13 Hollywood Movies That Misrepresented Latin America (and why it matters)

There is no way around it: representation matters in popular culture. How a country or a society is portrayed in film and television helps in shaping the audience’s perception in terms of issues such as race, gender, sexual orientation and social class. Representation is particularly important for Latinos in the United States, as everyday life is affected by stereotypes and misconceptions of who we are.

READ: Hollywood Does Latin America: 21 Movies Shot South Of The Border

Hollywood has often been the culprit of showing Latin American countries as either exotic banana republics rife with crime, booze, dictators and Carmen Miranda-looking women, or as picturesque underdeveloped nations. Save from Pixar’s Coco and a few other notable examples, the US film industry needs to do a better job when it comes to portraying its neighbors south of the border.

Here’s 13 infamous examples:

1. Touch of Evil (1958)

Credit: Touch of Evil. Digital image. Film Comment.

For all its cinematic achievements, Orson Welles’ film noir fails in representing the border town of Tijuana as a complex city. In the film, Mexico is basically a playground for Americans, a lawless wasteland populated by crooks, illegal activities and wicked women. Cultural elements such as bullfighting are exaggerated in order to provide audiences with a more exotic flavor. 

Credit: Tijuana B.C. / Quora

2. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Credit: The Serpent and the Rainbow. /  Digital image. Screen Goblin.

Haiti is often forgotten when discussing Latin America, but the Caribbean nation is part of our continent. This horror film directed by Wes Craven shows Haiti as a primitive place where superstition, zombies and black magic are normal in the everyday. This is a highly damaging portrayal that involves an extra layer of racism. We wonder if Craven would have been able to make this film in today’s political climate. 

Credit: The Iron Market, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti /  SMA Inverted

3. Three Amigos (1986)

Credit: Three Amigos. / Digital image. Just Watch.

Let’s be honest: this comedy directed by John Landis is very funny at times… but that doesn’t make it right. Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short portray a trio of actors who are mistaken for the saviors of a Mexican village, the insultingly named Santo Poco. Every single stereotype is there: the mariachi suits, El Guapo, the dusty landscape, the tequila and the siestas. Speedy Gonzalez would be proud.

Credit: Mexico City, Mexico / Visit Mexico

4. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)

Credit: Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. / Digital image. Daily News. April 18 2017.

This film takes us to pre-revolution Cuba, where an all-American girl meets a poor waiter who happens to be a master salsa dancer. The movie ticks all the boxes when stereotyping the island. Plus, Mexican actor Diego Luna can’t really dance!

Credit: La Havana, Cuba / PandoTrip

5. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)

Credit: Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Digital Image. PopBuzz.

Every single Latin American city is hot and humid and sensual, right? Well, that is what Doug Liman must have thought when he shot some scenes of the Brangelina extravaganza that are supposedly set in Bogotá. Problem is, the city is depicted as a tropical paradise where sweaty gringos get their latino groove on the dance floor. The Colombian capital is actually super cold, and much more European-looking than what the Liman eye candy fest makes us believe.

Credit: Bogotá, Colombia / Skyticket

6. Turistas (2006)

Credit: Turistas. Digital image. Horror Freak News.

This gory horror film rehashes a constant narrative in Hollywood scripts: innocent white characters visit an “exotic” country and are robbed and killed by the savage locals. In Turistas, a group of gringo backpackers find heaven in the Brazilian coast, but suddenly see themselves dragged into a hellish nightmare. As trashy as it gets.

Credit: Rio De Janeiro, Brazil /  Miramar Hotel by Windsor, TripAdvisor

7. The Heartbreak Kid (2007)

Credit: The Heartbreak Kid. FancyCreativeAnemonecrab-mobile. Digital image. Movieclips.

Besides being incredibly misogynist, this heartless comedy starring Ben Stiller is borderline racist. Stiller is Eddie, a man who proposes to a woman who reveals her true colors (frankly, she is alright, it is Stiller’s character who is a freak) on a trip to Cabo in Mexico. The country is shown as a mariachi-populated resort for gringos, totally devoid of character. Frankly insulting.

Credit: Cabo San Lucas, México / Hilton Hotels

8. Love in the Time of Cholera (2007)

Credit: Love in the Time of Cholera. Digital image. Alchetron.

British filmmaker Mike Newell, fresh from directing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire just two years prior, adapted the beloved novel by Gabriel García Márquez using every possible stereotype of Colombia. Colorful, busy and festive, Colombia is presented like a caricature that feels fake in every frame. The worst bit: Spanish-speaking actors like Javier Bardem… do their dialogue in English! 

Credit: Medellín, Colombia / Alcaldía de Medellín

9. Quantum of Solace (2008)

Credit: Quantum of Solace. Digital image. Little White Lies.

It is common practice in Hollywood to use a location outside of the country where the action is supposedly taking place. Sometimes, as is in the case in this James Bond adventure, this decision had grave political implications. The story is supposed to take place in the Bolivian desert, but the producers decided to shoot in Northern Chile due to budget issues. Problem is that region was annexed from Bolivia, so the filming of the 007 adventure brought back grudged between the nations.  

Credit: Baquedano Station and Railway Museum, Antofagasta, Chile / Digital Journal.

10. Fast Five (2011)

Credit: Fast Five. Digital image. The Sapphire Report.

Most of the plot of the fifth installment in the high-speed Fast & Furious franchise is supposed to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. However, only some key scenes were actually shot in the country. The rest was shot… in Puerto Rico! Well, well, well… it seems that for Hollywood producers any Latino-looking country will do. Mal hecho, Hollywood. 

Credit: Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Metropolis

11. The Expendables (2010)

Credit: The Expendables. Digital image. CineSnob.

The first movie in the Sylvester Stallone hypermasculine saga follows a group of American mercenaries to an unnamed South American country. Once there, the white saviors try to free the locals from the iron fist rule of a dictator. Of course, this dictator is modeled after the late Hugo Chavez. This essentialist view of a whole continent is harmful.  

Credit: Hugo Chávez / La Prensa

12. Runner Runner (2013) 

Credit: Runner Runner. Preview shot. Digital image. YouTube.

This movie deals with the rise of the online casino industry in Costa Rica. Ben Affleck portrays a casino mogul who rules over the Central American country, which is shown as basically a cantina full of thugs, where women are only secondary characters. Costa Rica is rarely shown in Hollywood movies, and it is a shame that its 15 minutes of fame presented it as a cesspool of corruption and not as the peaceful and beautiful country that it is.

Credit: Rio Celeste, Costa Rica / The Costa Rica Star

13. Spectre (2015)

Credit: Spectre. Digital image. YouTube. April 7 2016.

This action flick follows Bond, James Bond in an international pursuit of criminal mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The film opens in Mexico City during a Disney-like extravagant Day of the Death parade, full of ordinary people dressed as calacas. Problem is, Mexico City had never organized a parade like that, which was the Hollywood treatment of a tradition engrained in the Mexican psyche. Since then, city authorities decided to hold their own 007-like parade

Credit: All Souls Procession, Tucson, Mexico / VisitTucson

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