Chicanas in Film: History of an Image
Carlos E. Cortés
In the 1952 western classic High Noon, Helen Ramirez, mistress to many and conscience to all in the film's small frontier town, lit up the screen with her strength, intelligence, and articulateness. As brilliantly portrayed by Mexican actress Katy Jurado, Ramirez established what may be the high water mark of screen portrayals of Chicanas (Mexican-American women). While it would be stretching the point to say that it has been all downhill since then, the history of screen Chicanas has seldom risen beyond a low-level roller coaster. Even within the larger context of women in films--not itself a consistently elevating story--Chicanas generally have fared less well than their Anglo or even their Black sisters. 1
In the following pages I will briefly trace the historical development of the Chicana screen image. However, before embarking on this historical excursion, I need to address a few of the analytical issues involved in assessing ethnic media depictions in general and Chicana images in particular.
The process of filmic image creation involves three basic components--filmmaking, film content, and film impact. Considered within an educational framework, filmmakers function as teachers (intentionally or unintentionally), films serve as their resulting textbooks (effective or ineffective), and viewers are the learners (consciously or subconsciously). Filmmakers create films with Chicana, Mexicana, and Hispana characters. The films present these images to viewers, whether or not the filmmakers intended to contribute to the creation of a Chicana image. While not always consciously, some viewers will learn about Chicanas from those so-called entertainment films, and this learning may help create, reinforce, weaken, or eradicate their images of the Chicana.