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Research Articles

Reel Latinas? Race, gender, and asymmetric recognition in contemporary film

Pages 181-198
Received 18 Jun 2012
Accepted 15 Feb 2013
Published online: 16 May 2013

This article argues that idealized portrayals of immigrants prevalent in political discourse must be scrutinized for their support of gender and racial nationalism and the effects they have on our understanding of (Latina/o) immigrant inclusion and democracy. Through the examination of three contemporary films with Latina leads – Real Women Have Curves, Spanglish, and Quinceañera – the article argues that these discourses rely on an asymmetric recognition of Latina/os. This form of recognition involves the denial by dominant groups of their inter-dependency with other groups and the imposition on Latina/os of an identity that does not threaten their privileged standing. The films offer views of Latina/o culture as overtly traditional; a “culture” that must either be abandoned or appropriated by anti-feminist (postfeminist) agendas in order to assuage anxieties regarding the transformations of the heteronormative middle-class family. The article concludes by drawing parallels between the positive portrayals of Latinas in these films and prominent arguments in the immigration debate that rely on constructions of deserving immigrants to push for extensions of membership.


A very early version of this paper was presented at the 2008 Women's Worlds Conference in Madrid, Spain. This article benefitted from insightful comments and suggestions along the way. For these, I would like to thank Hollie Mann, Alyson Price, as well as two anonymous referees for Politics, Groups, and Identities. The title is inspired by bell hooks' (1996) book Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies.


I enclose “culture” between quotation marks, to note that I refer to the constructions of culture that the films under analysis put forward, rather than to a genuine, complex, and critical conceptualization of culture. Also to note – with Paul Gilroy (2004 Gilroy, Paul. 2004. Postcolonial Melancholia, New York: Columbia University Press.  [Google Scholar], 144) – that old-style racial hierarchies persist in the language of absolute cultural difference.

Given that the three movies examined in this paper portray exclusively Mexican-American women, men, or families, I use “Latina/o” and “Mexican-American” indistinctly.

Unless I am quoting, I enclose “America” and “American” in quotation marks to remind the reader of its “ethnocentric genealogy, which appropriates the whole of the Americas in naming citizens of the United States and often tends to assume a WASP-centered historicity” (Mendible 2007 Mendible, Myra. 2007. “Embodying 'Latinidad': An Overview”. In From Bananas to Buttocks. The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, Edited by: Mendible, M. 128. Austin: University of Texas Press. [Crossref] [Google Scholar], 22).

I am not implying that Latinas cannot pursue higher education without abandoning their cultural roots, but rather that the film's narrative takes those roots to be the main obstacle to professional success.

It is notable that since 2000, the existing immigration regime provides undocumented migrants who are victims of domestic violence or of trafficking the opportunity of attaining legal status when they are helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime (National Network to End Domestic Violence 2012 National Network to End Domestic Violence. 2012. U Visa Laws for Crime Victims January 2, 2012. http://www.womenslaw.org/laws_state_type.php?id=10271&state_code=US&open_id=all - content-10372 [Google Scholar]). This measure, passed as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, relies and cements the gendered deservingness of migrants and presents the United States as protector of these women, disavowing the occurrence of these acts among US citizens.

The stereotype of the “Latina señorita” dates to the 1930s, when the Good Neighbor policy made cultural ambassadors of Hollywood studios in a time of isolationism. These characters are noble and chaste and serve as cultural ambassadors for Latino and non-Latino male characters who desire them (M. Beltrán 2009 Beltrán, Mary. 2009. Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.  [Google Scholar], 83).

The film reverses RWHC's metaphor; it is white women's eagerness to enter the labor market and search for success in “male” terms that constrains bodies.

In 2004, 11 States passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, tying such proposal to ballots to boost turn-out. In 2006 – the year of Quinceañera's release – President Bush publicly supported such an Amendment at the federal level, at that time under consideration in the Senate (Molina Guzmán 2010 Molina Guzmán, Isabel. 2010. Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Media, New York: New York University Press. [Crossref] [Google Scholar], 159–161). Finally, in the 2008 elections, Californians passed Proposition 8, constitutionally banning same-sex marriage in the state. Even if more than half of the resources for the campaign for this ban reportedly came from the Mormon Church and its passage followed white Evangelicals' mobilization, some progressive voices blamed people of color for the defeat (CNN 2006 CNN. 2006. GOP Renews Fight Against Gay Marriage. CNN Politics, Accessed April 3. http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/06/05/same.sex.marriage/ [Google Scholar]). Studies of that election find that even if Blacks are more likely to support a ban on gay marriage than whites, if both the Latino and Black turnout had remained at 2004 levels, Proposition 8 would still have passed (Campbell and Monson 2008 Campbell, David E. and Monson, J. Quin. 2008. The Religion Card. Gay Marriage and the 2004 Presidential Election. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72(3): 399419. (doi:10.1093/poq/nfn032)[Crossref], [Web of Science ®] [Google Scholar], 412; Goldberg 2008 Goldberg, Michelle. 2008. Proposition 8, the Mormon Coming Out Party. Religious Dispatches, November 21, 2008 [Google Scholar]; Kim 2008 Kim, Richard. 2008. Marital Discord: Why Prop 8 Won. The Nation, : 2008 November 24 [Google Scholar]). Other studies find that, at the county level, the percentage of Latina/os has a negative (or – if positive – weak) effect on the likelihood that a county majority will favor a same-sex marriage ban (Abrajano 2010 Abrajano, Marisa. 2010. Are Blacks and Latinos Responsible for the Passage of Proposition 8? Analyzing Voter Attitudes on California's Proposal to Ban Same-Sex Marriage in 2008. Political Research Quarterly, 63(4): 922932. (doi:10.1177/1065912910373555)[Crossref], [Web of Science ®] [Google Scholar]).

While a portion of Latina/os are Evangelicals, this a minority denomination compared to Catholicism. Recent surveys find that Latina/os that identify as Catholics are a majority (between 60 and 68%) (McVeigh and Diaz 2009 McVeigh, Rory and Diaz, Maria-Elena D. 2009. Voting to Ban Same-Sex Marriage: Interests, Values, and Communities. American Sociological Review, 74(6): 891915. (doi:10.1177/000312240907400603)[Crossref], [Web of Science ®] [Google Scholar]). Among them, 54% identify as “charismatic Christians,” a much higher prevalence than among non-Latina/os (Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2007 Pew Hispanic Center, and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 2007. Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion, Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.  [Google Scholar]). Evangelicals, in contrast, constitute only about 15% of the Latina/o population (3). Estimations of the evolution of religiosity among Latina/os that assume a 50% growth in conversion rates to Evangelism put the rate of Catholic Latina/os at a minimum of 57% in 2030 (Hernández et al. 2007 Hernández, Edwin I., G. Davis, Kenneth, Peña, Milagros, Schiopu, Georgian, Smith, Jeffrey and Matthew, T. Loveland. 2007. “Faith and Values in Action: Religion, Politics, and Social Attitudes Among US Latinos/as”. In Research Reports, University of Notre Dame Institute of Latino Studies.  [Google Scholar], 3; Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2007, 64).

Studies of attitudes of Latina/os toward gay marriage show a small difference between the opinions of this population and that of “non-Hispanic” whites. A recent report finds that Latina/os are somewhat less likely than average to favor gay marriage, but also much less likely to actively oppose it (34% versus 39% and 44% versus 53%, respectively) (Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2007, 13–14). Among Latina/os registered to vote, a majority (52%) would oppose a constitutional ban on gay marriage, while 40% would favor it (Pew Hispanic Center 2009 Pew Hispanic Center. 2009. “Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America”. In Millenials: A Portrait of Generation Next, Edited by: Center, P. R. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.  [Google Scholar], 66).

On June 15, 2012, President Obama introduced a policy of deferred action that followed the outlines of the DREAM Act (except for the college requirement). The policy – widely interpreted as a nod to Latino voters – maintains the generational break and the focus on military service and educational attainment problematized in this paper (Cushman 2012 Cushman, John H. Jr. 2012. U.S. to Stop Deporting Some Illegal Immigrants. The New York Times, June 15. [Google Scholar]).

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