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Pasion por Peliculas: Film professor examines how Latinos are countering stereotypes in Hollywood cinema

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To grasp how much Dr. Charles Ramírez Berg loves film, one need only look at his office walls. There’s a poster for the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Vertigo,” which Ramírez Berg went to see every day for a week when he was just a boy, walking downtown to the theater from his El Paso home. There’s a poster for “Lord of the Rings” inscribed to Ramírez Berg by the film’s director Peter Jackson.

And among other posters is one for the Robert Rodriguez film “El Mariachi.” Written in black ink across the image is Rodriguez’s inscription: “Charles! The coolest teacher of all time….”

Charles Ramirez Berg
Dr. Charles Ramírez Berg, Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film, is an expert on Mexican cinema and images of Latinos in U.S. cinema.

It’s an apt statement for Ramírez Berg, Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin. Ramírez Berg has won all university-wide teaching awards and has been repeatedly voted one of the university’s best teachers in student polls.

And it’s also apt that the statement appears on a poster for “El Mariachi.” Famously made for just $7,000, the movie drew international attention to Rodriguez, who studied at the university and is today arguably the most successful Latino filmmaker in Hollywood. As a filmmaker, Rodriguez has worked to counter the stereotypical ways that Latinos have been portrayed in mainstream movies.

This is the very work Ramírez Berg espouses. An expert on both Mexican cinema and images of Latinos in American cinema, he has been keenly watching the film industry evolve to make room for a larger variety of voices, including those of Latinos.

“For decades Hollywood represented Latinos mainly with negative stereotypes,” he says. “Now we’re seeing those images begin to change.”

Ramírez Berg grew up in El Paso in love with the movies, but it took him awhile to realize that he could make a life of studying them. He majored in biological sciences and was on his way to begin a medical degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston when he stopped his car in San Antonio. He’d changed his mind.

From then on, Ramírez Berg’s career has centered around film. After earning a master’s degree at The University of Texas at Austin, he spent several years reviewing movies in El Paso. At the time, he realized that although Mexico was just across the Rio Grande, there were no reviews of Mexican movies available in English in El Paso. So he started writing some.

For decades Hollywood represented Latinos mainly with negative stereotypes. Now we're seeing those images begin to change. Dr. Charles Ramirez Berg“It just so happened that Mexican film was in the midst of this boom called New Mexican Cinema,” Ramírez Berg says. “My articles in El Paso were the first reviews of Mexican films from Juarez. And I discovered that there was at the time no book-length critical study of Mexican film in English.”

So Ramírez Berg wrote that book, building on the research he did when returning to the university as a doctorate student in 1983. And he also started looking at U.S. films, specifically noting how Latinos were portrayed. What he discovered was that Latinos were generally given stock characteristics in films, falling into one of several dominant stereotypes.

“It seems to me that what goes on with stereotyping in movies is you set up this ideal and then you get all the variations that get further from that ideal,” Ramírez Berg says. “If you are black, you are far from that ideal, or if you are Chinese or if you are Mexican. The more you look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, the closer you are going to get to that ideal. The problem is, how many of us look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie?”

Not only were Latinos outside the Hollywood ideal, but they had been repeatedly portrayed negatively by Hollywood itself.

In his book “Latino Images in Film” Ramírez Berg lays out six familiar stereotypes. There’s the harlot, the male buffoon, the female clown, the Latin lover, the dark lady and the most pervasive stereotype of all, “el bandido.”

The Latino bandit, a standard figure in Westerns and adventure films, is notoriously unkempt, with missing teeth and greasy hair. He is cruel, dishonest, emotional and quick to resort to violence. In modern films he’s evolved into either a dapper drug dealer or an urban gang member. But he remains vicious and criminal.

Mexican star Alfonso Bedoya plays Gold Hat in 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'
Mexican star Alfonso Bedoya plays the role of Gold Hat, a classic bandido, in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) directed by John Huston. Film still: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Ramírez Berg realized how familiar the bandido stereotype was when he was giving a lecture to a group of Fulbright Scholars. The scholars from all over the world were on campus to learn about American culture and higher education before going on to their respective universities. In the midst of his lecture, Ramírez Berg asked the scholars if they could describe el bandido. Hands went up around the room.

Ramírez Berg realized that these highly educated individuals from Asia, Europe and Africa were able to detail the stereotype perfectly. This negative image of the Latino had been disseminated across the globe.

“Part of the problem with some stereotypes is that they are the only image of a certain group out there,” he says. “If the negative stereotype stands alone or is a single, consistent representation, or misrepresentation, rather, of a group, then that is when it becomes dangerous.”

The question Ramírez Berg began asking, and being asked, is what can change the stereotype. He began to identify strategies to help. And then he discovered those strategies at work in a surprising medium: the television commercial.

Aimed at the growing market of Latinos in the country, the television commercial has had to update its message making. These 30-second narratives may be created to sell products, but some of them are very progressive in how they portray Latinos.

Take a Coke commercial starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek. The scene is a chic Hollywood restaurant, with white tablecloths and a hushed room. The commercial cuts to the restaurant’s kitchen, where a glamorous Hayek eats tacos and drinks Coke with the Latino kitchen staff. The scene is animated, with music and rapid-fire Spanish being spoken. After finishing her food, Hayek rushes to the dining room, where a table of executives greets her, the movie star they’ve been awaiting. Hayek refuses her plate of fancy food, saying with a sly smile that she’s watching her figure.

Salma Hayek in a Coke commercialvideo icon WATCH A CLIP (QuickTime) featuring Mexican actress Salma Hayek in a Coke commercial.

“Hollywood Restaurant” commercial created by Lápiz for The Coca-Cola Company, 2003.

Download QuickTime Player.

It may be a clever way to sell soft drinks, but it also offers a shift in emphasis from the mainstream.

“The commercial represents the world from a whole different perspective,” Ramírez Berg says. “Hayek has far more fun eating tacos, and she hasn’t lost her connection her roots, which is why she’s eating with Latinos in the kitchen. Part of how media works is through whose story is being told and who gets to tell it. In this commercial Latinos tell the story of Latino experience, not the mainstream’s experience with Latinos.”

Ramirez also found commercials that dealt with immigration in a subtle and nuanced way. A Jeep commercial titled “Determination” shows a female immigrant driving from Mexico to the U.S., dressed professionally and narrating her story. She is shown at a village café drinking coffee with her grandmother and on a modern highway heading into a large U.S. city.

Another commercial for Verizon shows a man watching soccer on a television at a bar. When he turns to the man next to him to share an exciting sports moment, he realizes the man can’t understand the Spanish he speaks. He wants to connect with his buddies back home.

“It’s a commercial about immigrant loneliness,” Ramírez Berg says. “It’s a perspective we usually don’t hear from.”

So Cameron Diaz doesn't look very Latino. Maybe that's a good thing. It reminds us Latinos don't look like one thing. At the same time, you have to deal with 'Diaz.' You have to deal with those 'z' names. Dr. Charles Ramirez BergBy telling the story from a Latino perspective, entering a Latino’s world and sometimes setting up and then reversing stereotypes, the commercials illustrate strategies that movies can use to counter a tradition of negative representation of Latinos.

Using these strategies can go a long way toward breaking down stereotypes in our culture overall. Ramírez Berg argues that’s exactly what happened in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, when screen stars like John Wayne, Grace Kelly and Spencer Tracy almost inadvertently helped change the way Americans looked at another group targeted for discrimination: the Irish.

“You couldn’t really say ‘I hate the Irish’ and love John Wayne or Gene Kelly or Burt Lancaster,” he says. “You might have to admit it’s time to reconsider your views.”

Similarly, Ramírez Berg argues that Rodriguez, who seeks to counter stereotypes in his films, may have made his biggest contribution through a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Rodriguez chose to design the toys for his movie “Spy Kids” himself, and suddenly 10-year-olds across the country were playing with same toys the Latino characters in the film were.

Finally, Ramírez Berg says, the rapidly changing demographics of this country mean stereotypes will be challenged. When he was a boy watching Westerns, Latinos made up less than two percent of the U.S. population. Today’s estimates place that number closer to 15 percent.

“If there are more Latinos out there, you’re going to see more Latinos as engineers and newscasters and dentists, as well as film directors, screenwriters and movie stars,” he says. “So even if a film doesn’t affect you directly in terms of how you think about Latinos, the larger exposure will help break down stereotypes.”

And so will the increased numbers of Latino superstars, from Antonio Banderas to Eva Longoria, Penelope Cruz to Benicio del Toro and even Cameron Diaz.

At its best, film enlightens you and offers you a profound understanding of what it means to be a human being. Dr. Charles Ramirez Berg“So Cameron Diaz doesn’t look very Latino,” Ramírez Berg says. “Maybe that’s a good thing. It reminds us Latinos don’t look like one thing. At the same time, you have to deal with ‘Diaz.’ You have to deal with those ‘z’ names.”

Ramírez Berg has asked that people deal with his own “z name” his entire life, using both of his surnames to honor both sides of his heritage, the Latino and the German. This represents a type of hybridity that Hollywood has traditionally avoided but now cannot help but embrace. And which Ramírez Berg is watching closely.

In the meantime, he’s at work on several projects, including a book-length history of film, drawing on two decades of teaching his perennially popular film history courses. In those courses students learn about film, but they also witness Ramírez Berg’s passion for his subject, a passion he hopes students will find in their own chosen fields.

“Besides the content of the class,” he says, “I hope my teaching also tells them, ‘This is where I want to be, and this is what I want to do.’”

Thus, one can’t help deciding that Rodriguez got it right: Ramírez Berg is cool. He’ll tell students he’s still trying to decipher the mystery of “Vertigo.” He’ll share how he and Martin Scorcese both love the Burt Lancaster film “The Leopard,” a film he says speaks eloquently about mortality.

Students who’ve taken his classes—whether undergraduates seeking to fulfill a requirement or future filmmakers hoping to leave their mark on Hollywood—come away with an appreciation for what film can offer any one of us.

“At its best, film enlightens you and offers you a profound understanding of what it means to be a human being,” he says. “Like hearing music by Bach or seeing a painting by Cezanne, you just realize that you’re touched in some way, your humanity is affirmed, and you are linked with a community, with who we are as people.”

By Vivé Griffith

Banner photo and inside photo
of Dr. Ramírez Berg: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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