Antonio Banderas was talking to reporters on a Hollywood red carpet when his first Zorro film premiered in 1998, and he looked stunned when he was told he might be the first modern day Latino action hero in Hollywood.
“Naaah,” the star of “The Mask of Zorro” said, though it was hard to say whether he was feigning surprise. “What about…”
He didn’t get to finish his answer, being rushed away to where wife Melanie Griffith was posing for photographers.
But Banderas might have had a difficult time completing his answer, for he had just stepped into the Hollywood landscape where there historically has been a dearth of Hispanic action heroes
Few, in fact, and most of the Hispanic action hero roles in recent times belong to Banderas, the Spanish transplant. He was the mariachi in “Desperados” and Che in “Evita,” just to name a few.
Fifteen years later, there is little change in the number of Hispanic action heroes, so much so that former notorious movie villain Danny Trejo is being touted as just that – the new Hispanic action hero – in “Machete Kills,” the much anticipated September release of the sequel to “Machete.”
Shortage of Hispanic action heroes in Hollywood
“There is a definite lack of Latino film heroes,” Luis Reyes, author of Hispanics in Hollywood: A Film and Television Encyclopedia, says of the obvious shortage.
“Most movies, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are a reflection of our society and the spirit of the times. There has always been a preponderance of bandidos, servants and whores, and these are the overwhelming images you see because of the racism that permeated in this country.”
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, director of the “Machete” and the “Mariachi” film franchises, agrees but isn’t alarmed, suggesting that perhaps great action heroes aren’t all that unique to Hollywood.
“I mean if you look at some of the best action heroes, they’re not American,” Rodriguez, who insists his “Machete” sequel could change things, told Ponder 360. “James Bond is British. They add a flavor to it by not being from here. It makes it exciting.
“It’s really cool. It really is going to be a classic, especially amongst Latins. They’re going to really love it. It really is made with that kind of attention to detail. It really is the first Latin super-hero in Hollywood cinema.”
The problem, say Hollywood insiders, has long been the absence of filmmakers like Rodriguez as well as of producers in company town where most studios can’t even point to one Latino production vice president.
But that is changing, if only because Hollywood has recognized the movie-going power of Latinos, who make up roughly one-third of the population in America’s top 15 movie markets and go to twice as many movies as other Americans.
Universal not long ago teamed with Pozo’s Arenas Entertainment to launch the industry’s first major Latino film distribution company.
Insiders says that the real consummate Hispanic action hero might just be the gigantic Hispanic movie-going force.
Ultimately, though, the question of Latino action heroes goes back to Hispanic leading movie role – which are as few as leading men, and historically seems to go back to Zorro.
In a 1998 essay “The Face of Zorro,” Valdez recalled watching a Zorro film as an eight-year-old Mexican-American boy in 1948 as “the myth of the romantic Latin hero… was born.”
And, he argues, the meaning of Zorro continues to puzzle Latinos.
“To an 8-year-old migrant Chicano kid,” he wrote, “it was a revelation, and the start of a strange mystery: Who is this guy who’s supposed to be me? And for the last 50 years, as a playwright, activist and filmmaker, I have been looking under his mask.”
Originally published on VOXXI as Missing in action: The Hispanic action hero