What are Latin looks? At first "blush," it seems that there is a Latin or Latino look that everyone recognizes. This person is slightly tan, with dark hair and eyes. Upon further thought, we find other factors that contribute to the "Latin look," for example, Spanish usage, accented English, occupation, education, residence, relationship to Anglos, 1 self-identification, and identification by others. But does this image accurately reflect Latinos and their history in U.S. media? The more I reflect on these questions, the more I would say that--as the authors of many of the chapters in this volume argue--Latin looks are to a considerable extent determined by political, economic, and historical contexts, and the images are often at variance with current and past Latino realities.
Victoria Medina, founder and president of The Studio, an organization in New York City established to help Latinos in the business of acting, illustrated the difference between realities and images in an anecdote (personal communication, March 22, 1995). When a casting call went out for an actress to play a Latina part, three "genuine" Latinas showed up. One was fair-skinned, blond, and tall. Another was tan and of medium build and had dark hair and eyes. The third had darker skin and was of African descent. These three genuine Latinas represented the heterogenous reality of Latinos in the United States. This is the reality that surfaces when a casting call goes out with the generic term Latina attached. Yet, those who present Latinos on the screen seek certain images. By the same token, those who satisfy "Latino" images are not viewed as appropriate for other (nonethnic) parts. Victoria Medina's conclusion? She believes it is unfair to specify one Latino look. Instead, the right person should be cast for each particular role.
In 1995, The Hollywood Reporter, in a survey of Hollywood's most bankable stars, listed Rosie Pérez as the second most popular Hispanic star ( Andy García was the first) ( Avila, 1996:26). Among my undergraduate students at Fordham University in New York City, Pérez is without a doubt the best-known and most frequently identified Latina actress in Hollywood today. But her name invariably elicits extreme reactions especially from Latina students. One response is that she is an "embarrassment to her race." In other words, her image, the way she projects herself, her manner of speech and dress, and her general style are viewed as embarrassing to other Latinos. (Some Latinos are concerned that all Latinas will be judged by the image Pérez projects.) Other Latinos feel there is nothing wrong with Pérez's image: It is a tough one that should be put out there. Latinas should be respected as tough.