By Sara Trevino and Emily Becerra
With the pivot shift of many Latinas getting behind the camera, the emergence of Latina filmmakers and writers are breaking down the Latinx stereotypes and depicting more complex Latinx characters. Real Women Have Curves is a comedy-drama directed by Patricia Cardoso based on a play by Josefina Lopez. The film follows a first-generation Mexican-American teenager, Ana Garcia, who works at her older sister’s garment factory for the summer. Ana struggles between her mother’s desire of getting married and her ambition in receiving higher education. For this photo essay, we will argue how American Ferrara’s portrayal in Real Women Have Curves challenges Hollywood’s earliest sex symbols — the Spicy Latina trope. By utilizing images from the film we will discuss how the film pushes back against the Spicy Latina stereotypes through the concept of emphasized femininity, third-wave feminism, intersectionality, and gender roles.
The spicy Latina is a stereotype depicted in Western media where the Latina character is typically feisty and overly sexualized. This trope portrays “Latin women as exotic and hot blooded — in both love and war” and “has remained a stock Hollywood figure — a go-to source for laughter and lust in everything from action movies to sitcoms” (The Spicy Latina Trope Explained). In a blogpost for Everyday Feminism, Katherine Garcia suggests a connection between the Spicy Latina stereotype and the Mexican-American War back in 1846. During this war of American expansion in Mexican territory, Mexicans were deemed the inferior group giving Americans all the power to allow how Mexican people would be perceived. Mexicans were then painted as lazy and corrupt allowing for erasure and major oppression of the Mexican people. Garcia writes, “The blurring of Mexican identity and experiences allowed room for the formation of stereotypes, like the spicy Latina, that continue to group all Latin American people together to this day.” Although the spicy Latina stereotype wasn’t explicitly created by one person or another, it is a product of years of uncorrected and unaddressed racism that has allowed for minority groups to be placed into a box created by superior groups of people (Garcia, 2015). While spicy is a great way to describe your food, using it to describe people is dehumanizing and objectifying. Because there is minimal Latina representation in the media, being represented as either a spicy Latina or maid does not allow Latina viewers to form an individual self.
There are countless examples of the spicy Latina in mainstream media. One of the most recent and notable would be Sofia Vergara’s character of Gloria Delgado in Modern Family. She is an overly sexualized Colombian immigrant with a short fuse. On top of that, she has an extremely heavy accent. Gloria is always seen with her hair and makeup done, bright or animal print clothing, and her breasts on full display and is known for her loud, over-the-top personality which adds to the spiciness. In the image to the right, Gloria is telling the story of her maiden name which is heavily tied to all of the wild (and illegal) things she did while living in Colombia.
Fortunately, this is not the case in Real Women Have Curves. Ana, portrayed by America Ferrera and the character in which our photo essay will center around, is a Mexican-American recent high school graduate struggling with wanting to go off to college but having to help her sister’s business. Although Ana does have somewhat of a short fuse, it only comes after her mother’s constant scrutiny about her weight. That would be about the only thing I’d argue fits into the spicy Latina stereotype. Ana is not seen wearing provocative clothing or as overly sexualized. Rather, she is seen as a person. Ana embraces the body she was given and despises when her mother tells her to lose weight in order to find a man. Unlike the spicy Latina, Ana does not use her body to appeal to the male gaze, but instead recognizes all of her other unique and amazing qualities that make up who she is. Ana isn’t the only one who thinks this way. There is a very empowering scene in the movie in which Ana and three other girls undress in Ana’s sister’s factory due to extreme heat. Ana’s mother is ashamed because Ana is showing her stomach, but Ana does not care. This inspires the other women to undress and share and embrace their insecurities. I know what you’re thinking — undressing seems contradictory to not being overly sexualized. But it was truly empowering. With mismatched undergarments and tummy control shape-wear it was refreshing to see this being depicted on screen and in the image because that is a reality for most women anyways. All of this — the female empowerment, Latina representation, and breaking of the spicy Latina stereotype seen in Real Women Have Curves — can heavily be attributed to the female director of the film, Patricia Cardoso.
In Hollywood, men make up a whopping percentage of people both in front of the camera and behind, meaning they decide how we, the audience, perceive the characters. This is what is known as the gaze — the heterosexual, cisgendered male’s perception of women by how the camera moves and captures women’s bodies as if to say they are only objects of males’ desire. This perception of women has also led to what is known as emphasized femininity which defines a woman who is straight, white, cisgender, middle class, able bodied, passive, thin, caring, emotional, and in need of protection. These two concepts combined have allowed Western media to convey what the ideal woman should look and act like which “limits the possibilities for the female spectator imagining herself as a woman with agency, on the one hand, and escaping identifying herself as a passive object, on the other” (Oliver, 2017, 2). Since the spicy Latina heavily caters to the male audience, it is no wonder that we continue seeing this stereotype being portrayed. However, with the rise of women behind the camera we can see changes being made in the media as a whole. The depiction of a young Latina who knows her worth, does not hate her body image or want to change it, and is aspiring to get an education rather than marriage is a huge slap in the face for the spicy Latina stereotype as well as the male gaze and emphasized femininity. All of these concepts tell women that they were made for men, to serve men, for men’s sexual pleasure — Ana stands for the opposite of all of that. Through the words of Josefina Lopez and through the eyes of Patricia Cardoso, the audience is able to see a different type of Latina not usually depicted in media, and it is empowering.
Throughout the film, Real Women Have Curves reflect on the third-wave feminists’ ideals in how Ana is portrayed as a young intellectual Chicana liberating herself from the patriarchal tradition of a subjugated housewife to pursue her college career. Third-wave feminism emerged in the early 1990s where it embraced women’s individuality, diversity, sex positivity, and acknowledge the intersectionality “layers of oppression” women faced. Feminism refers to a “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression… It does not imply that men are the enemy.”(hooks pg.1) The definition of feminism refers to eradicating the ideologies of oppression and sexism presented in society. As the narrative film develops, the audience witnesses the two minutes-long sequences of Ana making an arduous journey through the urban city to reach her school in Beverly Hills. The audiences acknowledge the intersectionality Ana faced being a woman of color wanting to get higher education. Through sequences, we can see the socioeconomic differences between Ana’s neighborhood and Beverly Hills. The audience comes to realize Ana does not come from a wealthy family. The fact she travels to an affluent school to receive a better education outside of her community reflects on the capitalist patriarchal white supremacy society that marginalized people of color. The intersectionality of race and gender play a key role in the racial hierarchy because it puts white people on top. It’s reflected in the way the Spicy Latina is shown in the film; she is only the catalyst to the white man’s desires and it reduces only her body. Ana’s individuality pushes against the over-sexualized portrayal of the Spicy Latina trope by representing the reality of what many low-income Latinas faced trying to get higher education.
Ana’s relationship with her secret boyfriend, Jimmy, plays an important role in developing her sexual liberation in embracing her sexuality as a way to take back her power. Ana’s self-determination goes against the cultural pressures from preserving your virginity until marriage. In the scene, Ana asked Jimmy to look at her body while she stands in front of the mirror she states, “This is what I look like”. Jimmy looks at her and says, “Qui Bonita”, signifying he admires her curves and accepts her for who she is, not for her looks. The relationship fights against the Spicy Latina architect, a fantasy for the white men’s desires because Jimmy does not exotics Ana’s body but embraces her as an intellectual person.
Ana’s self-confidence and admiration for her body are seen when she has no shame in looking at her naked body in front of the mirror. Carmen notices Ana’s action and jumps to the conclusion that Ana lost her virginity and states, “you’re not only fat, now you’re a pute!” By Ana not conforming to Carmen’s traditional desires to lose weight to find a compatible husband, she fights against the gender traditional roles of becoming “amas de la casa” aka homemakers. (Knapp, Muller, Quiros, 2009, pg. 2) Ana recognized herself as worth more than being a passive, subjected woman in machismo culture and states, “there’s more to me than what’s in between my legs.” Carmen slapped Ana for disrespecting her and claims she is a “puta” because of the patriarchal structures of male-female relationships that compartmentalize Chicanas “often relegated to the demands and desires of her husband.”(Knapp, Muller, Quiros, 2009, pg.2)In the article, From the New Heights: The City and Migrating Latinas in Real Women Have Curves and Maria Full Grace, Juanita Heredia states, “Carmen views Ana under the marianismo model: she is either good or bad following the virgin/whore complex. In this case, the mother chooses Ana in a negative light as a traitor to the family values.” (Heredita, pg. 11) Even if the Spicy Latina trope is portrayed as sexy, hot-blooded erotic Latina, Ana demonstrates the opposite of being a Spicy Latina because she is self-empowered not from what’s between her legs but for self confidence. Ana’s character “follows a different path to achieve self-fulfillment, autonomy, and respect.” (Heredita, pg.11)
At the end, Ana leaving her family to pursue her education career, indicates that Ana can break away from the patriarchal system that oppresses women in their community. She takes the initiative to take matters into her own hands by embracing her individuality and self-empowering. Real Women Have Curves portrays Latinas characters’ more complex, realistic persona that breaks aways from the stereotypical Spicy Latina trope. The film empowers women’s body positivity and doesn’t shy away from the sexist oppression Chicana faced in their community.
Garcia, K. (2015, December 3). Where the ‘Spicy Latina’ Stereotype Came From – And Why It’s Still Racist Today. Everyday Feminism. https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/spicy-latina-stereotype-bad/.
Knapp, J., Quiros, A., & Muller, B. (2009). Women, Men, and the Changing Role of Gender in Immigration. https://curate.nd.edu/show/qz20sq89x30
Heredia, J. (2013). From the New Heights: The City and Migrating Latinas in Real Women Have Curves and María Full of Grace. Mester, 42(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/M3421020688 Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0p97f0mc
hooks, bell, 1952-. (2000). Feminism is for everybody : passionate politics. Cambridge, MA :South End Press,
Oliver, K. (2017). The male gaze is more relevant, and more dangerous, than ever. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 15(4), 451–455. https://doi.org/10.1080/17400309.2017.1377937
Patricia Cardoso, Heitor Pereira & Margaret Guerra Rogers. (2002) REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES. USA.
The Spicy Latina Trope, Explained: Watch: The Take. The Spicy Latina Trope, Explained | Watch | The Take. (2020, December 14). https://the-take.com/watch/the-spicy-latina-trope-explained.