By Joe Ortiz
One of the major responsibilities of journalists is to present their reports as fair and as accurate as possible. As a Latino, I have also undertaken the personal task of holding our industry accountable for more positive portrayals of Mexicans. One of those battles included forcing the removal of the Frito Bandito television commercials several decades ago.
For those who don’t remember the Frito Bandito, it was a television commercial created by the Frito-Lay company that pictured a sombrero-wearing, mustached, gun-slinging Mexican character selling corn chips. The Frito Bandito became a rallying cry for Chicano activists in the 70’s who opposed the negative image it portrayed of Mexicans. Many of us (including organizations like Nosotros, Chicano News Media Association, Imagen Foundation, and others) have worked hard throughout the years to ensure media paint at least a more dignified image of Latinos. It has been a long struggle to eradicate these negative images from the US technological vista.
This stereotypical dilemma reared its ugly head again when I recently saw the movie Pancho Villa, starring Antonio Banderas. The HBO Pictures movie does portray a more honorable Pancho Villa than history has presented. According to this movie, Pancho Villa supposedly contacts a motion picture company in New Jersey to send a crew to film several battles of his revolutionary exploits in exchange for gold to shore up his efforts to liberate Mexico from corrupt land barons and government officials. Enter master filmmaker D.W. Griffith and a cadre of his financial supporters who try to take cinema to a whole new level. Supposedly they make history by shooting the first movie to ever contain live combat. Supposedly the deal between Villa and the moviemakers resulted in a film called The Life of General Villa. Supposedly, Villa became a cultural sensation in the US, giving both filmmakers and Villa the acclaim they desperately sought.
Interestingly, a quick cursory glance at the scant websites on the Internet reveals nothing about Pancho Villa ever being involved in any movie deals. HBO doesn’t tell us the movie is a factual account that Villa was ever involved in such a project, but does make an interesting disclaimer at the beginning movie: “The improbability of events depicted in this film is the surest indication they actually did occur.” The movie ends with a narrative stating that no record exists this movie (The Life of General Villa) was ever made.
The movie does highlight several honorable images of Pancho Villa, whose main thrust is the liberation of Mexico and its people from corrupt government officials. Villa is seen raiding (and killing some) greedy land barons, taking over great amounts of property from them and distributing the wealth to the poor. Banderas (as Villa) portrays a man bent on turning around the misfortunes of the poor. It shows him valiantly toppling from their ivory towers those greedy and corrupt land owners who were obviously in cahoots with Mexican government officials.
The truth about Pancho Villa’s life has been muddied by much fantasy and rumor, more than recorded facts. The Mexican government supposedly expunged any official records of Villa; they even went as far as ordering an official edict that anything to do with Pancho Villa (statues, paintings, personal record, etc.) be destroyed. Even mentioning his name was forbidden. What little (official) recorded history there is about Pancho Villa, it most certainly flatters little his antagonists, one of which was General Jack Pershing, who left Mexico empty handed after trying for months to capture the so-called “notorious bandito.” Even President Wilson refused to intervene and send troops into Mexico, despite outrage in Washington over the Santa Ysabel massacre, one of Villa’s “in your face, gringo” battles. Villa obviously was a thorn in the side of both US and Mexican governments, whose clandestine relationships were (and have historically) been orchestrated by the money changers of the world. Rumors still persist that both countries collaborated in his assassination in 1923. No one seems to have an officially accurate account of Villa’s life, but many have tried to tell his true story, including Friedrich Katz, in his tome entitled The Life and Times of Pancho Villa.
However, my main concern is not necessarily the accuracy of Villa’s life, but rather its depiction. After watching the movie, Mexican and Mexican Americans can walk away with a certain degree of pride. However, the patronizingly characterization of Mexico and Mexicans the US movie industry is historically known for, were virtually in your face throughout this movie. We could have done without one of the lines delivered by Michael McKean (who played the part of the guy directing the shoot in Mexico: “Oh, don’t worry about using too much make-up on those Mexicans; you know they always sweat.” While the movie tried to project a valiant and courageous Villa and his great love for his country, he was nevertheless still pictured as a grubby, unkempt, greasy-looking, womanizing degenerate. Funny, most of the real pictures I’ve seen of Villa show him in regal generalismo garb; but then again, those who lead a charge against their foes, with sword and blazing pistol in hand should not be expected to look like Mr. Clean. Unless we’re watching movies made about Generals George Custer or Patton, all spiffy guys!
Those of us who fought this “Frito Bandito” image battle for years thought we had made great progress. We believed and had faith that media by now would be more sensitive, and treat its fellow human beings with equal dignity. Villa (like many military commanders on either side of a war), I’m certain was no saint. People do strange things they normally would not do during war. War is Hell! We see horrific evidence of this in Iraq. Albeit the removing of despots throughout the world is a noble calling, today’s media focus is more on the gore and residual infallibility of humans engaged in any war. If it bleeds, it leads!
Yet, when it’s convenient for politicos to justify war, they depend on media to engender national pride by showcasing stories about valiant soldiers such as former NFL football player, Pat Tillman, who died by friendly fire in Iraq. Tillman was justifiably lionized in the media for his bravery and his commitment to his country. Many honorable men and woman also died defending the liberation of Mexico, as so many thousands upon thousands have for their respective countries. We can’t expect to showcase each and every one of them, but certainly, we can tell their story without perpetuating stereotypes we all hoped had died a long time ago.
Joe Ortiz is a former radio and television talk show host and news reporter. He currently lives in Palm Desert, California and is the author of a new book entitled The End Times Passover. Website: http://groups. msn.com/TheEndTimesPassover