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Latinos in Films

05 Dec 2016Film Essays

A silent motion picture released in the year 1920, The Mark of Zorro showed Douglas Fairbanks as a heroic representative of the Spanish colony of California. He was Don Diego Vega alias Zorro, a kind of batman or superman against forces of evil. He was also the Robin Hood hiding himself behind a mask. When he acted on behalf of Spain, he was weak, effeminate and a traitor besides. But, when Zorro took his stand against evildoers he was strong, powerful, and all words connected to the faithful – he was faithful to his people, and worked to end their sorrows. As a representative of America, democracy and freedom, Zorro found his calling. He could act brutally to attain his ends with the best interests of innocent people at heart. As an example of his brutality, he scarred the faces of the enemies with his signature, “Z.” Nevertheless, Zorro became an American hero, but only because he championed the values of America. Brutality was forgotten, only values remained.

On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, released in 2003, starts with Johnny Depp (called Sands in the film) portraying a corrupt agent of CIA, thoroughly influenced by the Mexican way of life, walking into a restaurant (small and Mexican) wearing black clothes and dark glasses in a full display of machismo. Unlike Zorro who is fully macho only when he fights to help the innocent people from evildoers; the CIA agent in the 2003 film is macho in all his evil ways. At the restaurant, Sands meets up with his sidekick, Cucuy, and literally barks his commands at him. Also unlike Zorro, Sands cannot be effeminate. The American mind is set. Today, the Latin American population is said to be adding woes to the life of Americans.

There are far too many Latinos than America would like within its borders. They are settling for jobs at low wage rates, and also said to be corrupting the healthcare system that simply cannot accommodate the huge number of immigrants in the nation. It is for this reason that the CIA agent in the 2003 film is portrayed as a corrupt individual – somebody that just cannot be trusted, despite the fact that his job is to protect the honor of people, just like the job taken up by Zorro in the 1920 film. After all, Sands has spent a considerable amount of time in Mexico – the present day Mexico, with all its woes and worries, trickling into the United States in the form of illegal immigrants.

Of course, both Zorro and Sands are powerful fighters. Zorro has a sword that flashes, in addition to humor in his warrior moves. He rescues many people from dishonor. Sands, too, is a necessary part of the American life – a defender, because he is brawny. At one point Sands’ eyes have been gouged out, there are bullet wounds in his arms and legs, but he manages to annihilate the evildoers that approach him. As a matter of fact, Sands appears indestructible, but that may be because he is not really Mexican. He has only been influenced by the Mexican way of life. The way he dresses, moves, and walks shows the spirit of Mexico within the United States in the twenty first century. Sands speaks for Mexico thus: “Mexico is my beat, and I’m walking it.” Nevertheless, he continues to look down upon most Mexicans in the film.

Just as Zorro cannot take a stand for Spain, Sands cannot take a stand for Mexico. America must rule, after all. But, that is not the most important point that Once Upon a Time in Mexico is making. The film made in the twenty first century is quite obviously racist, and proudly so. While it agrees with the general climate of racism against immigrants on the American soil at a time of healthcare crisis and recession – the film released in 2003 is also enforcing the belief that one group of people, namely the Americans, are better than another group of people – Latin Americans in this case. Zorro did not get a chance to bark in the film made in 1920. Music was not played in the film either. However, Once Upon a Time in Mexico reveals the association between violence, guns and music among the Latin Americans.

El Mariachi is played by Antonio Banderas, also a very sturdy fighter who can escape like superman despite tranquilizers. He is a musician and a gun slinger. Unlike Don Diego who plays the fool while trying to court Lolita Pulido, El Mariachi is best at everything. Don Diego used cheap magic tricks and very bad manners to seduce the woman who was disgusted at him, although she was charmed by Zorro with his mask on. On the contrary, El Mariachi knows almost everything he must know. He is so bright that he rescues the president and the future of the Mexican nation.

Zorro is a good guy with a mask. The masked man in the 2003 film, however, is a mafia lord, who goes through plastic surgery to appear as somebody else. While Zorro’s intentions are good each time he hurts another human being – Once Upon a Time in Mexico shows the Latin American culture at its worst, with numberless innocent people being killed for no reason whatsoever. Of course, there are innumerable viewers of such action/thriller films. Producers of films are out to make money. At the same time, however, it is a fact that The Mark of Zorro reveals the Latin American culture at its best – with a hero fighting for the deliverance of the weak – while the film released in 2003 only teaches something that viewers would best keep away from. Zorro brings a good lesson for humanity. Once Upon a Time in Mexico, on the other hand, shows the degradation of humanity at the hands of power greedy money lovers that keep on increasing in number, leaving the viewer with a taste of hopelessness by the end of the film. As a matter of fact, by the end of the 2003 film, the viewer is made to believe that the Latin American culture is hopeless because the men have all turned to violent machismo instead of acting as saviors of humanity like Zorro or Jesus Christ.

Although Zorro is a savior of the newly integrating Spanish Americans into the American way of life, Lolita is not interested in the goodly Don Diego until he whips his sword out before her eyes, wins all soldiers over to his side, and compels the governor to renounce power. Lolita is attracted to his power after she has seen his unbelievable physical prowess. She is not unlike Carolina, played by Salma Hayek, who is attracted to the power of El Mariachi when she leaves the General to be with the musician instead. Enrique Iglesias also sings in the 2003 film. When he sings, all women fall madly in love with him; they scream while thrusting money at Iglesias. Men are at the center of attention in the 2003 film. In the 1920 film, the woman still had her own way until she saw the powers of Zorro revealed before her eyes.

Of course, Lolita was attracted to Zorro at the time because he possessed what she did not possess, namely power. The women in the 2003 film are also powerless against the men. They die at the first shot, whereas the men continue fighting for victory in spite of terrible wounds. When Sands has had his eyes gouged out of their sockets, Eva Mendes approaches him for a kiss. As mentioned previously, Latin American women are great lovers of men throughout the film. Although Sands is bleeding profusely when he is approached by Mendes, he shoots her as soon as she approaches him for a kiss. She dies instantly, but Sands walks away with bullet holes in his body. Similarly, Carolina and El Mariachi’s daughter are killed in the film. When El Mariachi comes to rescue them, he too is attacked by gunmen, although he escapes death.

In other words, Latin American men are portrayed as superhuman, almost invincible, whereas the women are weak and only attracted by the power of men. It is as though they are different creatures altogether – males and females – both in the The Mark of Zorro and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. If these films had portrayed powerful women whom men fell madly in love with – the viewer’s perception of the Latin American culture would be completely different. Countless Hollywood films have shown powerful women that men are ready to die for. In these two films portraying the Latin American culture, however, it is only the physical prowess of the men that wins the day. Nothing else seems to matter. While some fight for the cause of evil, others fight to eradicate evil. Still, it is only the male who has the power to physically harm another. The woman gasps in awe at his unique powers and lives for as long as another man does not take her innocent life.

Of course, Don Diego was different before he assumed the masked personality of the tough fighter he turned out to be. He almost shirked at the thought of violence, unlike the readymade violent men of the 2003 film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Yet another reason (apart from Lolita) that compels Don Diego to become Zorro is the oppressive regime he ultimately defeats. The 2003 film is also about corrupt government officials. Watching the two films one after another would only leave the viewer with a bad feeling about Latino governments. Undoubtedly, Latinos are associated with poverty in the viewer’s mind. Poverty and corruption work hand in hand. Hence, this stereotype cannot be challenged as the others.

Then again, all stereotypes may ultimately be challenged. Every Latino male is not effeminate before he takes up the cause of fighting evil or being evil, just as every Latino female is not attracted to violent men. Evita was a powerful woman portrayed in another film, and she was not violent. All the same, both The Mark of Zorro and Once Upon a Time in Mexico portray powerless women that do not mind being with men that can be extremely violent, regardless of the cause they fight for. Are all Latin American men physically very strong? – Most probably not. Zorro was an exception in the film. On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in Mexico had plenty of Zorro’s and anti-Zorro’s, probably because in the Information Age we hear more about violence in Latin American countries.

Many saviors are required to end the problems in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Even if El Mariachi is the best among the lot, the viewer, by the end of the film, contemplates the problems he or she has witnessed through the film and asks for many saviors to help destroy evil on the planet. Zorro’s film, on the contrary, is ultimately positive because it allows the power of a single soul to defeat evil – thereby encouraging the common man to rise and fight for the end of evil. Regardless of good and evil, however, many of the stereotypes live on.

Works Cited

  • Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Dir. Robert Rodriguez. Perf. Antonio Banderas, Salma
  • Hayek, Johnny Depp. Columbia Pictures, 2003.
  • The Mark of Zorro. Dir. Fred Niblo & Theodore Reed. Perf. Douglas Fairbanks,
  • Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery, Robert McKim. United Artists, 1920.

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