Why Carmen Miranda Did Not Originate the Spicy Latina Stereotype

As a subscriber to the YouTube channel We Are Mitu, I look forward to watching their videos on a regular basis.  One video that caught my attention recently was Kat Calls newest episode, Season 2 Episode 4 “What Makes Latinas So Spicy”.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtyL1IIiuWI.  In the video, Kat claims that Carmen Miranda both “personifies” and originated the “spicy Latina” stereotype.  Though Carmen is one of the more famous Latinas from the Golden Age of Hollywood, she is not the origin, nor the sole personification of the spicy Latina stereotype, as Kat claims.

 

The Origin of Spicy Latina:

First, before we can call any Latina the origin or personification of the spicy Latina, we need to know when and how spicy was used to describe Latinas.  According to the OC Weekly column, Ask a Mexican, by Gustavo Arellano, from April 14th, 2016 (https://www.ocweekly.com/why-are-hot-mexican-women-referred-to-as-spicy-7113740/), the earliest known use of the word “spicy” to describe a woman, was in 1866.  This was not affiliated with race or ethnicity, just “…hailing the virtues of a “spicy woman””.  The earliest mentions Gustavo could find referring to Latinas as spicy was from The Philadelphia Star in 1909, with an article calling a Latina, “a hot tamale”.  Later in 1919, a vaudeville advertisement, in The Seattle Star for a show called The Spanish Vamp, describing the show as “A Spicy Dish of Senoritas”.  Though these are the earliest publications Gustavo was able to find about spicy Latinas, the stereotype probably existed before 1866, proving that the idea, or the origin, of a Latina being spicy existed well before Carmen’s birth in 1909.

 

The Spicy Latina Definition:

According to dictionary.com, personification is “an embodiment or incarnation”.  Kat believes that Carmen is the personification of the spicy Latina, based on her definition of the spicy Latina being “over-sexualized, curvaceous, loud, and exotic”.  By this definition alone Carmen could be the spicy Latina, but the stereotype of the spice Latina is far broader.  Other terms affiliated with the spicy Latina stereotype include confrontational, violent, feisty, sassy, hot-tempered, passionate, bold, flirty, a good fighter, a Latina who can defend herself, a Femme Fatal, and even a great/passionate dancer.  With this broad description, any Latina including Carmen Miranda, Michelle Rodriquez, Rita Moreno, and Frieda Kahlo, can be described as a spicy Latina.  No one Latina can completely personify being a spicy Latina, just an aspect of the stereotype.

 

The Spicy Latina in Cinema:

In cinema, the origin of the spicy Latina stereotype can be traced back to the silent era, 1891-1927.  Latinos, predominantly Mexicans, played bit parts in early Hollywood silent film but predominantly in westerns.  Since early silent western films told simple good and bad guy stories, Mexicans were typically typecast as the bad guys.  Mexicans were portrayed as dumb, dirty, violent, quick-tempered, and overly sexual.  Mexican men were sexual predators (Bronco Billy and the Greaser 1914: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9Gn-qHmImo , and The Gunfighter 1917: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmqjtF_tK2o) while Mexican Women were immorally promiscuous (1912: Broncho Billy’s Mexican Wife http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0002073/).  These images created Latinos as spicy, in a negative way.  Disgusted and outraged by these portrayals in Hollywood films, both Latin Americans and Latin American governments called for boycotts of these films.  Not wanting to lose this growing profitable market, Hollywood repackaged the Latino image, into what we know now as the “Latin Lover”.

Spanish actor Antonio Moreno, who was Hollywood’s first “Latin Lover” affirmed, “I was promoted as to what you now call a sex symbol, though I did nothing to promote this perception.  But Americans wanted to believe that people of Latin origin were more naturally spicy”.  Moreno success, lead to the rise of other Latin Lovers, including Rudolf Valentino (who was marketed as Spanish but, was Italian), Ramón Navarro, Lupe Velez, and Dolores del Rio.  This new spicy interpretation of Latinos showed them as spicy in a sophisticated and romantic way.

 

The Spicy Latina and Nudity:

According to Kat, contemporary Latinas on television are 37.5% more likely to be naked on television, than their non-Latina counterparts.  The origins of the spicy Latina in media being excessively semi-nude or nude and being over sexualized didn’t begin with Kat’s person of origin Carmen Miranda.  Though Carmen showed her midriff in her costumes, a famous Latina who was constantly overly sexualized and appeared semi-nude on film, in leading roles was Dolores del Rio.  In 1932, for the film Bird of Paradise, Dolores only wore a straw skirt and two leis of flowers covering her breast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtiIiV-ueLI).  The following year in Down to Rio, Dolores wore a two-piece swimsuit and a pair of overalls with no shirt underneath (http://pre-code.com/flying-rio-1933-review-ginger-rogers-fred-astaire/).  These and other semi-nude and nude female images in film caused such a controversy that it helped contribute to the creation and enforcement of the Hays Code of 1934, which was used to make Hollywood films “wholesome and moral”.

 

The Spicy Latina Temper:

Before Carmen’s introduction in American films, in 1940, another spicy Latina, who preceded Carmen, who was known for being “loud and exotic”, with “broken English”, as well as “the hot-blooded Mexican”, “a hot tamale”, and “Tabasco”, was Lupe Velez.  From the success Lupe gained from a starring role in the 1939 film Girl from Mexico (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgcePL0ouJ0), Lupe starred in a series of six successful spin-off comedic films called the Mexican Spitfire, from 1940-1943.  These films were highly successful in both America and Latin America.  In all of the Mexican Spitfire films, Lupe played an over the top cartoony spicy Latina speaking and shouting in Spanish and English with a thick accent.  It was not uncommon for Lupe’s character to be confrontational and get into physical fights. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJrplHd1m-o).

 

Hollywood’s Propaganda Tool:

Kat also mentioned that Carmen’s image in Hollywood movies during WW2 was a “propaganda tool to better our relationship with Latin America”.  Yes, during WW2 America needed to make allies with Latin America, to prevent the neutral Latin American countries, from becoming a part of the Axis powers.  While Hollywood, also needed Latin American audiences due to the European film market being closed off to them.  However, the trend of featuring Latin America as the setting for Hollywood musical comedies and cartoons began as early as the beginning of the great depression in 1929 and became more popular during the rise of the Third Reich in 1933.  This extended into the early 1950’s, featuring other actors like Cesar Romero, Aurora Miranda (Carmen’s sister), Ricardo Montalban, Dolores del Rio, Desi Arnaz, and Rita Moreno.

Cesar Romero: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOxYY271txE

Aurora Miranda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcMhRfwmnL4

Desi Arnaz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHsTnM-kLDY

Dolores del Rio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWrh3dexrYg

Ricardo Montalban: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XMfLFv6TiU

Ricardo Montalban and Rita Moreno: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8q7Z_cJGdnI

 

Carmen Misunderstood:

During her years in Hollywood films, from 1940-1953, Carmen was cast in 14 musical comedies as just a musical performer and/or a comedian.  As the legendary actor, activist, and founder of the Nosotros Foundation, Ricardo Montalban, stated in an interview for the documentary The Bronze Screen: 110 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood, about Carmen, “She was criticized in Brazil because they thought that she was making a caricature of Brazil.  But that’s not the point.  The point is, I mean, we can’t lose totally our sense of humor.  We’ve got to evaluate things for what they are.  And a musical comedy is far from being an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.  I mean, a musical comedy was to entertain”.

 

Overall:

Despite my issues with the spicy Latina stereotype, as a Latina, I don’t want to be too critical of early Latina film pioneers like Carmen.  Can you blame Carmen for portraying a spicy Latina stereotypes?  You could, but you’d be overlooking what she and other early Latinas, like Dolores and Lupe were able to accomplish in a very short period of time in Hollywood.  Yes, they did portray certain stereotypes.  Still, these women became a part of the Hollywood elite at a time when “separate but equal” was still legal and accepted in America.  Their roles, no matter how spicy, helped bring diversity to Hollywood’s Silver Screen.  For Carmen’s contributions to both cinema and music, on April 5th, 1976, Brazil opened The Carmen Miranda Museum, in Rio.  Today, we Latinas have an opportunity to learn from the efforts of women like Carmen, as well as benefit from the doors they opened for us.  As scientist Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen farther than others, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants”.  And one of those giants is Carmen Miranda.

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