Charros, Latin Lovers, and Vigilantes: Mexican Men Who Challenged U.S. Popular Culture

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, IEHS, and the Western History Association

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Latino/a; Popular Culture; Race


Historians know well the stereotypical representations that Mexican men suffered as hapless buffoons, fickle Lotharios, or cold-blooded killers. Each of these papers, however, uncovers a particular instance when the stability of such racialized gender stereotypes became threatened in U.S. popular culture. Each enacted changed racialization through which the scope of possibilities for Mexican men both expanded and contracted. Lorena Chambers turns our attention to the charro and vaquero entertainers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many scholars have considered Buffalo Bill’s influence on popular understandings of Native peoples; but few have given the same notice to Mexican performers like Vicente Oropeza, the Esquivel brothers, or the mysterious “Mexican Hidalgo.” William Cody hired these men at a moment of burgeoning cultural and economic diplomacy. The United States sought greater access to Mexican markets and the Mexican state pursued economic support from U.S. investors. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows mirrored these cultural diplomatic goals even as they also perpetuated ongoing racial animosity toward Mexican men. Cody’s performances highlighted Mexican charros’ and vaqueros’ real skills, underscoring their ongoing roles on both sides of the border. Yet, they also increasingly became stereotyped as either villains or as colorful dandies in shiny charro suits. Ernesto Chávez similarly takes up actor Ramón Novarro’s efforts at challenging representations of Mexicans as either simple laborers or cruel criminals in the 1930s. After a decade of playing “Latin lover” roles, Novarro suddenly found his acting options severely limited. In 1936 he therefore wrote and directed his own movie, the Spanish-language film Contra La Corriente. Centered on a romance between an elite Mexican American woman and a working-class Argentine swimmer, the film 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 fictional character of Zorro unexpectedly responded to racial anxieties and social change that played out 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 civil rights movement heated up in the 1950s, however, conservative producers at Disney seemingly became uncertain about having a Latino 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 rather than to fight a revolution. Taken together, these papers show key challenges to popular stereotypes and the forces which muted their impact.

Papers Presented

Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Diplomacy in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Many works analyze Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, but none research the in-depth significance and meanings of charros and vaqueros in the most popular traveling show of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For this panel, I analyze the performances of Vicente Oropeza, the Esquivel brothers, and the mysterious “Mexican Hidalgo” not only within the narrative of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, but also against the burgeoning cultural diplomacy between the United States and Mexico after 1893. At a time when the Unites States sought access to Mexican markets and the Mexican state pursued economic support from U.S. investors, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows mirrored and reinforced cultural diplomatic goals of both the United States and Mexican governments. And although William Cody was not a formal State department diplomat, he delineated many of the show’s narratives and action within a geopolitical frame. With publicity and marketing tools such as press kits, op-ed articles, advertising, and product licensing, this entertainment enterprise functioned as an ad-hoc diplomatic machine to millions of U.S. spectators. It also circulated images and meanings of Latino cultures with long-lasting impressions of its Mexican and Mexican American horsemen and performers. This paper and presentation are supported by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and based on its archival collections.

Presented By
Lorena Chambers, 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 proposed paper examines the 1936 Spanish-language film “Contra La Corriente,” which was written, produced, and directed in the U.S. 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 proposed paper focuses on three issues expressed in the film: (1) how it 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 his making a movie in Mexico and upon his return he played Latinos—which ironically, he had never done before on American screens. Ultimately, 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

Zorro, Defender of 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 1820’s Los Angeles on the eve of the U.S.’s 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 ultimately 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 two was recast as a defender of law and order. This culminated in a multi-episode 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 proto-revolutionary to a one-man police force provides an unexpected source for considering how producers dealt with anxieties around civil rights movements.

Presented By
Anthony P. Mora, University of Michigan

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Perla M. Guerrero, Latinx History

Presenter: Lorena Chambers, University of Michigan
Lorena Chambers studies the live performance of Mexican and Mexican American actors and musicians that emerged in late nineteenth-century popular culture as a by-product of the cultural diplomacy between the United States and Mexico. A scholar of cultural, gender, and Latinx history, Chambers is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Departments of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is currently writing a manuscript entitled “From Statecraft to Stagecraft: The Politics of Peddling ‘Mexicanidad’ in U.S. Culture, 1886-1906.”

Presenter: Ernesto Chavez, University of Texas at El Paso
Ernesto Chávez's work intersects Chicano/a, Latino/a, and Borderlands History. He examines the history of the American Southwest, focusing on the matrix of race, class and sexuality throughout the ethnic Mexican and Latino American past. In 2002, the University of California Press published his book,_Mi Raza Primero! (My People First): Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978_. He recently completed his second book for Bedford/St. Martin's Culture and History Series on the U.S. Mexico War. Chávez's next project is the critical biography of silent film actor Ramón Novarro tentatively titled "Crossing the Boundaries of Race, Religion, and Desire: The Life of Ramón Novarro.

Presenter: Anthony P. Mora, University of Michigan
Anthony Mora's principal research interests focus on the historical construction of race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S. Southwest. His book _Border Dilemmas_ 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. He currently has two major research projects underway. The first explores the relationship between African Americans and Mexican Americans in the early-twentieth-century urban Midwest. He also is writing a history of the fictional character of Zorro from 1919 to the present. The iconic character serves as a means of tracing changing representations of Mexican Americans, historical memory, and U.S. regionalism.