Racial Rogues of Hollywood: Challenges to Latinx and Asian American Inequalities in Early Twentieth-Century Media

Endorsed by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS) and the Western History Association

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Asian American; Latino/a; Popular Culture


Historians have longed mined media as valuable sources for understanding discursive ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. This panel continues that work by digging deeply into specific images and creators of Asian American and Latinx representations in Hollywood. We know well the range of stereotypical representations each of these groups suffered in the early twentieth century as duplicitous seductresses, hapless buffoons, or cold-blooded killers. Each of these papers, however, uncovers a particular instance when the stability of such stereotypes became threatened. Rather than promoting a simple formula for advocating racial/gender/sexual equality, all three figures enacted changed racialization through which the scope of possibilities both expanded and contracted. Media producers had to reconcile those challenges against their political and social context. Shirley Lim recounts an illuminating encounter between Chinese American actress Anna May Wong and German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1928. In an article spurred by the encounter, Benjamin exposed his inability to reconcile his assumptions about Wong’s persona as a Chinese American film star with her lived cosmopolitanism and embrace of European sensibilities. Lim argues that the same incongruities that confounded Benjamin actually lay at the center of Wong’s successful global career. Wong defied the narrow Orientalist roles available in Hollywood and escaped the racist restrictions imposed by California’s legal system through the newly emerging pan-European cinema. Ernesto Chávez takes up another silent star, Ramón Novarro, who likewise challenged Hollywood’s common representation of Mexicans as simple laborers and/or cruel criminals. Like Wong, Novarro found his options severely limited after a decade playing “Latin Lover” roles. In 1936 he wrote and directed the Spanish-language film _Contra La Corriente_ as a counterpoint. The film centered on a romance between an elite Mexican American woman and a working-class Argentine swimmer. Novarro therefore pushed against Hollywood’s portrayals of the Latinx community as racially and economically monolithic. The film also marked a new phase in Novarro’s career where he began accepting almost only Latinx roles. Yet, the film held limits placed on the star. The film’s fantasy of a heterosexual romance hid his own same-sex desires, not to mention his ongoing affair with the film’s male lead. Anthony Mora concludes the panel by considering how the character Zorro unexpectedly became a source of anxiety at the height of his popularity. Disney’s television program _Zorro_ (1957-1959) proved a hit almost immediately. Like most versions of the titular character, the show initially presented him as a vigilante fighting to end government oppression in colonial Los Angeles. As the real-life civil rights movement heated up in the 1950s, however, conservative producers at Disney seemingly became uncertain about having a Latinx character advocating for civil disobedience on a weekly basis. Over the course of the series, they therefore remade the character into a defender of law and order. In a jarring switch, Zorro ultimately began advocating for the mestizos and Native peoples who surrounded him to have faith in government institutions. Taken together, these papers show powerful interventions in racialized representations and the forces which muted their impact.

Papers Presented

Zorro Defends the Status Quo: Disney’s Ambivalent Hero in the Civil Rights Era

Today the character’s details might be murky, but most people can still conjure an image of Zorro’s black mask, flowing cape, and pencil mustache. Zorro has been a staple in U.S. popular culture since 1919 and reached his zenith in the 1950s thanks to a lavish Walt Disney television show. That version, like most others, set Zorro’s exploits in 1820s Los Angeles on the eve of the United States’ arrival. Wealthy hacendado Diego Vega disguises himself as the titular character to thwart colonial officials who rob the missions and mistreat the poor. Although children’s entertainment, Disney’s Zorro laid bare a tension between the Latino hero’s devotion to social justice and conservative uneasiness around contemporary civil rights movements. Zorro’s mission to end the oppression of California’s poor mestizos and native peoples seemingly struck uncomfortably close to 1950s activists who pressured local and federal governments to end racial discrimination. This paper charts the reworking of the character over the series’ run in that context. Disney’s hero initially sought justice for California’s racially heterogeneous populations; but by season 2 was recast as a defender of law and order. This culminated in a multiepisode story arc in which Zorro quashes a group of revolutionary mestizo peons. Zorro dismisses their calls for social justice with a demand that they have faith in their government. Zorro’s transformation from protorevolutionary to a one-man police force provides an unexpected source for considering 1950s anxieties around civil rights.

Presented By
Anthony Mora, University of Michigan

Performing Race, Class, and Sexuality in Depression-Era Latinx Los Angeles: An Examination of Ramón Novarro’s 1936 film Contra la Corriente

This paper examines the 1936 Spanish-language film Contra la Corriente, which was written, produced, and directed in the United States by Mexican-born actor Ramón Novarro, who gained stardom in the silent era. This film tells the story of a wealthy Mexican American woman who falls in love with an Argentine swimmer whom she meets at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The paper focuses on three issues: (1) how the film counters notions of ethnic Mexicans in the 1930s as being solely poor laborers; (2) how it deals with class tensions in the Latinx community by making the swimmer character working class; and, (3) how it reveals Novarro’s gay desire—he was having an affair with the actor who played the male love interest, José Carabello, and thus the film is about his wish fulfillment and the female lead can be viewed as his surrogate. The film marked a turning point for Novarro, who, with the advent of talkies and the waning of the “Latin lover” in U.S. films, had to recalibrate his career. This project led to making a movie in Mexico, and upon his return he played Latinos—which, ironically, he had never done on American screens. The film reflects and represents a different side of Latinx Los Angeles in this era; one that helps us rethink how race, class, and sexuality functioned in this time and place. It also reveals how Novarro performed these identities on and off the screen.

Presented By
Ernesto Chavez, University of Texas at El Paso

(In) Equalities: Anna May Wong and Walter Benjamin, Berlin 1928

The starring role in the film Song/Show Life/Schmutziges Geld (1928) enticed Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (1905–1961) across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean to Berlin. German director Richard Eichberg cast Wong in films that were co-produced in Germany, France, and England and subtitled or shot in multiple languages so that they could screen throughout Europe and, most crucially, the colonial world. Wong became a transnational symbol of racialized femininity and, through her star persona, a new pan-European cinema construed more broadly as global cinema could be created. The inequalities in gendered American racializations reflected in Hollywood’s exploitative orientalist roles as well as the whole host of race-based laws that circumscribed Wong’s life in California rendered this option appealing to her and prompted the emergence of new forms of relationality as well as new transnationally circulating forms of cultural production. Courtesy of her starring role, Wong and noted German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) shared an unlikely encounter that set in relief European and American conceptions of modernity. Benjamin’s essay, juxtaposed against a cache of Wong’s writings, are significant not just for what Benjamin says about Wong, or what Wong reveals, but for how they intervene in newly emergent constructions of racial and gendered difference. It is precisely the complex blend of Wong’s American cosmopolitanism, Chinese heritage, and fashionable European sensibility, the seemingly contradictory aspects of which Benjamin stumbles over during the meeting, that are critical for Wong’s cinematic success.

Presented By
Shirley Jennifer Lim, Stony Brook University, State University of New York

Session Participants

Chair: Christina D. Abreu, Northern Illinois University
Christina D. Abreu is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Latino and Latin American History at Northern Illinois University. Her research and teaching focus on Latinx and Caribbean history with particular emphasis on race, ethnicity, and popular culture. Her work has been published in the _Journal of Social History_, _Latin American Music Review_, _Journal of Sport History_, and _Journal of Historical Biography_. Her first book, _Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the Making of Latino/a New York City and Miami, 1940-1960_, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. She is working on her second book project, a cultural biography of Afro-Cuban boxer Teófilo Stevenson, as well as a reflective historiographic essay on the role of oral history in Cuban Diasporic Studies.

Commentator: The Audience

Presenter: Ernesto Chavez, University of Texas at El Paso
Ernesto Chávez, is Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. history from UCLA in 1994. His specialization is Chicano/a/x-Latino/a/x History with an emphasis on the construction of identity, culture and community. He has published two books, _¡Mi Raza Primero! (My People First!): Nationalism, Identity, and _Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978_ (University of California Press, 2002) and _The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents_ (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2007). He is currently working on a critical biography of Mexican-born actor Ramón Novarro, tentatively titled “Body and Soul: The Closeted Performance of Ramón Novarro.” An article on this subject appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality. A past member the National Council of the American Studies Association, the _Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies_ editorial board, and the National Council of the Western History Association, he currently serves as the Ford Diversity Fellowship’s regional liaison for Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. He is the recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2014 Equity Award, given to individuals who have “demonstrated an exceptional record in the recruitment and retention of students and new faculty from racial and ethnic groups under-represented within the historical professions.”

Presenter: Shirley Jennifer Lim, Stony Brook University, State University of New York
Shirley Jennifer Lim is Associate Professor of History and affiliate faculty in Women and Gender Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The author of _A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women’s Public Culture, 1930-1960_ (NYU 2006), her second book, _Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern_, is scheduled to arrive at Temple University Press’ warehouse in April 2019.

Presenter: Anthony Mora, University of Michigan
Anthony Mora is currently an Associate Professor of History, American Culture, and Latina/o Studies at the University of Michigan. His research interests focus on the historical construction of race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S. His book _Border Dilemmas_ (2011) explores how the first generations of Mexicans living in the United States grappled with the racial and national ideologies that circulated along the nineteenth-century border. Currently he is writing a history of the fictional character of Zorro from 1919 to the present. The iconic character maps to changing representations of Mexican Americans, historical memory, and U.S. regionalism. Zorro’s story also reveals intersecting assumptions about race and sexuality. He received his BA in History from the University of New Mexico and his PhD from the University of Notre Dame.