The question might have sounded puzzling even a year ago, but with ever-explosive debates on identity and authorship in popular culture (see the publishing industry scandal over “American Dirt”), the question of Banderas’ proper demographic designation became relevant with the arrival of the 2020 Academy Awards.
When the nominations were announced on Jan. 13, some news outlets initially declared that Banderas was a “person of color” along with lead actress and original song nominee Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”), perhaps in search of a silver lining to the dismally monochrome slate of acting nominations. Banderas’ demo was called into question almost immediately by those who pointed out that the actor was born and raised in Spain.
Banderas’ performance as Salvador Mallo, a film director who salves his intense physical pain with nostalgic flashbacks and hard drugs, already won him the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and Los Angeles Film Critics Awards, along with his first Academy Award nomination, but don’t expect all sectors of U.S. Latinidad to embrace him as one of their own if he wins the Oscar.
The topic is a reflection of the ever-shifting currents of our language of identity, where racial and gender labels are simultaneously intensely guarded and intensely questioned, often in real time on social media. The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino,” for example, are generally interchangeable in U.S. society, yet in some circles — and in recent years particularly — they’ve become starkly different things.
“I don’t think Antonio Banderas qualifies as a person of color. I think he’s a wonderful person and a wonderful actor, but he’s European,” said Claudia Puig, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, echoing common refrains heard initially online. “Yes, he is Hispanic, because he’s from Spain, but he’s not from Latin America, so he’s not Latino.”
Puig and others contend that the distinction is a crucial one. In recent years, studies of diversity among Academy ranks and awardees usually lump actors and filmmakers from Spanish-speaking countries with “Hispanic” or “Latino” tallies, which some argue sidelines the still deeply underrepresented contributions to film of U.S.-born Latinos.
Officially, Banderas is designated as Hispanic or Latino by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy allows members to self-identify when marking their race or ethnicity, a spokesperson said.
So which is it?
Banderas himself addressed the topic on national Spanish-language television recently, speaking in a recorded call to Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, for the Sunday morning talk show “Al Punto.”
“I know what I am, I am absolutely not bothered if I am considered to belong to a group of color,” Banderas said from his hometown of Málaga, where he recently closed a stage production of “A Chorus Line.” “When I am in the United States, I have considered myself Latino, because they are the people who I communicate with, who are my friends and speak my language,” he told Ramos.
For Banderas, language has been a binding agent with his U.S. Latino and Latin American audiences, but not expressly so. The actor gained mainstream prominence in the United States for his brawny performances in the pulpy Robert Rodriguez franchise of “El Mariachi,” starting with the English-language “Desperado” in 1995, in which he plays an overtly Latin type who wields a machine gun hidden in a mariachi guitar case.
But the actor had by then already established a Hollywood presence without punching in the Latino tropes, including English-speaking roles in “Interview With the Vampire” opposite Brad Pitt, and in “Philadelphia,” with Oscar winner Tom Hanks.
But few of Banderas’ acting roles are regarded as memorably as his multiple performances in Spanish-language films by Almodóvar, starting with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” in 1988. The collaborators have made seven films together since, mooring both men deeply in the canon of Spain’s cinema.
And like them, Spain’s place in the U.S. pop cultural imagination is also increasingly in contention. In the last year, online critics have hammered the Grammys and the Billboard charts for placing pop flamenco singer Rosalía — like Banderas, born in Spain — in their “Latin” categories. Rosalía’s 2019 release “El Mal Querer” won Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album at this year’s Grammys, cementing the singer’s pop status in the States, despite her naysayers.
Banderas, whose managers did not respond to a request for comment from the actor for this article, has hinted before at a unifying theory to address the distinction. In 2015, he delivered an impassioned manifesto for a kind of pan-Latino, pan-Iberian unity in the global film industry, while accepting an honorary award at the Premios Platino.
“We all love our country of origin, but we can without a doubt embrace the idea of the Latin and be proud of being Hispanics,” Banderas said. “No one will value us if we don’t do it ourselves first.”
Banderas’ comments at the ceremony hinted at how muddled the question of identity has become, even for Spaniards. In the speech, he introduced himself firstly as a native of Málaga, which he declared made him partly “Phoenician, Muslim, Roman and Picassian” (the city is in the Andalusian region of Spain, which is deeply Islamic and Arabic in historical influence). He saluted the “Latin communities” with which he shared not just a language but a “desire to dream,” and called for greater representation for all groups. He enumerated how many films he’s made in each of the Latin American countries where he’s worked, from Mexico to Argentina.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to Hispanics what is ours,” Banderas said.
But current tastemakers aren’t entirely on board with the Banderas doctrine.
In a New York Times op-ed responding to this year’s perceived snub of Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers,” L.A.-based film critic Carlos Aguilar argued that including foreign-born Spanish-speaking actors in diversity or representation numbers in the media risks erasing the struggles and discrimination often faced by U.S.-born Latinos, such as Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans.
A nomination for Lopez would have been seen as vindication for the Academy Awards ignoring her star-making turn in “Selena” (1997).
For the past decade, it seemed significant progress was made, if visibility for Mexican-born Latino artists is weighed. The prize-winning directors known as the “Three Amigos,” referring to Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu, have won five of the last six Oscars for directing, but are not in the running this year. Do these celebrated directors from south of the border represent U.S.-born Mexican Americans in the same way? Some argue they don’t.
“Because they had all these great films for all these years, they became the symbol of Latino representation,” Aguilar said of the Mexican directors. “But now that no [Latino] got nominated, it takes off that Band-Aid. … It’s not the same being from Latin America as being a Latino from the United States.”
A deeper question at play is the fact that the boundaries in all these labels are constantly changing, from Hispanic (popular on the East Coast, shunned on the West Coast) to Latinx (the gender-neutral, digital-native term preferred by younger groups and in academia).
Broadly speaking, some of these debates are for naught. A majority of U.S. Latinos profess no preference between “Hispanic” and “Latino” when self-identifying, according to the Pew Research Center. Those who did overwhelmingly chose “Hispanic,” the nonpartisan data clearinghouse says.
Murkier still, Pew has found that an estimated 5 million people in the United States have Hispanic or Latino heritage (when specifically asked) but do not identify with either term. In addition, some 37 percent of U.S. Latinos decline to pick one of the five standard racial designations, choosing instead “some other race” when marking their background. And that figure is growing.
It all comes down to self-identification, said Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, a senior researcher for Pew in Washington, and self-identification is subjective.
“We’ve never sat down and said, ‘This is it,’” Gonzalez-Barrera said, in regard to an ultimate demographic definition of the group it surveys. “We allow people to tell us, we don’t impose that. So it can cross many boundaries and include many people who might not traditionally be considered Hispanic.”
And the murkiness is multiplying. Hyphenated or compound terms for various ethnic, racial or color subgroups of Hispanic or Latino now flood the Internet. Anyone who identifies with either of the umbrella terms can also be black, white or indigenous. Plus, Latinos can also be Asian, Jewish or virtually any other ethnicity available, in any combination therein (Pew also happens to monitor “Hispanics with origins from Spain”).
Even national origin has become a matter of perspective.
“There are a lot of gray areas,” said Aguilar, who was born in Mexico and is a DACA recipient. “I would say a lot of Dreamers or undocumented people might see themselves as U.S. Latinos, even if they were born outside of the country.”
Banderas’ identity notwithstanding, advocates of greater representation for Latinos or Hispanics say that despite the gains in recent years (including last year’s lead actress nomination for indigenous Oaxacan actress Yalitza Aparicio for “Roma”), much more needs to be done to move the needle overall. U.S. Hispanics “over-index” at the box office but remain woefully underrepresented in front of and behind the camera, industry players pointed out.
“I think it’s an off year for us,” said Benjamin Lopez, executive director of NALIP, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.
“We know the pitfalls, and the structural issues to build that pipeline of talent, which can lead to nominations not being forthcoming, especially in a year like this,” Lopez added. He also pointed to the Lopez snub, as well as to Kenyan-Mexican star Lupita Nyong’o (born in Mexico City, and a Spanish speaker) being ignored for Jordan Peele’s “Us.” “It’s disconcerting to know that inclusivity was not prioritized, especially on performances,” Lopez said.
On Univision, Banderas, who is 59 and now lives in England, described memories of filling out his first demographic forms when he began working in the United States with “white” but being told he should mark “Hispanic.” This confused him, he said, because that didn’t sound like a race category.
But Banderas went with it, he recalled, and he seems to embrace the confusion. “I’m happy to be Hispanic, happy to be a Spaniard, happy to be Latino,” the actor said on Univision with a shrug.