Latinx Communities, the Criminal Justice System, and Literature
- José Luis MorínJosé Luis MorínDepartment of Latin American and Latinx Studies, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Racially demeaning representations of persons of Latin American origin, also known as Latinas/os or the more gender inclusive Latinx, as criminally inclined can be found throughout US literature—broadly defined in this article to include laws, fiction and nonfiction, news stories, as well as movie, television, and theatrical scripts. Rooted in a history of conquests, hemispheric domination, and an expansionist ideology premised on the myth of Anglo-American racial superiority, this literature promotes the idea that Latinx populations are racially alien and inferior. These depictions involve negative stereotypes depicting Latinxs as criminals. For instance, in the period following the US war against Mexico through which the United States wrested half of Mexico’s land base by 1848, popular novels about the post-conquest era typically depicted Anglo-American settler colonialists as noble and heroic, while persons of Mexican ancestry were commonly portrayed as bandidos (bandits) and denigrated as “greasers”—shiftless, deceitful criminal threats to white society. Mexican women were typecast as devious “halfbreed harlots.” Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Colombians and other groups of people of Latin American descent continue to be portrayed as innately criminal in novels, newspapers, movies, and other media, whether it be as greasers, pachucos, knife-wielding gang members, or drug traffickers. These abject characterizations are a recurring trope in some of the most popular and iconic works of fiction and entertainment media. Even in popular social science literature—from the controversial 1960s “culture of poverty” to the discredited 1990s “superpredators” theory—deviance, depravity, and criminality are presented as being at the core of Latinx nature and the problems their communities face. Since the late 1970s, a range of writers, scholars, activists, and organizations have sought to present a counter-discourse to these ubiquitous dehumanizing and demeaning caricatures. Often equipped with empirical data and social scientific analyses, a more accurate account of the lives of Latinx persons in relation to criminal justice issues in the United States has been emerging. These efforts notwithstanding, racist and negative narratives associating Latinxs with illicit drug cartel operations and other criminal activity endure, influencing and distorting the public discourse and the perceptions about Latinx communities in contemporary US society.