Latinas as Radical Hybrid:
Transnationally gendered traces in mainstream media
Angharad N. Valdivia*
Ph.D,University of Illinois
- *Corresponding Author:
- Angharad N. Valdivia
Ph.D, University of Illinois
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Is J-Lo more authentic than Salma Hayek? Why is the image of Frida Kahlo so
compelling in the U.S. today? Where does Penelope Cruz fit in? And what about
Cameron Diaz, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Alba? Deciding who is a Latina/o and
what counts as Latinidad, the culture produced by Latina/os and the practices of being
Latina/o, has proven to be a nearly impossible task. The fact remains that it is nearly
impossible to classify Latina/os by race, ethnicity, class, religion, language, food, dance
and musical proclivities—to name but a few of the vectors of difference which often
delineate the margins between one cultural group and another. Latina/os come from a
variety of territorial origins. Many come from Latin America but many others predate
the arrival of Anglo populations to the North American continent. Many speak Spanish,
but many have adopted a new hybrid language [since Spanish itself is a hybrid]. A
growing percentage of the US poor are Latina/os, but there is also an increasingly large
professional middle class. While metaphors of the “browning of America” continue to be
prevalent, Latina/os come in all the racial and ethnic possibilities. It is difficult to make
generalizations about Latina/os and Latinidad, but it is imperative to study this
contemporary most numerous minority group in terms of its relational construction
within mainstream mass media and popular culture.
Whereas it has become nearly commonplace to begin nearly any U.S. Latina/o
Studies essay with a small summary of the contemporary utopian with the dystopian—the hotness of Latinidad in mainstream media and popular culture compared and contrasted
to the still hostile reception of Latina/o bodies in this country; the Latin explosion in
relation to the increasing rates of AIDS among Latina/os, etc., it is useful to foreground
the interstices through which one can explore notions on radical hybridity from Latina/o
Studies and communications paradigm. Foremost in this essay, is the need to combine
the study of Latinidad in the United States through the prism of gender in general and
through Latinas-- that is female subjects and bodies, in particular. Feminist scholars of
many persuasions working on issues of mass media and popular culture, including Latina
feminists (López, 1991; 1994; Valdivia and Guzmán, 2004; Rojas, 2004; Aparicio, 2003;
Aparicio and Jáquez, 2003), Chicana feminists (Alarcón, 1994; Fregoso, 1993, 2003),
and transnational feminists (Ghallagher, 2003; Shohat, 1991, 1998) to name a few,
remind us over and over again of the continuing importance of the sign of woman.
Woman as a sign stands for so much more than an individual wo man. As Van Zoonen
(1994) writes, it is no coincidence that both the United States and France (among nearly
all countries) have a symbolic female figure as a stand in—the statue of Liberty for the
U.S. and the revolutionary figure for the French. Rakow and Kranich (1991) document
the different functions that different female signs serve in mainstream news—with white
women signing in for all women and women of color signing in for just women of color.
Ana López (1991), in an essay that treats Hollywood film as ethnographic, adds that
women sign in for both nation and otherness. In this aspect Latin American women in
Hollywood film pose a double threat of race and gender to the dominant global and U.S.
order. In the U.S. national situation, Latina women represent the contemporary moment
when, ahead of demographic projections, as of the third week of January 2003, the U.S. census announced that Latina/os are the most numerous minority, outnumbering and
outpacing the former most numerous minority, African Americans. Of course, this came
as no surprise to anyone who had been following recent demographic trends. For
example, already as of 1996 Latina/o schoolchildren had begun to outnumber any other
minority in the public school classrooms. Public policy and fears as represented by,
among other things, road signs, speak to the national awareness of this demographic
growth. For instance, Ruiz (2002) foregrounds the highly politically and culturally
charged sign on U.S. I-5 in Southern California where the silhouette of a woman occupies
the front center of a road sign warning motorists to look out for humans crossing the
freeway. The feminized image highlights the gendered nature of regional and national
anti- immigrant hysteria, couched primarily in terms of Latina/os. The fact that Latina/os
continue to be considered mostly immigrant, demonstrate their/our eternal outsider status
in a country where their/our presence predates the Anglo population. Thus these instances
are representative of a larger picture wherein the terrain of the representational speaks to
the current historical situation, and in this terrain Latina subjects and bodies are
foregrounded as symbolic of their recent most numerous minority status and of the
concerns that this new status raise within dominant U.S. culture.
Yet the presence of Latinas and Latinidad also speaks to broader epistemological
issues of ethnic studies. Whereas concepts of ethnicity, in relation to concepts of race,
speak to cultural markers of identity, they still attempt to locate ethnic difference as a
marker of difference. Shohat’s “ethnicities in relation” approach (1991) posits
ethnicities, especially as represented in film and other mass media, as dynamic and
unstable, gaining meaning something only in terms of the representation of other ethnicities within a given textual context. Latinas, of course, can be examined in this
relational framework. Fitting somewhere between black and whiteness in the national
imaginary (Davis, 2000), Latinas as a constructed category gain meaning by virtue of
their supposed location as an in between ethnicity, not white yet not black. Yet this is not
a simple process as the fact is Latinas are not uniformly brown. To further explore this
category and its implications for media and popular culture representation we must turn
to theories of hybridity.
The concept of hybridity is extremely useful to communications scholars for a
number of reasons yet remains to be fully utilized by our interdiscipline (Kraidy, 1999,
2002; Murphy and Kraidy, 2003). Kraidy (2002: 317) proposes that we foreground this
concept as it: “needs to be understood as a communicative practice constitutive of, and
constituted by, sociopolitical and economic arrangements” that are “complex, processual,
and dynamic.” Scholars from many disciplinary backgrounds have been seriously
engaged in the potential of the concept of hybridity (e.g. Avtar and Coombs, 2000;
Joseph and Fink, 1999; Werbner and Modood, 1997) within the humanities and social
sciences.1 Beyond its merely descriptive uses, hybridity also opens up the space for the
study of cultural negotiations, conflicts, and struggles against the backdrop of
contemporary globalization (Shome and Hegde, 2002a; 2002b). The concept is foremost
a rejection of essentialist notions, either of gender or of ethnicity and race, as well as an
acknowledgement that there is no purity to be found either at the level of culture, the
body, blood, or DNA. Kraniaskaus (2000) differentiates between García Canclini’s
(1995) socio-cultural hybridity and Bhabha’s (1994) more literary and psychoanalytic
approach. Yet both Canclini and Bhabha counter more simplistic versions of globalization studies where a celebratory mish mash of people and cultures are offered,
and all difference is erased. To some hybridity might suggest a playful space, where one
can try on different identities. Indeed studies of contemporary ethnicity (Dávila, 2001;
Halter, 2000; Moorti, 2003) suggest that hybrid traces are very useful for
commodification purposes and the marketing of ethnicity. In fact ethnic ambiguity is a
most useful strategy as it has the potential of speaking to different segments of the
audience with one economical image or set of images. As such hybridity and its
accompanying strategy, representational ambiguity, certainly have their uses within late
Against, or in relation to, overly celebratory approaches to the jouissance of the hybrid,
we have to consider the tensions and pains of hybridity—the fact that it is not all fun and
profits. Theoretical treatments of hybridity aim to retain some of the tensions, the power
differentials, the pulls toward syncretism inherent in its inevitable flattening in
mainstream mass media and popular culture. Whereas Shohat and Stam (1994) use
hybridity, mestizaje, and syncretism interchangeably, Hamid Naficy (1993) distinguishes
between hybridity and syncretism, proposing that the latter is more comfortable, stable,
livable, longer lasting, and less ambivalent than hybridity. With its blends and shifts,
sometimes the display of one culture more prominently than the other or others, the
instability, and discomfort of hybridity has greater explanatory and analytical power for
the lived Latina/o experience in the U.S. over the comfort and stability of the syncretic
representational terrain (Levine, 2002). Of course, as Naficy argues, there is always a
tendency and desire for syncretism among hybrid populations, usually resolved by the
market and media industries as mere style differences through consumerism. Levine (2002) extends his concept to Latinidad, arguing that contemporary mainstream popular
culture in fact constructs a syncretic Latina/o identity. This can be explored through the
representation on Latinas in popular culture as their bodies become the terrain of social
struggle (Beltrán, 2002). This is especially evident in the mainstream media and popular
Latina/os and the construction and deployment of Latinidad challenge binary
constructions of identity. Especially in the United States where the discussion, rhetoric
and discourse around race and ethnicity historically has centered and continues to do so
around mutually exclusive categories of black and white populations, Latina/os, as well
as other ethnic populations such as Asian Americans and Native Americans have
metaphorically and literally fallen through the cracks of political and symbolic
discourses. Latinas are a hybrid lot—we share much and we embody many differences.
Like Duany (1992) says of salsa music, Latinas are a hybrid of hybrids—and therefore
what I call a radical hybrid. Just as salsa music is composed of already hybrid traditions,
Latinas embody the many complex traces of cultures and populations that come together
at this moment in the United States. So, for example, the dominant tendency to reduce
Latina/o heterogeneity to a brown race erases the diversity within Latina/os. Latina/os
come from South America yet South America is not a racially homogeneous region—
native American, European, African, Arab, and Asian traces permeate the region in
addition to the more often mentioned particular Spanish and Portuguese traces. In
addition every one of those categories, or regions, of people is composed of hybrid
Beyond the wake-up call of including another ethnicity in the national imaginary
and therefore expanding the ethnic register to a fluid spectrum rather than mutually
exclusive categories, Latina/os remind us that there is no purity within Latinidad, or
indeed within any ethnic category, and therefore there are no easy borders between
ethnicities. Latina/os demonstrate what can appropriately be called radical hybridity
(Valdivia, 2003). One could begin by the perplexing attempt, on the part of the Census
Bureau, to account for Latina/os outside of Whiteness [as in “White, not Hispanic”] and
Latina/os beyond the Americas, as in “including Spain and Portugal.” For example,
Hispanic Afro-Caribbeans who face this form for the first time have as difficult a time
deciding as White Hispanic Caribbeans, who had either thought themselves in terms of
nation, as with the former, or of their whiteness, as in the latter. Neither of these groups
is likely to possess purity of race, nor of any of the other components and indicators of
ethnicity such as religion, etc. If we take another contributing hybrid category, the
Spanish, we encounter the inevitable hybridity that pervades historical roots of Latina/os
in the United States. Dating back to the Mexican casta paintings and before, the tendency
has been to represent the Spanish as white (Klor de Alva, 1996), and indeed in
contemporary times in both the United States (Valdivia, in press) and much of South
America the use of the term “Spanish” continues to signify whiteness. Yet the easy
conflation of Spain and whiteness is anything but accurate. As Menocal (2002) notes, Al
Andalus was a complex region wherein Spanish, Moorish, and Jewish populations
intermingled to create a syncretic culture and population, with established difference but
also with the commonalities that result from centuries of cohabitation and inevitable
intermingling. Spain neither was nor is the seat of whiteness anymore than Latin America is. Spain and the main four Spanish languages remain a hybrid lot. This type of
historical genealogy of hybridity, populations, language, and cultural forms, could be
carried out for each and every one of the components of Latin America and thus of U.S.
Latina/os. Hybridity permeates our roots, the roots of Latina/os, as well as the roots of all
populations. Despite this undeniable presence, which dates back centuries to the days
before the United States became a nation, Latina/os continue to challenge binary and
essentialist approaches to race (Chabram-Dernersesian, 1999).
Transnational studies, much like hybridity approaches, offer a way to study the
fluidity and mobility that characterizes popular culture at this moment (e.g. Shohat and
Stam, 1994). The celebrated mobility of the upper and some of the middle classes, of
course, has to be explored in relation to the forced mobility or immobility of huge
proportions of the world population. Nonetheless cultural products, forms, and
populations and bodies cross back and forth across national boundaries. Inspections, as
Alejandro Lugo (2000 and forthcoming) brilliantly notes, slow the mobility of racialized
bodies, especially after 9/11. Yet we have to acknowledge that cultural border crossing
goes on nearly unchecked. Although both bodies and cultural forms mean different
things in different places, they nonetheless travel across regional and national boundaries,
with accompanying changes in meaning and status. Much of mainstream popular culture
in the U.S. is made with a transnational distribution, and therefore profits, in mind. Not
even the huge U.S. market is large enough to generate the profit necessary for
blockbuster movies, for example. The investment in a popular music cd with star talent
only makes sense in a transnational marketing paradigm. Similarly, from a transnational
mainstream perspective, it makes little sense to market something or someone that will appeal to only a particular ethno-racial group within a set of national boundaries. Thus
many of today’s prominent Latinas, their representations, and their cultural forms
circulate globally. Many are easily recognizable in the United States, Latin America, and
Europe, to name but three major global regions, as well as across ethno-racial lines so as
to appeal to a range of identities in the U.S. and abroad. Given that transnational flows
are decidedly asymmetrical, the circulation of mainstream Latinas bears traces of unequal
power differentials and of a relational location between white ideals and the rejected
blackness of the U.S. body politic.
It is important to stud y mainstream media and popular culture and the locations of
Latinas and Latinidad within it for analytical and practical purposes. While there is a
growing and long standing tradition of ethnic and alternative media and popular culture,
many people live beyond the reach of or access to these forms of expressive culture. For
example, in the Midwest of the United States there are long standing, more or less
homogeneous, and newer heterogeneous communities, pockets, and singular Latina/os. In
fact the Midwest and the South are the two U.S. regions with the fastest growing Latina/o
population. Most of us in these regions only have exposure to the mainstream. We would
love to see the Vancouver Latino Theater Group, El Vez, Univisión or Telemundo but we
do not have access. And we are not the only ones, as most of the U.S. population
experiences mainstream cultural products and is much more likely to know who Jennifer
Lopez is than El Vez or Carmelita Tropicana. Whereas certain scholarly traditions treat
non-mass media forms of popular culture as more authentic, media studies argues that
people’s experiences with the media cannot be dismissed as these compose a
predominant part of contemporary life and therefore contribute to individual and group identity formation. Authenticity claims often function as a way to police insider status
within an ethnic formation as well as a way of constructing an authentic product in terms
of marketing (McLean, 1992-93).
Nonetheless, to use Hollywood film as an example, there are egregious instances
of the undifferentiated lumping of all things Latina/o or from south of the border. Perez-
Firmat (1994) includes a delightful and hilarious example in his book Living on the
Hyphen of the film Too Many Girls (RKO, 1940) wherein Manue lito Lynch an [U.S.]
American football player from the Argentine provinces is offered a sports scholarship in
an U.S. Ivy League school and ends up playing the conga drums in the film’s finale in the
desert. Perez-Firmat comments:
The picture of an Argent ine Desi, dressed in football uniform, with a tumbadora slung around his neck, leading a conga in the New Mexico
desert is a kind of mismash that makes Lucy’s Carmen Miranda seem
authentic by comparison… Too Many Girls is a multiculturalist’s
nightmare. All of the principal American cultures are there—black, white,
Indian, Hispanic; but every one is caricatured and distorted. . . . The town
plaza becomes a melting pot. (p. 54)
Perez-Firmat focuses at once on Cuban American representations as well as on their
relation to other Americanisms and the multicultural spectrum in the U.S. The iconic
Carmen Miranda can be seen, and has been studied as, the epitome of the floating Latin
signifier with strong shades of excess and hyperfertility (Shohat and Stam, 1994). For
example, in the film Copacabana (1947), she stars with Groucho Marx in a musical that
elides the difference between Mexican, Argentine, and Brazilian iconography to name the three most prominent sets of signifiers in the film. In fact, in yet another instance of
evidence that all difference, not just Latin American difference, functions in relation to
the normalizing discourses of U.S. Whiteness, within Copacabana, Carmen Miranda
portrays a performer who easily fools people by performing both a “Latin” Brazilian
Bombshell, and a “French” persona, Mademoiselle Fifi! More contemporary examples
include Salma Hayek’s performance in Fools Rush In where she plays a Mexican
American woman whose salsa dancing harks to a much more Caribbean location than her
landlocked rural Mexican origin would suggest. Fashion spreads as well as food layouts
that mix the wide array of colors, settings, and flavors particular to a region into an
undifferentiated Southwestern, Latin American, and Spanish flair can commonly be
found in most contemporary lifestyle magazines. Similarly visits to most Latin or, worse
yet, “world food” restaurants reveal a mish mash of ingredients, decorative details,
musical and language use that can sometimes be downright scary. As Halter (2000) has
written, the marketing of ethnicity seems to be the new U.S. American identity, replacing
the melting pot metaphor. We now have a situation where everyone claims ethnic status
and ethnicity is hyper-commodified and increasingly undifferentiated.
Differentiation within Latinidad
Despite the easily demonstrable ethnification of the U.S. imaginary, we must also
explore diversity and hybridity among the Latina/o population. The contemporary
Latina/o boom is often treated as if it referred to an undifferentiated and homogeneous
group of peoples and cultural traditions. Arlene Dávila (2001) begins her book Latinos
Inc. with a vignette of Telemundo launching its marketing strategy at a trade show with
Antonio Banderas as the spokesperson for Latinos. “Latinos are hot, and we are not the only ones to think so. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon, and why not? We
have the greatest art, music, and literature. It’s time we tell our stories” announces
Antonio (p. 1). Whereas the fact that Antonio Banderas is Spanish [and continues to
reside in Spain] is not deemed relevant in the launching of Latino marketing, what is
important is that in terms of marketing Banderas signs in as quintessentially Latin thus
demonstrating both the vexed relationship between Latinidad and peninsular peoples as
well as the fact that, in some warped way, the U.S. Census Bureau’s category of
“Hispanic” speaks to a far more widespread cultural elision2. Although Dávila (2001)
correctly notes that “Following the nationalist underpinnings underlying contemporary
representations of culture and identity, in which cultures are seen as bounded and
contained entities, tied to a territory, a past, and a heritage, it is Latin America rather than
a deterritorialized U.S.-Latino culture that has traditionally been valorized as the source
of cultural authenticity in Latino/Hispano culture” (p. 79), we cannot ignore the enduring
Spanish heritage that continues to be treated as a contemporary source of Latinidad, at
least within the realm of commodified popular culture. If Latin America is the origin of
authenticity in the United States, Spain signs in that role for much of Latin America, with
notable but not predominant exceptions for an indigenous authenticity. Thus we have to
recognize that the deterritorialization has to include the possibility of Spain, and to a
lesser extent Portugal, as sources of authenticity.
In an essay on Spanish language media in the U.S., Dávila (2002) notes that
Latina/o audiences recognize the marketing effort to acknowledge Latina/o difference yet
resist the strategy that essentializes national characteristics leaving “us with the
impression that there are no blacks in Mexico, blondes in the Dominican Republic, or brunettes in Argentina” (p. 29). The groundbreaking work of Viviana Rojas (2004)
begins the important project of laying out a matrix of interpretation among different
sectors of the U.S. Latina audience. Rojas’ respondents demonstrate a keen awareness od
discursive constructions of a gendered latinidad that many of them resist or reject.
Implications for Media Representation
Implications of radical hybridity translate into an uneasy approach to Latinidad
within the mainstream. The dominant representational tendency continues to be the
foregrounding of the stereotypical brown race. In a sense this is a new development in
that until recently mainstream representations mostly included whiteness and a very small
amount of blackness as racial possibilities. However, given the ethnification of U.S.
society and culture, from a marketing perspective, it makes more sense to represent and
appeal to a wider swath of the population than that which identifies itself with a
particular, and singular, ethnic category (Dávila, 2001; Halter, 2000). Latinidad provides
the mainstream marketing apparatuses with an ideal opportunity to abandon or reject
binary ethnoracial categories in the name of a liberal multiculturalism and maximum
profits. This is the flip side of Fusco’s (1995) argument for a strategical essentialism in
the name of political and cultural representation. The marketing of ambiguity opens up a
huge space for appealing to a “newly discovered” heterogeneous population. Ambiguity,
something Latinas, because of our radically hybrid traces, embody and represent,
promises to be the answer to ethnic cross dressing and cross marketing appeals. Thus
Latinas who can border cross traditional ethnic lines are more likely to be favored in
representations within the mainstream.
Evidence of this strategy abounds in today’s mass media and popular culture.
Once could say that Jennifer Lopez represents that ideal ambiguous body—the Latina
who does not have to play Latina roles in film; the spokesperson for her own perfume,
Still, who can be represented in a Marilyn Monroe-esque pose in the promotional
campaign; the woman who can date P-Diddy or Ben Affleck—the ideal bridge and
anything goes person. Whereas Lopez’s identity as Latina precedes all of her cultural
interventions, Jessica Alba is less well recognized as such. Her membership in the
Disney children acting pool meant she was often a part of an ensemble cast wherein a
racial palette was part of the narrative. Since graduating from Disney, she has played the
hybrid, ambiguous, and post-apocalyptic Dark Angel as well as African American hip
hop queen in the feature length Honey (2003). Her L’Oreal model stint had her in both
ethnic and deterritorialized and ambiguous poses.
While these are name actresses, the wider representational terrain of the
mainstream includes many fictional and nameless female figures. If we look at recent
Gap underwear ads, the [usually] two page layouts include a range of ethnically
ambiguous models ranging from a white one on the right to a light black one on the left.
This is eerily similar to American Girl layouts wherein the girls pose in an ethnic paletter
ranging from whiteness on the right to light blackness on the left. Recent releases of
ethnic urban dolls, such as Bratz and Flavas, also illustrate this ambiguous ethnic palette.
All of the and there is a range of mid-range ethnic dolls which fall somewhere between
white and black. For example a white doll might have very kinky hair. However, as with
the Gap and American Girl lay outs, while whiteness remains, and the ethnic ambiguity,
retaining identifiable components of Latinidad such as hoop earring and the like, occupy the middle ground, blackness recedes to the left of the page/screen and it becomes
The result here is two-fold. Latina actresses can play a broad range of characters,
including black, white, and everything in between, thus providing casting directors with
an easy way to foreground the few famous Latinas out there who by virtue of ambiguity
can slip into these roles. This presents both an employment opportunity as well as the
possibility of seeing more people of color on the screen and in print. However the second
effect is that hybrid Latinas and ethnic ambiguity also provide mainstream culture with a
chance to displace and replace blackness. Blackness once more gets pushed to the [left]
Whereas the dominant tendency continues to be to talk about and represent
people, culture, and populations as stemming from discrete ethno-racial categories, the
“Latin exp losion” which is anchored within contemporary Latinidad renders these efforts
at best problematic and at worst untenable. Through an exploration of representations of
Latinas in mainstream U.S. media we can see that Latinas can be any ethnicity or race
they are needed or want to be. Moreover the women who represent Latinidad are not
necessarily Latinas. The ambiguity lies both in the category and in the representation.
They can be marshaled or marshal themselves to represent, and of course appeal or sell
to, whiteness, but they can also represent generalized otherness as well as more specific
stereotypical Latinidad and a range of other ethnicities. The rise of the ambiguously
ethnic image also demands a lightening of the dark subject. While Blackness is still part
of the racial spectrum, the introduction of Latinidad as an in-between location plays into the continuing tendency to under represent or altogether ignore its presence within U.S.
culture. Furthermore the rise of the ambiguous Latina simultaneously plays into the
marketing needs of a complex heterogeneous society and underscores the fact that there
is no purity within any given ethno-racial category or within the U.S. body politic.
Finally once more the female body becomes the terrain over which issues of the national
imaginary are struggled, or as Beltrán (2002: 71) notes “a site of social struggle.” The
Latina body as a floating signifier represents the identity crisis of nation forced to
acknowledge its heterogeneity, hybridity, and continued racism.
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