Ethnicities Obscured, Celebrated
Henry Silva is one of those character actors who are the glory of American motion pictures--we may not know his name, but we instantly recognize him in the dozens of vivid roles he has played over the years: A Korean manservant in “The Manchurian Candidate,” an Indian brave in “The Plainsman,” a Sicilian mobster in “Johnny Cool.” His all-purpose ethnicity says something profound about how Hollywood has denied and reinvented the racial and cultural identities of some of its finest actors.
What we learn about Henry Silva in “Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 Years in Film and Television,” by Luis Reyes and Peter Rubie (iFilm Publishing/Lone Eagle, $21.95, 592 pages), is that his ethnicity is not so ambiguous as his filmography might suggest. Born in Brooklyn in 1927 to Italian-Puerto Rican parents, when he came to Hollywood he was pressed into service as a kind of multicultural jack-of-all-trades.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Oct. 5, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 5, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect name: Wednesday’s West Words column misidentified the father of Emilio Estevez. He is Martin Sheen.
An illuminating and entertaining survey of films and television programs in which Latino actors, settings or themes figure prominently, “Hispanics in Hollywood” is full of such surprises. Anthony Quinn, perhaps best known as Zorba the Greek, is only one of many actors whose Mexican origins were once concealed, and there are many others whose Latino roots have only recently come to public attention, ranging from Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Cansino) to John Gavin (born John Anthony Golenar) to Raquel Welch (born Raquel Tejada). And it was a young Emilio Estevez who boldly reclaimed his own Latino family history and thus revealed to the world that the real name of his father, Charlie Sheen, is Ramon Estevez.
More often Latino actors found themselves in an awkward dilemma in Hollywood, as the authors of “Hispanics in Hollywood” point out--if their Latino identities were not concealed, they were put to use in depicting stereotyped Latino characters: “maids, slum dwellers, drug addicts and gang members,” co-author Luis Reyes reminds us, or “cruel dictators, mustachioed bandits and beautiful sen~oritas.”
Only in the last couple of decades have Latino actors and directors enjoyed the opportunity to tell stories about their own heritage in a more open, honest and affirming voice in movies such as “Zoot Suit,” “La Bamba,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Selena” and “A Walk in the Clouds.”
Reyes, a movie publicist who is also a chronicler of Hollywood’s Latin American heritage, describes the book as “an attempt to show the way Hollywood has depicted Hispanic Americans and Latin America, while also pointing out the contributions to Hollywood movies and television made by unsung Hispanic Americans as well as those more famous.” Thus, his book can be approached as a serious effort to ponder the issues of race and ethnicity in American pop culture and, at the same time, as one of those useful reference works that can be pulled down from the shelf when puzzling over some old and obscure movie on cable.
“Latino Metropolis,” by Victor M. Valle and Rodolfo D. Torres (University of Minnesota Press, $18.95, 248 pages), delves even more deeply--and with a much sharper sense of alarm--into what its authors call “the Latinization of Los Angeles,” a city where the Latino population already makes up 45% of the total population and is fast approaching an outright majority.
The authors view the urban landscape of L.A. from a scholarly prospective--Valle, a former writer for The Times, is a professor of ethnic studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Torres is a professor of education at UC Irvine--and they have taken careful observations and measurements of the political, economic and social factors that affect the Latino population, ranging from the globalization of the Southern California economy to the shrinkage in housing, schools and social services. Caught among these seemingly blind and irresistible forces, however, are human beings, and the authors issue a dire warning that we ignore the poor and disempowered among us at our own peril.
“The effect of all this is to render the population that ‘occupies’ Central Los Angeles invisible politically and economically, to be policed but not seen or heard [from],” the authors declare. “In this sense, the Los Angeles implosion in 1992 was not a riot or an uprising or an intifada, not an uprising or quite a revolt, but the overflowing of anger no longer containable.”
“Latin Metropolis” is soaked with the same volatile blend of sharp analysis and white-hot rhetoric. The authors characterize their work as “a political economy approach informed by both a Marxist and a critical ‘postmodern’ social theory.” Thus, for example, Los Angeles is described as “Johannesburg by the sea, with lines of ‘racial’ demarcation only more formally drawn under apartheid,” and the Los Angeles Times is described as “still dominant among the blueblood elite.”
Indeed, the authors occasionally engage in a kind of rhetorical overkill. At one point, the authors condemn former Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl for indulging in “Hispanicizing nostalgia” by failing to disclose that the author of an early and influential book of recipes, first published in 1898, was a descendant of “one of Alta California’s wealthiest and most tragic of the elite ranchero families,” the Berryesa family. Reichl is praised for noting that “nouvelle” California cuisine can be traced to old Mexican culinary traditions, but, as far as I can make out, she is criticized for failing to point out that “Yankee miners, soldiers, and vigilantes lynched or shot a total of eight Berryesa men.”
“Intended or not,” the authors insist, “her omissions leave much of the Hispanic fantasy legacy intact.”
Clearly, “Latino Metropolis” seeks to hold us all to the very highest standards when it comes to understanding and honoring the Latino traditions of California and accommodating the urgent needs of its growing Latino population. And the fact is that its verbal pyrotechnics serve their intended purpose--the authors manage to catch and hold our attention with the occasional verbal blow, and then they deliver a sober (and sobering) lecture on the hard realities of multiculturalism.