Portrayals of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Chicanxs in Television and Film

With immigration and ethnic identity currently at the forefront of American discourse, media plays an important role in the socio-political understanding of groups. This literature review will discuss the impacts media portrayals of Latinxs and their impacts on ingroup and outgroup perceptions of Latinxs. For the purposes of the research conducted, ingroup refers to Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Chicanxs; and outgroup refers to non-Latinx and people not of Mexican descent. False or incomplete representations of Latinxs in media produce harm in the perceptions of them by both the ingroup and outgroup.

On the rare occasion these groups are represented, it is in a false or incomplete matter. Other times, the character is reduced to a one-dimensional depiction of their ethnicity. False and incomplete portrayals of Latinxs in media author belief in the stereotypes depicted. These stereotypes are often derogatory, harmful, and contribute to divisive political dogma. Currently, as the United States government attempts to scapegoat and target Latinxs in this country, television networks have an extreme impact. The lack of representation of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Chicanxs in television and film makes research on the impact of their presence challenging. Additionally, the ongoing presence of negative news coverage has had increasingly negative impacts upon the treatment of the ingroup.

The history of portrayals of Mexican Americans on television is a long and politically complex one. From the United States’ first exposure to Mexicans through mass media in 1910 to their depiction in Western films across the early twentieth century, and eventual portrayal as blue-collar or domestic workers, representation of those of Mexican descent manipulates a narrative of a group deemed foreign and unfamiliar to most white Americans. Latinx groups, particularly of Mexican descent, are depicted as criminals and violent gang members, or hypersexualized and unintelligent. In the United States, television and film have generated a negative narrative about the community.

In a modern context, Latinxs make up a major part of the media industry’s customer base. The community is one of the largest contributors to movie and television revenue. As the largest minority ethnic population, 23% of movie tickets sold from 2007 to 2018 were purchased by Latinxs (Smith, D. S. L., Choueiti, M., Case, A., Pieper, D. K., Clark, H., Hernandez, K., . . . Mota, M., 2019). In the same interval, Latinxs contributed over $1.7 trillion in consumer spending, yet representation and acknowledgment of the group as a whole are greatly ignored.

However, as illustrated by the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, Latinxs in 2003 were only included in 15% of prime-time television shows. In this study, ethnically ambiguous and mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity Latinxs are included (Hoffman, A. R., & Noriega, C. A, 2004, p.6). In an examination conducted of “the six commercial networks: ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN, WB”, only 4.1% of the regulars characters portrayed were Latinx (Hoffman, A. R., & Noriega, C. A, 2014, p. 2). For the sake of the survey, a series ‘regular’ was defined by their presence on the local webpage of each series aired during prime-time, typically between 8 and 11 p.m. American movie production studios mirror these figures, with Latinx actors only acting as “three percent of lead or co-lead roles… during the last 12 years” (Smith, D. S. L., Choueiti, M., Case, A., Pieper, D. K., Clark, H., Hernandez, K., . . . Mota, M., 2019). Finally, as further illustrated by Annenberg, only five characters from over 1,200 top-grossing movies of the past decade were Latinx and identified as LGBTQ+.

With the failure of American media to capture a full, complex, and accurate representation of Latinxs, the ingroup perceptions of self are increasingly negative. As illustrated by The Communication Review, positive portrayals, Latinxs of Mexican descent are increasingly invisible in the media, especially as of late.

Across television and film, from the civil rights and farmworkers' rights movements, Chicanos, Mexican Americans, and Mexicans have used the idea of intergroup perception in order to empower and uplift their communities. Projects such as Ahora! on PBS, as well as popularized movies such as I Am Joaquin propelled forward inter-community discussions and communication, particularly as it related to political organizing. These works allowed for the spread of Latinx culture and ideals not only to the ingroup but to the masses as well. Media, when wielded by Chicanx and Latinx revolutionary film-makers, is a manifesto.

Greater research into the intergroup effects of poor representation was vivid throughout reports created by Tukachinsky, Mastro, and Yarchi, in The Effect of Prime Time Television Ethnic/Racial Stereotypes on Latino and Black Americans: A Longitudinal National Level Study. The study concluded that “association with a devalued group can have negative psychological consequences (including a deflated sense of self-worth and group esteem, among others)”. Additionally, as illustrated by Anderson and Cavallaro, children are more likely to look up to visible figures in media rather than parents or people they are closest too, indirectly meaning that most children lack positive Latinx role models due to the fact that Latinxs are so rare in media.

Finally, as it relates to news media, such as daily reports and breaking news broadcasts, discussions regarding immigration and ethnicity in the United States are deeply impactful upon the ingroup of Latinxs. Many Latinxs and their reactions specifically perpetuate internalized racism and inferiority complexes.

Research methods commonly used were brain scans in relation to an emotional response to positive and negative representation of the ingroup in media. Additionally, many surveys were conducted upon college-aged students gathered by universities that were used to compile and extrapolate data. However, as the field of ingroup study relating to media representation remains undeveloped, with some studies over ten years in age.

As it relates to the outgroup, or people of non-Mexican descent, television and the news media were especially impactful. From the hypersexualization of female characters to the overrepresentation of Latinxs as criminals and gang members, outgroup perceptions of people of Mexican descent- especially ones with little prior exposure to Latinxs- are susceptible to being corrupted by harmful stereotypes. These stereotypes take refuge in the minds of ill-educated outgroup members, perpetuating issues of discrimination already impacting the ingroup community. One of the mediums most guilty of perpetuating these issues is mainstream news media, as of late broadcasting Latinxs as a threat and invader to the citizens of the United States, illustrating the group in a way that dehumanizes and degrades them, making them not relatable to the outgroup. The media portrayal of the ingroup, not the outgroup reception, is to blame for much of the ignorance and prejudice displayed.

With much of the popular and recent research emerging from elite universities in the United States, much of the research were surveys conducted on college-aged students, typically between eighteen and twenty-four. Fewer challenges exist in researching the issue of outgroup perception within the outgroup as opposed to the ingroup, aside from the overarching lack of quantitative data regarding the psychological impacts on each.

With a lack of Latinxs in writing, producing, directing, and casting, there is a long way to go until the issue of representation is solved. Ways to combat and end this lack of representation all stem from the hope to have more Latinxs join all aspects of the industry. In order to combat the cycle of failed representation, more resources must be put into helping Latinx students interested in media and the arts, from increasing arts funding for public school programs to the creation of student and professional organizations aimed at furthering the success of Latinxs in media arts.

It is not enough to just have representation, though we already lack in those statistics. We must have a positive, complex, and diverse representation. As the most representative group amongst media consumption and movie ticket sales, Latinxs should be accurately and equally represented in the media. Both ingroup and outgroup perceptions of people of Mexican descent are deeply impacted by media portrayals made accessible to them. Additionally, with more Latinx writers, producers, and directors, there are more likely to be Latinx leads and actors cast to the roles, similar to the increased media literacy of Latinxs when viewing themselves in media. With the sources reviewed, it is more evident than ever the increased need for Latinx visibility, specifically positive and accurate portrayals in television, film, and news media.

****this article does not include the full works cited***