It’s taken a few decades, but it seems the United States has finally woken up to the fact that the Oscars are a hopelessly white institution, in which white Academy members vote to celebrate white actors, and a lot of them just don’t see what the problem is. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has been a great start to a conversation that will doubtless last years and continue to generate controversy as time goes on, but in reality it has only exposed one facet of Hollywood’s race problem.
As John Oliver recently pointed out in a biting but painfully true segment, Hollywood also has a nagging problem with whitewashing roles of color. Just recently, controversy was stirred when white Anglo-Saxons were shamelessly cast to play ancient Egyptians in films like Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Then there’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed Emma Stone being cast as the half-Chinese Allison Ng in last year’s Aloha. In short, while we’ve come a long way from the days of spray-tanned “Indians” or Jerry Lewis’ cringeworthy interpretation of Asian caricatures, we’re not quite there yet.
To keep the conversation going, we’ve put together a list of some Academy Award-nominated Latino roles played over the years by any number of white folks. Some of them even won for pretending to be Latino. This is especially frustrating in the face of a new study that recently revealed that less than 6% of film and TV roles go to Latino actors, despite us making up more than 17% of the population. Plus, Latino actors rarely get vetted by the Academy for their performances. One of only two Latinas to have ever won an acting Oscar, Rita Moreno ironically won the award for her role in West Side Story alongside several non-Latino actors playing Puerto Ricans.
The Cisco Kid, In Old Arizona
Won: Best Actor in a Leading Role, 1929
Latino film buffs will be pleased to know that the Academy has been rewarding whitewashed Latino characters since the second ever Academy Awards ceremony. In this film, the Columbus, Ohio born Baxter plays The Cisco Kid: a picaresque Mexican caballero, whose love for the young Mexican girl Tonia María (played by Dorothy Burgess) brings him dangerously close to the long arm of the law in the form of Sgt. Mickey Dunn.
Bernardo, West Side Story
Won: Best Supporting Actor 1961
Of course, this was the film that brought Latinos our only Best Supporting Actress win ever for Rita Moreno, but the flipside was Greek-American George Chakiris’ hopelessly spray-tanned Bernardo Nuñez. This is the time when Greek was about as ethnic as a Hollywood producer was willing to go, so you can even say they did us a favor.
Luis Molina, Kiss of the Spider Woman
Won: Best Actor, 1986
Directed by Brazilian Hector Babenco, and starring Raúl Juliá and Sonia Braga, we can only imagine the conversation with the film’s L.A. producers that led to William Hurt being cast in the leading role. Was the cast maybe a little to heavily “ethnic”? Did they need perhaps a “more recognizable face”? Either way, this worthy film about the abuses of Brazil’s military government was headed up by an actor whose previous role was as a Russian police officer in the film Gorky Park. Only in America.
Alicia Nash, A Beautiful Mind
Won: Best Supporting Actress, 2001
It may not be obvious judging from the name, but schizophrenic math-genius John Nash’s wife was actually the Salvadoran born Alicia Esther López-Harrison de Lardé. The daughter of a doctor in a socially prominent San Salvador family, Alicia studied at MIT, where she was one of 16 women in a class of over 800 students. The movie’s writers apparently thought her actual biography was a minor detail, and she was instead portrayed as a lily-white all-American girl by Connelly. Don’t want to go on confusing the audience with foreign accents and all that.
Pearl Chavez, Duel in the Sun
Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role, 1947
From Hollywood super-producer David O. Selznick, this film was supposed to be bigger than his last hit, Gone With the Wind, but barely broke even at the box office after negative reviews lambasted the ambitious Western. The Oklahoma-born Jennifer Jones played Pearl Chavez, a young girl orphaned after her father kills her mother in a jealous rage and is executed as punishment. Sent to live with a family of strangers, Pearl suffers abuse and racism as she is courted by numerous suitors. Along the way, Jones dons enough massive sombreros and zarapes to dress a folkloric dance troupe.
Emiliano Zapata, Viva Zapata!
Nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role, 1952
To his credit, Brando was an outspoken defender of minority representation on the big screen, going so far as to cede his acceptance speech for his The Godfather Best Supporting Actor win to a Native American activist. But who could pass up the opportunity to play Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata? With a cast full of names like Alan Reed and Harold Gordon playing revolutionary figures like Pancho Villa and Francisco Madero, it’s heartening to know that the only acting Oscar given for this production was to Mexican-born Anthony Quinn for his supporting role as Eufemio Zapata.