Latinas Are the New Extraterrestials

Dec 19, 2009 · 20834 views

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Afro-Dominican American actress Zoe Saldaña (who played Uhura in the 2009 release of Star Trek) adopts a non-human form in the new James Cameron space fantasy Avatar. Color-blind casting, or the perpetuation and expansion of […]


  1. I should have added that Berg also talks about the “friendly” alien (like ET) and perhaps we can see Saldaña’s role in that light…

  2. Marc Felion says:

    There is a Latina character ( I assume played by a Latina) in the film and while I don’t want to give anything away, she is strong, fierce and moral, so of course, she doesn’t make it, or does she?

  3. Curtis says:

    I’m seeing the film tomorrow morning, but my guess is that this is a purely academic argument with no real meaning when it comes to the filmmakers intentions, the audiences perceptions and ignores what is really up front and center on the screen.

    Also I think the only people who consider Zoe Saldaña Latina are other Latins. The rest of just think she’s black. My guess is she was cast because she’s a talented capable actress whose star is rising, not a nefarious plot on the part of James Cameron to equate Latinos with aliens.

    Also aren’t the humans the “aliens” in this film. My guess is that the film is far more of an indictment of colonialism and corporate greed. I would have thought that would have been more than enough for academics to chew on, but I guess everything film must be deconstructed to the point that it is no longer recognizable or enjoyable as entertainment.

    • Marc Felion says:

      Most everyone is comparing the film to “Dances with Wolves” and for good reason. -it’s basically the same plot.

      Curtis- I’m not really sure where you are going with any of your comments.

      dc_gay_man- the story is told form the white point of view so the humans are NOT the aliens.

      Pierre- did you read the article? see the movie?

      Thing thing that always bugs me about these types of films is the idea of the “Noble Savage” being better than civilized man, because sometimes, these cultures can be tyrannical.


    Curtis, dismissing what I say as a “purely academic argument” suggests that you consider your opinions to be superior and more correct than mine by virtue of you not being an academic. I don’t go around belittling you for who you are and the way you analyze things, so I don’t understand why you feel inclined to dismiss my profession (being a university professor) in order to disagree with what I say.

    While you are probably right about mainstream American perceptions regarding Zoe Saldaña (seeing her as black), this does not deny who she is. What you point to is an American tendency to see the world in black and white terms. This is a problem that Latinos face every day. I invite you to consider how this affects the lives of some of your friends, such as Fausto.

    I don’t see myself in the business of deconstruction, I prefer to think of myself as a person committed to Latina/o visibility and antiracist work. If this ruins your movie viewing experience, consider it a small price to pay for living in a more democratic society. I prefer my entertainment to not be racist, personally. Whether Avatar is a racist film or nor remains to be seen.

    Here’s a useful post:

  5. dc_gay_man says:

    If the Na’vi are native to Pandora, then the humans are the aliens. Your argument is fairly weak.

  6. I have to agree with Curtis on this. I just don’t see it. Any story will always share a link with history and it’s easy to see ourselves in it if you experienced that history. I also don’t think Curtis meant the “academic argument” as an insult. I think he merely said it’s a subplot that some people might see but you don’t know it’s there. It’s kinda like seeing jesus in toast. If you see it and you believe, then it can be of momentous importance to you. It was probably there by accident but only the person who put it there really knows.

  7. Curtis says:

    Larry I don’t think my views are superior to yours, and I’m sorry if that’s how they came off.

    What I’m saying is that I personally find that on occasion within academia we get these readings of pop culture that try to shoe horn what I would consider some small rather insignificant element of a project (here a single isolated casting decision that you claim is based on Zoe Soldana’s Latina heritage when there are many other possible explanations for her being cast) to fit with a person’s field of study, (here your interest in the racism of the West and whites when it comes to Latino heritage).

    I do believe that you are off base in regards to the casting of Avatar, and I think the other reading referenced on Fresh is off base with the notion of the supposed white fantasies of race in the case of Avatar. I think there is a case to be made for other films, but I just don’t buy it, or see it here. For me the biggest piece of evidence is that Zoe doesn’t “read” as Latina. In my estimation it’s difficult for something to be anti-Latino or have an patently anti-Latino message when it’s status as Latino isn’t apparent to the audience, or possibly even to the person against whom you have made the accusation.

    In fact if Cameron’s intentions are what you suggest they might be, then he I would think he would have cast Michelle Rodriguez as the Na’vi princess so that the broad audience would all be on board with the Latina=alien message you ascribe to the film. Yes it is a fact that Ms Soldana is Latina, you’ve made me aware of it, but this was not a well known fact about her here outside of Latino circles. The general public is largely if not completely unaware of her heritage. She can’t be a very effective symbol of Hollywood’s racist war against Latinos if nobody can read the message.

    While there may be something there when it comes to another film, I think you and other academics have missed the target with Avatar. Sometimes an alien princess is just a plain old boring alien princess.

  8. Well, I just saw Avatar. Curtis, colonialism is precisely about race. That is what this film is all about (along with corporate greed and pseudo new age ecological concerns). The Na’vi are basically a composite of every person of color you can think of, all thrown together, the less modern the better. The fact that the “Americans” are of diverse races and ethnicities is basically a realistic representation of this country, particularly of its army. The fact that all of the lead “American” characters are white (and get divided between the “good” whites and the “bad” whites) is also a representation of that, but even more of Hollywood (the army is less racist in its hiring policies than Hollywood, as the army actually has to rely on people of color to do its colonialist job). The fact that the Na’vi are so of color that they are actually multicolored blue is a fantasy of what us folks of color are all about. It is fascinating that the two most important characters played by people of color are played by Latinas: Michelle Rodriguez and Zoe Saldaña (in non-human form).

    This film basically boils down to a fantasy of white heterosexual men destroying and then saving the world, since people of color can’t save it for themselves. Nice touch, having him in a wheelchair and an army veteran. So now the same guys who screw us over are the ones who are going to bring us our salvation! Give me a break.

  9. Or as I just posted on my Facebook page, “(I) just saw Avatar and laughed and laughed, it’s (unfortunately) a rather absurd representation of our world, with well intentioned but ultimately pathetic liberal politics that privilege white male heterosexual protagonism (even if he’s a soldier in a wheelchair). But the colors are pretty…”

  10. TrickyToro says:

    I saw the film last night. It was enjoyable enough. It also reminds me that our culture has a long way to go before our cultural expressions reflect a more equitable society.

    Building on Professor Larry’s comments. Avatar’s central narrative is about colonialism as told thru the Hollywood feel good lens of revisionist history, which allows us to revisit things like the Seminole wars, the Trail of Tears and the Dawes Act, only this time we insert the great white savior. It’s a little Stockholm syndrome. Our captor is now our savior because we (people of color) cannot save ourselves. Sully expresses the pyschological schism in the paradoxical statement, “I was a warrior who dreamt he could bring peace…sooner or later we have to wake up.” I inferred that for Sully peace means voluntarily leaving your homeland and relocating. The alternative to the peace he’s interested in bringing is opposed being removed violently or exterminated.

    As Larry mentioned, the filmmaker inserted themes of corporate greed and pseudo new age ecological concerns, as an unconscious interjection of Hollywood’s left leaning darling concerns. A bit like McActivism which still privileges white male heterosexual protagonism.
    Some other stuff I found curious, and I realize films are fractured in the production process. However, the first time we see the Sully in his avatar body confronting the massive rhino looking beast he assumes the posture and patois of a black man from the streets. He puffs his chest out and calls the creature a bitch, a common emasculating taunt in the hood.

    It’s hard to say which I found more offensive, the seeds symbology when he is bathed in the seeds identifying him as the savior, or the last half of the film when he takes his rightful position of power leading the Na’vi.

  11. TungstenCoil says:

    @Larry & Tricky:

    So, if they switched things, and cast the military as all Hispanic or persons-of-color, and the alien being were all portrayed by white actors… what? Then, it would be White People portraying Hispanics as the invader? As the evil folk? Portraying whites in a sympathetic light?

    I just wonder – given your views on the issue (and, I suspect, the world) – how could this movie have been made without having some sort of racist undertone? How can *any* story not have some sort of racist undertone?

    Go ahead: pick a movie (or TV show): I can find racist, homophobic, ethnocentric tones to the story line.

  12. TrickyToro says:

    Perhaps it could have been told from the point of view of the Na’vi. We all know Hollywood casts based on bankabiity. It’s not a leap to infer that Sully is much more relatable than one of the natives.

  13. TungstenCoil says:

    But how would that help? Mind you, I’m addressing the implication that (1) having Latinas cast as the aliens is somehow racist or an extension of the menacing-aliens-are-Latino-metaphors argument Larry quotes. My basic premise is that it’s impossible to do what you’re suggesting.

    However, to go with my ‘challenge’: I’ll just be we could find all kinds of racist, homophobic, ethnocentric, misogynist, [we can keep going] in any version of the story – in any version of any story. Part of the reason we *have* stories is that they’re allegories or myths we can relate to (pleasant or not). Maybe what I’m saying is, “yeah… so?”

    I’m not even saying it’s necessary incorrect, I’m just saying that one can draw those conclusions – legitimately – about virtually anything. Larry has made an entire career out of it (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

    It does always amuse me – no matter how different people are, they’re the same. I hear uptight white folks who are convinced there are Mexican Nationals poised to take over the southern US. I know “city folk” in Michigan who are convinced militia folks living in the woods are going to invade. I know blacks and Hispanics who are convinced white folks have it out for them. I know gays who think straightey has them in the cross hairs, and heteros who are convinced our gay agenda is mere days from being fully enacted as we take over.

  14. TrickyToro says:

    Larry will have to speak to your point raised in your first line. It wasn’t something I honed in on. Though I did notice a distinct lack of diversity in casting. You would think in 2125 world this wouldn’t be the case.

    For me the casting per se wasn’t racist. It’s the allegory represented by the casting that I found problematic. Rather than being the age old trope of good vs. evil this is an age old trope about colonialism which masquerades as a story of indigenous people but really is about white people.

    To switch gears a bit. Kind of hard to deny that oppression exists based on skin color. Look at Justice Department figures. People of color receive longer sentences and women of color even more so. This discussion is old hat though between us.

    It is well known in the industry (my dad is an ent atty) that Cameron is a filmmaker and not a storyteller. For him the visual is paramount. And, at that he exceeds. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy the film by my critique.

  15. @TungstenCoil: Well, as to a less racist science fiction film, I would recommend seeing “Sleep Dealer” (2008) by Alex Rivera.

    As to a enormously progressive film, I would recommend “Salt of the Earth” (1954) by Herbert J. Biberman. “Giant” (1956, dir. George Stevens) is also pretty interesting. “Real Women Have Curves” (2002) by Patricia Cardoso is also good, even if it idealizes higher education as a solution to everything.

    I find it a little tiresome how my original posting has been misconstrued as anything more than a recommendation to go read Charles Ramirez Berg’s book chapter and see if it is relevant or not to “Avatar” and to a broader discussion of Latina/o representation in Hollywood film. Having seen the film, it is clear that people are going to have mixed reactions. I found it an absurd film but managed to laugh some at its absurdity. I guess I laughed to avoid getting angry, mad or sad that such reactionary films get made and are extremely successful. Of course, having said all this, if peoples’ reactions to the film lead them to antiracist, antiviolence, antiwar, proenvironment, proindigenous, pro people of color positions, well, then that is quite remarkable and to be celebrated. It would be a truly fascinating phenomenon and I would be the first to try to understand how such a counterintuitive thing could occur. Go do the viewer response surveys and let me know.

  16. TungstenCoil says:

    I’ve seen “Sleep Dealer” (and liked it). If you can’t extrapolate racist overtones out of “Sleep Dealer”, than I am shocked. By “less racist” it seems that you mean “more pro-Latin” and more “anti-White” and not “not racist in any capacity”.

    Mind you: I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad. It’s just not any (more or) less racist than any other story; it’s just skewed differently. I think people invent the stories that are important to them, for whatever reason that they’re important. It is fascinating both the intended and unintended impact and over-/undertones in any work.

    My point was not whether or not they exist, but that if they do they’re not exceptional. I do seriously doubt there’s an agenda (and I haven’t read Berg’s book, though you imply he finds one). However, that is my opinion and certainly not anything I’ve studied.

    To that end, I stand by my original statement: If you make it your mission to find such evidence of bias and to be able to draw such corollaries from cinema (or any art), you will find it. I doubt such findings indicate any real bias, “-ism”, or anything like that, as a general rule. The fact that academics who study cultural, subjective things like “art” can find such ‘evidence’ is exactly that: academic. Red herrings are possible everywhere, even in “hard”(er) sciences (one of my favorite articles: ).

    I don’t think I’ve misconstrued your original post: if your summation of Berg’s chapter is accurate, then I would have to say you’re off target. If you accept that all art exhibits biases, then yes, it’s biased. If you’re actually purporting that there’s an underlying theme of portraying Hispanics/Latinos as “aliens” in pop culture in order to play upon or reinforce the White Man’s fear of immigration, and that there’s a Big White Fantasy centered around Kicking the Asses of Anyone Different and Ruling the World, than it’s hogwash.

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