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Does Ben Affleck Deserve an Oscar for Pretending that He Wasn’t Playing a Mexican?

I want to apologize for not having posted here in too long. There is actually a good reason for this, which is, oddly enough, related to the topic of this post.

Folks who know me are aware that for many years I have been researching the Native California Cavalry, a largely unsung band of Mexican-American soldiers during the Civil War. Last week, I heard from the University of Oklahoma Press that they want my manuscript, so I have been spending the greater part of my free time making what I have written suitable for submission. This is largely done, so I promise to be more diligent in the future.

By the time folks read this, Ben Affleck’s Argo might have won one or more Oscars. It deserves all the praise it has been getting, but it also deserves all the criticism, the most prominent of which has come from two quarters. First, the Canadians who took significant risks to help the American fugitives believe that the film portrays their role in the affair as passive at best. The other stinklet which has been making the rounds for the last few months is the criticism of Irish-American Affleck’s casting himself as Mexican-American CIA operative Antonio “Tony” Mendez and the director’s awkwardly dumb response.

I am not one of those people who believes that only Mexican-Americans can play Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. I still love Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of a humble but almost superhuman gunfighter who is dismissed as a stereotypical lazy Mexican by a bigoted Anglo-American rancher in Valdez is Coming. But it should be pointed out that Affleck would never have dreamed of casting a Latino actor as one of the Irish-American gangsters in The Town, and I suspect that it was not just because so many of them were too busy filming Machete. Hollywood has a long history of typecasting Mexican-American actors, which is why so many of them have anglicized or changed their names, or otherwise downplayed their ethnicity in an effort to avoid a career of playing petty criminals, prostitutes and housekeepers.

If some Latino actors fail to get juicy roles, this is a problem, but it is not nearly as big of an issue as the one articulated by award-winning producer and activist Moctesuma Esparza in his eloquent criticism. Esparza has been responsible for dozens of well-regarded movies. While many of them have told stories of Mexican-Americans, films like Gettysburg and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge show that he is not strictly ethnocentric in his focus. However, I am sure that the casting of the late Francesco Quinn in The Rough Riders as Rafael Castillo, a fictionalized stand-in for the handful of Mexican-Americans who served under Colonel Roosevelt in Cuba, was due to his involvement in the movie.

While it could be argued that Mendez’ ethnicity has little to do with the story, Esparza points out that Argo makes some effort at actively concealing the character’s background:

…His name (Mendez) is mentioned only once and the character says he is from New York (Tony was born in Nevada from a mining family with six generations in Nevada and raised in Colorado). Nowhere in the movie does the viewer get that the hero is Mexican American…

In the closing credits, the photos of the real people portrayed are presented side-by-side with the actors’ photos showing the very close resemblance and care that was taken in the casting process to cast actors who looked like the real people. Yet, for the key role of Tony Mendez, the director/producer Ben Affleck chose a single long shot of Tony with President Carter where his image was not distinct or recognizable, breaking the pattern he had chosen for all the other real people depicted.

Esparza compares this to the “whitewashing” of the story of PFC Guy Gabaldon, Mexican-American hero of the Battle of Saipan, who was played by not just one, but two, Anglo-American actors in the 1960 film Hell to Eternity, in which his name is anglicized and his ethnic background is downplayed. This was despite the fact that it would have contributed greatly to the understanding of how Gabaldon acquired his linguistic skills which were critical to the plot.

Hollywood still generally believes that middle America will never accept Mexican-American heroes, so they are anglicized through casting or outright fictionalizing of their stories. Ironically, by writing them out of the story, they perpetuate the very stereotypes that help assure that the public is less willing to accept such characters.

Most people’s perception of history comes not from scholarly work, but from popular culture, movies in particular. Much of what average folks know about Arizona’s history is at least colored by, if not totally derived from, western movies. One would be hard pressed to name a western which features Mexican-American characters as anything other than semi-literate drunks or bandits, in spite of a historical record to the contrary. This is not because of a lack of good material. The career of Enrique “Henry” Garfias, the badass first Town Marshall of Phoenix, would make an awesome movie, but Hollywood instead chooses to tell the same stories about Anglo heroes over and over and over again.

The result of this is that Mexican-Americans are not seen as part of the American story, and this has driven much of the bigotry behind the immigration debate. Despite the fact that most Mexican immigrants are here legally, and the fact that most Mexican-Americans are not immigrants at all, but are from well-established families that have been in this country for decades, the perception exists that Mexican-Americans are a wholly new community who have not yet properly earned their place at the table.

Governor Brewer took some flack for not mentioning the contributions of Mexican-Americans in her centennial State of the State speech. Her omission should come as no surprise. Mexican-Americans have been written out of history over and over again, and what follows from this is public policy that pretends that they are less American than others.

So, while it seems that Esparza’s complaint is of only minor importance, there have been real consequences to Hollywood’s dismissive treatment of Mexican-Americans and their contributions to the history of this country. Given this, is it any wonder why some people in this town have gotten so worked up about ethnic studies?

4 Comments

  1. Tedski wrote:

    On a related note, Lupe Ontiveros was left out of the “In Memoriam” segment.

    Monday, February 25, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink
  2. Sonoransam wrote:

    Tom: Congrats on finding a publisher! Look forward to reading it.

    Monday, February 25, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  3. My Dearest Tom,

    In further irony, Django Unchained netted a Best Original Screenplay Oscar even though it uses the n-word more than 100 times.

    Your Humble Servant,
    Christopher

    Monday, February 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Sonoransam wrote:

    Tom: How’s the book coming? Update?

    Monday, March 4, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink