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.
José Luis Morín
Orientalism in the Victorian era has origins in three aspects of 18th-century European and British culture: first, the fascination with The Arabian Nights (translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704), which was one of the first works to have purveyed to Western Europe the image of the Orient as a place of wonders, wealth, mystery, intrigue, romance, and danger; second, the Romantic visions of the Orient as represented in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and other Romantics as well as in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh; and third, the domestication of opium addiction in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Victorian Orientalism was all pervasive: it is prominent in fiction by William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, but is also to be found in works by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. In poetry Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is a key text, but many works by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning also show the influence of Orientalist tropes and ideas. In theater it is one of the constant strands of much popular drama and other forms of popular entertainment like panoramas and pageants, while travel writing from Charles Kingsley to Richard Burton, James Anthony Froude, and Mary Kingsley shows a wide variety of types of Orientalist figures and concepts, as do many works of both popular and children’s literature. Underlying and uniting all these diverse manifestations of Victorian Orientalism is the imperialist philosophy articulated by writers as different as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, supported by writings of anthropologists and race theorists such as James Cowles Pritchard and Robert Knox. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the image of the opium addict and the Chinese opium den in the East End of London or in the Orient itself becomes a prominent trope in fiction by Dickens, Wilde, and Kipling, and can be seen to lead to the proliferation of Oriental villains in popular fiction of the early 20th century by such writers as M. P. Shiel, Guy Boothby, and Sax Rohmer, whose Dr. Fu Manchu becomes the archetypal version of such figures.
American theater has long used melodramatic elements to shape the contour of racial dynamics and its representations for white mainstream audiences. Recurrent tropes of racial melodrama have appeared in such works as George Aiken’s stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1858) and Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), asserting a strong influence on the public perception of the ethical flaws of slavery and the ambiguity of racial identities. With its sympathetic portrayals of racial minorities as virtuous, innocent victims of social injustice, racial melodrama engaged white viewers in stories of racialized characters that aroused basic human feelings of compassion and sympathy as well as a sense of moral righteousness that encouraged and mobilized political actions, such as abolitionist movements, well beyond the theater. Modern and contemporary Asian American dramatists have adopted formal and thematic elements of melodrama and its affective strategies as a way to gain public visibility and re-articulate prevailing ethnic stereotypes formulated within a binary framework peculiar to melodrama. Melodrama’s emotional intensity and stylistic excesses effectively help to convey the historical, social, and emotional experiences of Asian Americans, including migration, displacement, and injustices such as Japanese American World War II incarceration. At the same time, Asian American dramatists’ critical revision of the melodramatic mode complicates the gendered and racialized dynamic that has defined the cultural identity of Asian Americans against white, mainstream America. The clearly melodramatic characteristics in Gladys Ling-Ai Li’s The Submission of Rose Moy (1924) seemingly reaffirm the stark division between Asian and American identities, only to reveal their ambiguities and uncertainties. While Velina Hasu Houson’s Asa Ga Kimashita (1981) and Tea (1987) render the suffering of Japanese American female characters emotionally relatable to the viewer as a universal experience, Asian female victimhood also serves as a melodramatic sign of national abjection under the violence of American racism and imperialism. Melodrama meets stage realism in Wakako Yamauchi’s The Music Lessons (1980) and in Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash (1985), where melodramatic pathos is facilitated through the plays’ attention to socio-political and psychological realism. Contemporary Asian American culture’s continued use of melodrama is most notable in transnational films such as The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Saving Face (2004), works that explore the potentials and limitations of melodrama as a critical aesthetic strategy.
Eun Joo Kim
Koreans have been represented in North American film and television for almost a century. However, in the early part of the 20th century most representations took place only through the actual bodies of Korean American actors who were portraying Chinese or Japanese characters in American films. The practice of crossethnic, and even crossracial, casting was common for Asian characters in these earlier productions. It was not until the mid-20th century that Korean American actors began to portray ethnically Korean characters. However, these roles often required them to speak, dress, and act as if they were not assimilated to American culture, contributing to the stereotype of Asians as perpetual foreigners to Western society. Since the turn of the 21st century there have been more opportunities for Korean Americans and Korean Canadians to draw from their own lived experiences in their portrayals of characters who speak unaccented English and whose cultural backgrounds are not necessarily their most distinguishing features. Consciously challenging discriminatory practices and countering stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans led to shifts in media representations and more fully developed portrayals of Korean North American characters.
From the dawn of cinema in 1895 to the coming of World War II, the representation of Asian immigrants on the American screen shifted from unwanted aliens to accepted, if exotic, citizens—in other words, from Asian immigrants to Asian Americans. Since World War II, American race relations have been defined mainly through the comparison of white and black experiences; however, in the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, white American fears about racial and cultural purity focused on Asian immigration. Although there was immigration from other Asian countries, at the time, the vast majority of Asian immigrants were arriving from China. In newspaper articles and popular fiction, writers exploited and extended Yellow Peril fears about Chinese immigration through tales of Chinese immorality and criminality. American filmmakers then capitalized on these familiar stories and repeated the stereotypes of the evil “Oriental villain” such as Dr. Fu Manchu and the benign “model minority” such as detective Charlie Chan. American culture more broadly, and American film more specifically, conflated different Asian peoples and cultures and represented Asian immigration, for the most part, through white American attitudes toward Chinese immigrants. In film, this resulted in Japanese and Korean American actors playing Chinese and Chinese American characters before the war, and Chinese and Korean American actors playing Japanese characters during and after the war. More notoriously, however, American films often cast white actors in Chinese roles, especially when those characters were more prominent in the narrative. This practice of “yellowface” contributed to the continuance of stereotyped representations of Chinese characters in film and exposed the systemic racism of a film industry that rarely allowed Asian Americans to represent themselves. With World War II, the Japanese replaced the Chinese as America’s Yellow Peril villain, and American race relations turned from the question of Asian immigration to that of African American civil rights.
There is no singular manifestation of Latina/os in the white imagination. Rather, Latina/os occupy various, competing, and interdependent forms of representation. Latina/os are depicted as perpetually foreign and as the future of conservative American values. They are cast as lazy drains on society and as people who outwork Americans and take their jobs. Latinas are rendered as sexy señoritas who desire US white men and as hyper-fertile producers of “anchor babies” in the United States. And these are just a few of the ways in which US whiteness imagines Latina/os. These representations find expression in stereotypes, discursive tropes, and racial scripts—beliefs that explicitly or implicitly take narrative form. As a product of the white imagination, these depictions of Latina/os find expression in a wide array of discursive locations, from film and literature to journalism and political speech, to name a few. These manifestations of Latinas/os in the white imagination stretch across US history from the late 18th century to the 21st century. These representations have been shaped by and met the exigencies of US whites’ national and racial projects. As such, depictions of Latina/os reveal crucial aspects of US whiteness within a given historical moment and across time. While there are numerous, often contradictory elements of these depictions, they are also interdependent and work together to meet the needs of whiteness. Critically, however, Latinas/os have not been imagined by whiteness without response. Rather, throughout this history, Latinas/os have actively negotiated these dominant racial scripts—from claiming whiteness and citizenship to asserting indigenous heritage or pride in ethnic heritage—in order to meet their own needs.