture that shapes them (Friedman, 1982:53).
1896 is marked by yet another singular important event which would have far-reaching reprecussions and lasting effects. It was during that year that the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision was rendered. That decision gave
federal sanctioning to a concept of "separate but equal" which would remain in effect until 1954 when it would, be overturned by yet another Supreme Court decision (Meier, 1976:318). The 1896 decision reflected the racial mood of America at the time. The fifty-eight year period between its inception and its overturn, is characterized by a deterioration of race relations in the United States, the arrival of many hundreds of thousands of European immigrants some of whom would fall victim to prejudices, a curtailment of Asian immigration accompanied by an increase of discrimination against those already here and, also, by the appearance of a new medium which would nationalize and internationalize prejudicial behavior toward all those groups.
At this point in history, most of the early pioneers of American cinema possessed neither the minority consciousness, the artistic sophistication, nor even the awareness of the medium’s power necessary to create well-rounded ethnic portraits that provide more than a burlesque of minorities. They themselves may have shared some of the bigoted conceptions commonly held at the time. Even those who were Jewish seemed little concerned with negative impressions of Jews in the movies, putting their pocketbooks before their pride. However, the early days of the industry found Jews more often as theater owners than as film producers. Though it may seem unfair to condemn early filmmakers for such simplistic portrayals, the fact remains that they cared little for the subtleties of minority character development. They never seemed to have even contemplated the potential, and in some cases the very real injury, such distorted caricatures did (Friedman:166).
Those early films had realitively short running times. Generally they were one-reelers. In such an abbreviated form, there was not ample time for any character development. That condition created many problems for minority groups. Those problems were multiplied for racial minorities in those areas where they either did not reside or were in such small numbers as to be ineffective in neutralizing harsh portrayals which the new medium presented to unsuspecting and unknowledgeable viewing audiences throughout the nation and the world. Readily identifiable groups are often stereotyped in their media representations. One reason for this is the need of media to simplify reality (Hiebert, 1979:166). The subject group of this paper is indeed victimized by oversimplification in media. The negative results of this is not offset by textbooks used in the schools of the United States during the period of time under consideration (Kane, 1970:130-137).
The first quarter-century of movie-making, which also encompassed the silent movie era, saw nearly one-hundred films released with either Mexican themes or significant Mexican characters (Pettit). The application of Jimmy Carter’s observations to Americans is more than justified at this point. They become more meaningful in light of historian Russell B. Nye’s conclusion of six years earlier, in 1973, that during the first half of the twentieth century, Americans attended movies much more often than they read hooks (Hye, 1973:2). Those who read the popular literature of the times encountered primarily stereotypical descriptions of Mexican Americans. Serious students of history fared little better. On the subject of Mexican Americans either after they became Americans or while they were yet Mexicans, there was not much to be found on the subject beyond military conflicts. As far as the people and the culture were concerned, there was an almost absolute void.
culture were concerned, there was an almost absolute void. The absence of meaningful and relevant data in those more desired areas of study enabled the new medium of the movies to fill in, however erroneous, those gaps.
For most Americans, especially those living east of the Mississippi River, their acquired knowledge of the west was gained from the movies they saw. Bret Hart, Bronco Billy, Tom Mix and even Buffalo Bill’s revelations in his "Wild West Show" became the models for the cowboy, the settler and the town builders of the west. Those individuals had to contend not only with an unsettled land and the ravages of nature but also with what was described as "savage Indians," marauding comancheros and bandits—most of whom were Mexican. The movies took great liberties in describing what the west was all about. The western genre made the west a place of great adventure. Tony Thomas, who was born in England and first learned of the United States from movies he saw there while still a child, received the movie version of what the west had been. "Of all the kinds of American life depicted on the screen it is the most exciting and the least accurate. It began in 1903 with the ’Great Train Robbery,’ and in the first years of its life the western was a spillover from the real west" (Thomas, 1981:131).
The final years of the first quarter century of the movie-making industry witnessed astounding technological advances. No film epitomized those advances better than did D.W. Griffith’s 1915 production of "Birth of a Nation." The film was based on Thomas Dixon’s book, The Clansman, published in 1905, and it glorified the origin and objectives of the Ku Klux Klan (Ignalls, 1979:18). After consenting to preview the film before its first public showing, President Woodrow Wilson who had attended college with Griffith, declared: "It is like writing history with lightning" (Ibid.:19). That recommendation by a President who held a Ph.D. in history and had been a president of Princeton University, validated the outrageously inaccurate representations of the Reconstruction period of American history as presented by the film. More, it validated the medium as a means of learning history.
The silent movie era ended mid-way through the 1920s but not before Douglas Fairbankd immortalized Zorro. Zorro has appeared in feature length form in almost every generation since it was first released in 1920. There has also been serials, made for television films and cartoons about the character Zorro. The theme of the film is one in which movie audiences could readily identify— good versus evil. The original was based on Johnston McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano published in All Story Weekly Magazine.
Among the many noteworthy characteristics of the silent film is its capacity to compel audience participation by having them both read the captions and the expressions and actions of the performers. During the "age of innocence,' films introduced with lengthy script, somehow were seen as. more historically accurate or, at the very least, more historical. The 1920 version of Zorro had such a beginning by offering an interpretation of oppression and a solution for it. "Oppression—by its very nature-—creates the power that crushes it. A champion arises—a champion of the oppressed—whether it be a Cromwell or someone unrecorded, he will be there. He is born" (Niblo, 1920). The implied association of the historicalness of Zorro with Cromwell is significant particularly as the film unfolds. In describing the setting, it tells us: In California nearly a hundred years ago, with its warmth, its romance, its peaceful beauties, this dred disease, oppression had crept in" (Ibid.). California, at the time described, was part of Mexico which had gained its independence just
a few years earlier from Spain. The drive toward independence had been started in 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla, a creole priest whose world view was anchored in the teachings of French philosophy and was himself desirous of bringing more equality and humane treatment to all of the people of the land. Originally joined by creole noblemen, who themselves had limitations on their ambitions, the association between the latter and significant others of mestizo status was short lived.
The film "Zorro" falsely represented the aims of the revolution. In the film, he is described as being the protector of Indians, peons and priests and anyone who injured or harmed, in any way, either, received the "mark of Zorro" cut into their flesh by his sword. Zorro took on the attributes of Robin Hood—robbing the rich, who had come by their wealth illegally—and giving to the poor. With Zorro, the creole Spainard doing the robbing, the activity received the blessings of the church—so long as the church got its share and the church, in the movie, always got its share either directly from Zorro or from the offerings of the poor. The governor was Mexican as were his soldiers and other representatives. While Zorro was busy doing his good works, the governor, the cause of the oppression, was in the north and was described as "greedy, licentious, arrogant" (Ibid.). His character is best represented in the appearance of Sergeant Gonzalez.
In 1920, audiences admired Zorro because he opposed oppression and sided with the underdog. Those same audiences had their perceptions of Mexicans diminished because throughout the film, they were shown to be cruel, drunkards, arrogant, of low morals, cowards, ravishers of womens and otherwise generally reprehensible.
Zorro was remade in 1940 with sound and in color and it starred Tyrone Power (Mamoulian, 1940). There was much more Hollywood glitz and it began with more background on the years Don Diego Vega spent in Spain learning all the things a Spanish nobleman needed to know in order to take his rightful place in society. Upon his return to California and learning of the changes which had occurred in his absence, not the least of which was the removal of his father as governor by the mestizo "rabble" which had successfully rebelled against Spain, Don Diego, disguised as Zorro, overpowered the Mexicans, drove the evil Mexican governor out of California and amid the cheering of other caballeros reinstalled his Spanish nobleman father as governor of the Mexican province of California (Ibid.).
The process in which these changes occurred is quite remarkable. Zorro continually outwitted sergeant Gonzalez and is a better swordsman than the libidinous captain. The entire detachment of Mexican soldiers proved unable to capture him and each time he eluded them, it is clearly the result of his superior intelligence and athletic prowess and their unmatched stupidity. The soldiers are depicted as cowards, inept horsemen, poor shots, terrible swordsmen and are easily detoured from their duty by the nearest cantina or senorita. The progression of what is thought to be a drama is little more than a comedy and the Mexicans are the butt of every joke (Ibid.).
Once again, as had been the case of the earlier 1920 version, Zorro presented viewing audiences with strong, Negative stereotypes of Mexicans which they were compelled to accept by their having to accept Zorro as representing all that was good and clean and decent and right.
During the interim of the two Zorro feature length films were many others which had the subject of Mexico or Mexicans as major themes. Paul Muni is Johnny Ramirez in "Bordertown" (Mayo, 1935). His sojourn resembles a rollercoaster ride from his humble beginnings in a Los Angeles barrio where he worked by day and attended a second-rate law school at night. Throughout the earlier
portion of the film, audiences are made aware that Ramirez was once a street hood but through the prayers of his mother, who was short, fat and with rosary beads always in hand, he somehow turned his life around (Ibid.). There is no mention of his father almost as though he was an unknown quality. Here, we have a classic example of the creation of a stereotype simply by not saying anything. Many films in which there is a Mexican male figure who plays a prominent role, there is either no mention of a father—as in the present case—or a comment to the effect that the father is unknown or the father left, for reasons unknown, when the child was very young. The worse example of the missing or unknown father has the mother having worked, in her youth, in a house of ill- repute. We can find examples of this phenomena in John Wayne’s "The Cowboys" (1972), "The Wild Bunch" (1969), "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) and many others. The stereotype of Mexicans having loose morals and broken homes is projected often and becomes part of our perception of the entire group. Further, and on a subliminal level, we are once again given to understand that the Catholic Church condones such behavior among Mexicans (This perception of the Catholic Church is also projected with Italians especially those who are presented as being members of the Mafia).
Ramirez, through a series of events, is disbarred while arguing his first case in court. From there, his tumble frome grace is rapid. First he finds himself in Tijuana where he became a bouncer in a bordertown dive owned by an angle named Charlie Roark. In short order, he managed to parlay that job into an assistant manager’s position. Roark is described as a fat, jolly man who means no one any harm and who likes a good joke. Ramirez is described as a smooth, fast-talking, seeming conniving person whose glibness is his primary possession. Roark’s wife, Marie, played by Bette Davis, thinks "Johnny is swell" and is determined to have an affair with him but Ramirez puts her off. She is convinced that no man could resist her—especially a Mexican—and concludes that the reason for Johnny’s refusal has to do with her being married to Charlie and Johnny’s reluctance to put his job in jeopardy even for a woman as desirable as she. In a circuituous way, this is an underhanded compliment to Johnny in that an illusion is created that he doesn’t "fool around with married women" and that he is responsible enough to protect his job even at the loss of a "roll in the hay" with a beautiful blonde. The fact of the matter is Ramirez is infatuated with another woman—the woman who was the indirect cause of his being disbarred. ■ Marie does not know about her. In her lust to have Ramirez, she accidentally stumbled upon an opportunity to kill her husband, while he was drunk and passed out on the seat of the car in their garage, and remove the obstacle which seh imagined stood between she and Johnny. When Marie discovered that Johnny still will not have anything to do with her, she confessed to the murder and implicated Ramirez but the truth came out at the trial and Johnny is set free. He is free to propose marriage to his sweetheart who has only been toying with him. To her, he was an exotic, a smoothie, a Latin lover whom she would playfully call "Savage." She was not interested in marriage to him. Her social status was too high above his. Indeed, it was too high for most "anglo" men. She thought he knew that it was all just fun and games. Following his proposal, she turned him down with the brutal truth: "Marriage isn’t for us...You belong to a different tribe, Savage" (Ibid.) Ramirez is humiliated and angered by her refusal and her method and roughly grabbed at her. She pulled away and, in running across a highway, is run over by a speeding car and killed. Ramirez is heartbroken and the movie ends with him going back to the barrios of Los Angeles and in his words, "Where I belong...with my people" (Ibid.).
One of the more telling stereotypes in the film is the suggestion that Mexicans, however hard working or bright, cannot succeed in the white world and this is due, in part, to an implied genetic flaw. Johnny Ramirez was portrayed as being a tough, quick-tempered, pushy, flamboyant, cocky and—even with a law degree—uneducated person. He was devoid of class, unsophisticated, boisterous and obnoxious. His characterization gave credence to the saying: "You can take the boy out of the barrio but you can’t take the barrio out of the boy."
The year before, in 1934, Hollywood presented its first version of the exploits of Pancho Villa. In a film titled "Viva Villa" audiences were introduced to a formula for such docudramas which would continue on through the 1960s, (Conway,1934). As had been the case with the original "Zorro," there was a captioned forward to the film. That introduction suggested authenticity and is greatly misleading in its wording. "The saga of the Mexican hero, Panch Villa, does not come out of the archives of history. It is action woven out of truth, and inspired by a love of the half legendary Pancho Villa" (Ibid.).
The movie begins with a notice being posted at the town square of a small Mexican village and the people being summoned. Several hundred women, men and children, who've come in from the fields and elsewhere, simply stand there until a priest, who is apparently the only one among them who can read, informed the gathering that their farms and homes have been seized by the local padrone. When one man spoke out against the action, he was taken away and given one hundred lashes by the local enforcers. At this point, we are given a description of Mexico at that time. "Mexico in the 8O’s....a land cringing under the long whip of Diaz the tyrrant. Spain, long driven out of the country, had left behind an arrogant aristocracy (Ibid,). By inference, audiences are made to believe that conditions were much better in Mexico under the Spanish. Further, by informing us that Spain had been driven out much earlier by revolutionaries who allegedly were going to make things better, conditions had in fact become much worse.
When the man who spoke out has received his hundred lashes, he is discovered to be dead. One of the Mexicans involved in the beating only comment was: "a few too many." The dead man’s young son observed the entire episode and, later during the night, stabbed the man who had used the whip on his father, in the back and disappeared into the darkness. Once again the screen is filled with a historical appearing caption: "The hills of Chihuahua swallowed the little avenger. Beyond the pale of the whipping post he grew up in the shadows of Mexico. Injustice was his nurse, oppression his tutor. Then slowly a new song came out of the desert night. It was "La Cucaracha (The Cockroach). The song of an almost legendary bandit. His name was Pancho Villa]" (Ibid.).
The remainder of the film offers a lesson in the history of the Mexican Revolution which was, at best, a parody. Immediately, now that Villa is a grown man, we are presented with his best side and his worse. Six peons are hanged by a magistrate in a small village for no apparent reason and Villa and his band of bandits got quick revenge—"two for one." Just as the peons had been murdered, Villa slew their murderers. When next we see him, just minutes later, he is in a cantina/bordello with all of the "girls" and he is seeking to pick one out for himself for the night. The one he selects, Rosita, is a strong-willed woman who demanded that he marry her if he wanted her. Villa’s response was, "Sure I marry you. I marry anybody. Pedro, I marry her tonight" (Ibid.). Similar dialogue, on marriage, was repeated on several other occasions throughout the film to the point that it became humorous. Villa’s right-hand man, Sierra, comment that: "He like get married. He get married all the time" is greeted by the response from Villa: "That’s the way I was brought up
religious (Ibid.). The exchange always generates laughter but it also always suggests the disdain which Mexicans have for matrimony and the slap at Catholicism is obvious. Additionally, such scenes validate the previously stated stereotype of the fatherless Mexican and the loose woman.
Perhaps, more than anything else, the film showed us that the greater part of what became the revolutionary army was actually no more than a huge band of bandits who could neither read or write, murdered prisoners, took women and anything else that they wanted as part of the booty of war and that they did all this in the name of justice and a perverted sense of democracy.
The formula introduced by this film would be repeated many other times over the next thirty-five years with movies having to do with social upheaval in Mexico from the days of the expulsion of the Spanish on into the twentieth century. The overwhelming number of them would be equally inaccurate and distorting of the Mexican image. We cannot leave "Viva Villa" until a word is said about its closing scenes. As Villa lay dying, an Anglo newspaperman, Johnny Sykes, was there. Villa requests that Sykes write something befitting the occasion and his position as a revolutionary leader. Sykes conjured up Villa’s last words and Villa is impressed with the lies knowing they’re lies but knowing that no one who reads them will know the difference. Until his dying breath, he continued to ask Sykes to "tell me more of what I said" (Ibid.). Audiences saw then, that whatever good they might have heard about Pancho Villa was probably the results of fabrications of men like Sykes. Finally, the last impression of Villa, the Catholic, even as he lay dying, is that he’s a prevaricator.
1939 might well be the year in which a high water mark is reached with films having to do with Mexico and Mexicans during the first half century of moviemaking. "Juarez," which also starred Paul Muni in the lead role, was very well re-searched (Dieterle, 1959). The script follows very closely the actual historical events upon which the film is based. However, it is that very historicalness of events which is the source of its undoing. In 1939, the Nazi war machine was on the move in Europe. Films of the era described the monstrous nature of the Nazi and the almost angelic dispositions of their victims. The latter is not presented in a way which would detract from their human qualities or their sense of patriotism. The same was not true of the film "Juarez" which, while it clearly spoke of freedom, justice and democracy and even, in one scene, questioned the imperialistic objectives of certain European nations, it presented the terrible conditions under which the revolutionaries lived but it also could not resist showing their brutal nature and even their predisposition to mimic the behavior of their oppressors. Part of the cause of this perception and interpretation of what might have actually have happened, was the result of how the image of Mexican revolutionaries had been implanted in the minds of audiences five years earlier with "Viva Villa."
Other films which have gotten similar treatment have been such as "The Fugitive" (1947) which was about a revolutionist priest who broke his vows and fathered a child (Ford, 1947a). "The Fighter" (1952) was about a Mexican who crossed the border into the United States and became a prize fighter and used his winnings to buy arms for the revolutionary cause (kline, 1952) . "Viva Zapata" (1952) chronicled the life of Emiliano Zapata and his rise from a simple peon to become a leader of the Mexican Revolution. This film was probably the more historically accurate of all (Kazan, 1952). "Vera Cruz" (1954) romanticized the efforts to overthrow the Emperor Maximillian (Aldrich, 1954), "Bandido" (1956) was about anglo gun-runners during the revolution (Fleischer, 1956). "Viva Maria" (1965) is about two beautiful women who are revolutionaries and also
entertainers (Malle, 1965). "Villa Rides" (.1968) presented Villa with gun runners and beautiful women entertainers (Kulik, 1968). "The Wild Bunch" (1969) was one of the last films of the 1960s having to do with the Mexican Revolution or any of its spinoffs. It centered around a band of anglo outlaws who are hired by a Mexican general to steal arms from the U.S. Army (Peckinpah, 1969).
Introduced with "Robin Hood of El Dorado" (1936), a new component of the western genre, the Mexican hero, would help dominate cowboy movies through the 1940s (Wellman, 1936). Even though the genre elevated the Mexican character somewhat, he still did not totally excape the image of the bandit or of someone who is functioning outside the law. In "Robin Hood," the lead character seeks revenge on a "gang who ruined his life" (Maltin, 1974). His efforts to right the wrongs took him outside the law. For the dozen or so films of this sort which were released over the following twenty years, each would follow the formula of a bandit figure who stole for some higher purpose. "The Gay Cavalier" (1946), explains the lead character’s, Chico, life of banditry in the very early scenes (Nigh, 1946). Chico is seen standing near a grave and speaking to it: "Sleep well my father. Today, another debt will be paid" (Ibid.). On a nearby hillside, his followers wait for him and there is an exchange between his right-hand man, Pablo, and a new man with the group. "Why does Chico make a notch on the Cross?" (Ibid.). Pablo explained by saying: "Not so loud. You are new to us, Pedro, so I will tell you. Once a year, Chico come to the grave of his father. He was the greatest bandit of all California. Now Chico make up his mind and try to pay for his father’s crimes. Se he take from the rich people who are bad and give to the poor. That way, his poor father can have the long sleep with clear conscience" (Ibid.). Because neither Chico nor his followers have any other means of support, we can all deduce that some portion of their ill-gotten wealth remained in their own pockets. Just how much the poor ever got, we are not told but we do know that the poor remained poor and struggled with whatever jobs they might have had and Chico and his followers had no need for work in the usual sense.
By inference, we are told that Chico’s father, during his career as a bandit, did not restrict his activities to those whom we knew had come by their wealth illegally. Were it so, Chico could not hope to undo his father’s deeds or at least repay them by robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Chico is yet a bandit but not as ruthless a bandit as his father was. The image of the bandit, however, remained constant and continued to be a stereotype of the Mexican even when he is an alleged "good guy."
Duncan Renaldo’s earlier portrayal of the same Chico character was little better. "Guns and Fury" (1939) had Chico and Poncho as relatively "good guys" (Fox, 1939). However, early in the film, it is established that his lifestyle did often bring him into conflict with the law. The crooked mayor of the town of Del Rio advised him that "his type" would not be welcome in that peaceful town. The fact of the matter is, the crooked mayor did not want to risk having to split any of the spoils of the community with Chico whom he knew to also be a bandit (Ibid.).
More important than the simple plot of crooks stealing money and framing an honest citizen is the on-going procession of stereotypes of Mexicans which the film provides. This was particularly the case with Poncho who displayed an absolute inability to speak correctly. The fact that Spanish is his primary language is not taken into consideration nor is that of his being bilingual. What is presented, and humorously so, is how he butchers English. Throughout the film, he makes such utterances as: "We’ll be looking you" rather than We 11 be seeing you" (Ibid.). "I don’t read pretty good" is made all the worse by his saying it to a small anglo boy who spoke perfect English (Ibid.).
Gilbert Roland, who assumed the Chico character with his sidekick Pablo following Duncan Renaldo’s (Reynolds) elevation to the role of the Cisco Rid with his sidekick Pancho, greatly expanded the image of the Mexican as Latin lover. In "Robin Hood of Monterey" (1947), he complains that he "Haven’t seen a pretty girl in a whole day and a half" (Cabanne, 1947a). In "King of The Bandits" (1947), during the opening scenes, Chico and Pablo find themselves the targets of a firing squad. When asked if there were any last wishes, Pablo asked only that the Lieutenant trade places with him while Chico said: "There’s a pretty girl in Las Cruces I was going to play post office with. Will you say goodbye to her for me?" (Cabanne, 1947b).
Another group to be considered are those films in which the Mexican is not the central figure. There are a few in which Mexicans are sidekicks to angle heroes. A larger category is that in which Mexicans do not play any significant roles and whose appearance, however brief, is detrimental to the image of the Mexican people. In "Red River" (1948), as John Wayne enters Texas and prepares to claim all of the land, as far as the eye can see, for himself, he is met by two vaqueros who informed him that he is trespassing. After a very brief discussion on the matter and Wayne’s refusal to leave, the one vaquero who is determined to protect the interests of his padrone, attempts to do so and is killed by Wayne. The second said: "It is not my land senor" and very cowardly slinks away (Hawks, 1948a). In the Ox Bow Incident" (1943), the Mexican suspect of the trio of accused cattle thieves and murderers is portrayed as a lying, knife carrying con-man (Wellman, 1943a), Due in part to the manner in which his character is developed, audiences, while inclined to believe the innocence of the other two are reluctant to do so because of a real need to believe that the Mexican is guilty. That same year, "The Outlaw" opened at theaters around the country (Hughes, 1943). The film was yet another glorification of the legend of Billy the Kid. While this version centered around the Kid’s amorous adventures with a lustful senorita played by Jane Russell, the effects of the perception and stereotyping of Mexicans is that they; male and female, young and old, greatly identified with the outlaw and considered him to be their friend. They provided him food and shelter and, seemingly, without their help, he would have been apprehended by the law much sooner. Four years earlier, in 1939, a similar example of identifying with and helping someone in trouble with the law occurred in the film "Stagecoach" (Ford 1939). Chris, the Mexican relay station operator, is stereotypically portrayed as short, fat, mustachioed and finishes every sentence with: "I theenk." He is married to an Indian woman who is described, even to him, as a savage—"one of Geronomo’s people"—and when he discovered that she had run away in the night, he sounded the alarm with Curly, the sheriff. Their exchange is as follows:
Chris: Curly, my wife Jakima, she ran away. When I looked up she was gone. Curly: You can find another wife.
Chris: Sure, I can find another wife but she take my rifle and my here. Oh, I never sell her. I love her too much. I beat it with a whip and she never get tired.
Curly: Your wife?
Chris: No, my horse. I can find another wife easy yes hut not a horse like that one (Ibid.).
Even as Chris plays the part of the buffoon for the entire entourage, he has concerns and a warning for Ringo, the outlaw, who recently excaped from
prison with the intent of avenging his younger brother’s murder. Those who are responsible were never brought to justice and they are in Lordsburg, Arizona and John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid, is on his way to settle the score.
Kid, I know why you want to go to Lordsburg. I like you. I know your pop. He was good friend of mine. If you know who in Lordsburg, you stay away I theenk. Luke, Ike and Hank all there together. I saw them. I can tell you the truth. I know. You crazy if you go. I think you stay away Kid. Three against one is no good (Ibid.).
Andy Levine plays the role of Buck the stagecoach driver. As usual in such parts, he furnishes comedic relief. In "Stagecoach" he does it well—devastatingly so. At the very beginning of the film, as the stage leaves for Lordsburg, the sheriff is sitting with him topside and Buck tells the sheriff the story of his life.
I just took this job ten years ago so I could make enough money to marry my Mexican girl Julietta. I've been working hard at it ever since. My wife’s got more relatives than anyone you ever did see.
I bet I’m feeding half the state of Chihuahua. Yeah, and what do I get to eat when I get home to Lordsburg?.. Nothing but frijole beans that’s all—nothing but beans, beans, beans" (Ibid.).
One of the more devastating examples of the impact of stereotypes of Mexicans may be found in the walk—on, bit part that have little or nothing to do with the plot of the film. In "Two Rode Together" (1961), the film begins with a church bell ringing, a sleeping Mexican being roused from his position on the ground by it and the sheriff sitting in a straight-backed chair on the front porch of a saloon. A Mexican man, with apron on, approached the sheriff with a tray with a drink on it. His manner is very subservient. He informed sheriff Guthrie McCabe, played by Jimmy Stewart, that "the widow Gomez has delivered a son this morning—a boy." McCabe’s only comment was: "A boy for the widow Gomez." The waiter pushed on: "But senor, it has been more than a year ago since senor Antonio Gomez has been buried in the church house’ (Ford, 1961). Once again, a child is born to a Mexican woman and there is no clear accounting as to who the father might be. Similar characterizations may be found in other films released during that same period.
Within the category of walk-on, there is the specialization of buffoon. In "The Big Country" (1958) , in each appearance on screen, the Mexican is shown to be a clown. The most memorable has to do with the scene where Gregory Peck, the ex-sea captain who has come to marry the rancher’s daughter, attempts to ride the wildest horse on the place. The Mexican’s, who has been drafted by Peck to assist him, dialogue and mannerisms are hilarious and especially his obvious cowardice when he continually warns; "but senor, thees horse is mean. Eet is a killer. Eet is crazy to get on such a horse. Why do you weesh to do eet now. No one will see you" (Wyler, 1958). The Mexican does not understand the meaning of courage and that one does not need an audience to do that which is dangerous. The veiled implication is that if a Mexican cannot "show off" he will not take any risks simply for his own need. That same year, in "The Sheepman" with Glen Ford, the weakness of the Mexican is highlighted as it is justaposed with the strength and courage of the anglo man (Marshall, 1958). Once again, the Mexican is a very diminutive figure by comparison. He is in
cattle country with, a herd of sheep which Illustrates the extent of his stupidity. Constitutional rights had not gotten to that part of the country and one need to be brave, strong and forceful to enjoy any rights at all even under the best of conditions. The Mexican could only play the guitar well and neither he nor the sheep were considered as being part of an endangered species and both were therefore unprotected. Ford, from the outset, beat the biggest and toughest cowboy in town just so all would know that he was serious about exercising his right to raise sheep. He did not get chased off and once he had established that he could raise sheep if he wanted to, he sold his herd. The Mexican, meanwhile, was slain while guarding Ford’s herd. "Rio Bravo" (1959), shows John Wayne at his benevolent best by his willingness to associate with Mexicans and it shows the Mexican character at his worse. Carlos is a comic figure who constantly experiences marital problems with his wife, Consuela. In one scene, following yet another "friendly" argument, Carlos sought to placate Consuela by presenting her with a red petticoat. First, however, he modeled the petticoat for John Wayne and the other men and pirouetted in a quite feminine manner which was magnified by the fact that a great deal of tension was present surrounding the impending shootout with the "bad guys." The fact that he would later participate in the battle, by firing blindly and thereby helping create a distraction for Wayne and the other men, is of no consequence. Actually, that activity served only to esacerbate the perception of him as a weakling in that with that he was most inadequate and with the "unmanly" tasks, he was most remarkable (Hawks, 1959).
Between 1946 and 1958, several films were released which, had specific roles for Mexican females. The epic of the group had the least to do with Mexicans but is generally thought of as being otherwise. "Duel in The Sun" (1946), had nothing to do with Mexicans directly. The protagonist was a "halfbreed" daughter of an Indian woman and a creole man name Chavez. Unlike the creole of the "Zorro" film, this was a Louisiana, French creole who had wandered outside the marriage boundaries his family might have wished. His daughter, Pearl Chavez, is seen wearing what is apparently Mexican style clothing and because of her name and the color of her skin and the fact that the location of the action is the old southwest, but in spite of her being referred to as a "papoose" or "Minehaha," she come across in the film as Mexican and is therefore reacted to in kind. Her mother is described as a "loose woman" and is ultimately shot and killed by her husband when he discovers her with another man. Throughout the film, audiences are assurred that Pearl will follow in her mother’s footsteps. She is too beautiful and too "Mexican" and too unprotected by law not to. The more she protests to her new adopted mother, Laura Belle, the second cousin to her father, that: "I’m going to be a good girl. I promise I will. I want to be like you," the more we are convinced that she will meet with doom. The comment about wanting to "be like" Laura Belle is made while the two of them are cheek to cheek. Laura Belle’s skin looks like freshly fallen snow and Pearl’s is as copper as a penny (Vidor, 1946). She presents a character who is at once both brazen and naive. She flirts without knowing it and on other occasions she does so knowlingly. She is packaged in such a way that she entices and "bothers" every man who gazes upon her—from the rebel son to the preacher. She is the kind of woman that some men dream of and once attained, causes endless nightmares. She was bad and knew it and didn’t and the film made her incapable of differentiating between love and lust.
One of the all-time classic westerns is "High Noon" (1952) and one of the main characters in the film is a Mexican woman, Helen Ramirez, played by Kathy Jurado. Only one other Mexican was shown in the film and her appearance occur-
red during the opening moments; an elderly, portly Mexican woman, with crucifix around neck, is shown making the sign of the cross as Frank Miller’s gang entered the town of Hadleyville. Helen Ramirez is just the opposite. She own a saloon and is a hidden owner in the trading store. She is also the town tramp. With those two women, we cover the spectrum as far as the characterizations of Mexican women in film during that era is concerned—madonna to prostitute. At one point, Ramirez is the woman of Frank Miller, the outlaw. After he is arrested and sent off to prison, she became the sheriff’s woman. After the sheriff became engaged to a Quaker woman, she became the deputy’s woman. It is apparent that she needed to be associated with someone who could take care of her and who was strong enough not to be affected or personally attacked by any of the other men in the town. A weak man, especially a weak anglo man, would be the butt of everyone’s joke and all the other men would deride her in such a man’s presence without fear of his disapproval. It did not seem to matter to her on which side of the law that someone was. At one point in the film, she provided us with something of a reason for her behavior shen she said: "I hate this town. I’ve always hated it. To be a Mexican woman in a town like this... (Zinnemann, 1952). She is Mexican and she is a woman and neither is protected by any laws.
The 1950s closed with two very similar films having to do with Mexican women. "Cowboy" (1958) has Jack Lemmon as an anglo cowboy who, while passing through a small Mexican town with a trail herd, managed to woo the rich senorita, whose father owned the large hacienda, away from her intended to the point that she has doubts as to whether she loved the Mexican man after all (Davis, 1958). "Sierra Baron" (1958) has Brian Keith playing a roving, illiterate gunfighter who captivates Rita Gam who is the sister of the Baron of the hacienda and who experienced great difficulty from angles who sought gold on his property without his permission and who subsequently sought to drive him off. His hundreds of vaqueros are unable to stop their inroads. Keith, however, is able to turn them back. He is more of a man than her brother and all of his vaqueros (Clark, 1958) .
In many of the movies set in the old southwest, Mexican women are portrayed as almost standing in line waiting to get at the blonde "gringo" men who were just passing through. It did not seem to matter what their occupation or their planes were. Such men were always, by inference, more desirable to the women of those places than were the Mexican men who were there.
In recent years, there has been some improvements in the depiction of Mexican Americans in Hollywood films. In many ways, the positive results of those efforts are restricted to the young and to future generations. The effects are, in many ways, influenced by the age of the viewer. For those who are still of an age when their basic values are being imprinted, perhaps the greatest positive effects will be realized. For each successively older group, the positive results will be less. Those beyond the mid-forty mark would be affected the least. Dr. Morris E. Masses of the Sociology Department of the University of Colorado contends that "What you are is where you were when"— when one’s value system was put into place (Massy, 1976). In short, the manner in which a person see themselves and, more to the point, how they see others, is greatly influenced by where and when they were value imprinted. If it is true that basic values are in place by adolescence and that media does have an impact on those values, then it is fairly safe to say that the movies produced and released during the period between the 1920s and the 1960s did indeed have a detrimental effect on how Mexicans and Mexican Americans are perceived by those whose values were implanted during those years. Morever, those of the
subject groups who viewed those same films, consciously or unconsciously had their self-concepts negatively affected.
The average age of corporate executives in the United States is fifty-plus years old. The President of the United States is in his mid-seventies. People of his age grouping might have seen D.W. Griffith’s "Birth of A Nation" (1915), probably saw the original, silent movie version of "Zorro" (1920) and many of both groups such early westerns with negative images of Mexicans as "The Mexican's Revenge" (1908), "The Greasers Gauntlet" (1908), "The Greaser" (1913), "The Girl and The Greaser" (1913), "The Greaser's Revenge" (1914), "Arms and the Gringo" (1914), The Mexican" (1914), "A Mexican Spy in Arizona" (1914) or "Guns and Greasers".(1918), either when they were first released or during re-issue.
Fortunately, with the exception of the first two mentioned, the remainder of those films are not availabe for general public viewing today. The fact that there are still many who viewed those films when they were available and that they maintain whatever perceptions of Mexicans the derived from such films is unfortunate to say the least. Those from the target period have done their damage and they are currently in the process of redoing it through their being sired on television. Whether their effects are as diastrous to today’s generations as they have been to those in the past, will be determined, in part, by newer roles for Mexicans in films and a more complete and accurate description of Mesican and Mexican American history and culture in the textbooks and popular literature of today.
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Clark, James B., Director, Sierra Baron, (1958).
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Daves, Delmer, Director, Cowboy, (1958).
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Fleischer, Richard, Director, Bandido, (1956).
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There are many such films in this group but the four chosen are quiet representative. Vera Cruz which was released in 1954 has [not legible] a background yet another view of the many