Throughout the history of Chicano film and literature, gender roles and gender specific stereotypes have played a monumental role, defining an entire generation of cinema. Whether it is the Latin lover and his irrepressible charm, the machismo who demonstrates extreme strength, the Dark Lady who invokes desire from men of every race, or the influential and hard working women who overcome insurmountable obstacles. In the film “Salt of the Earth,” directed by Herbert J. Biberman, the gender roles take a dramatic shift never seen before in Chicano film.
The obvious differences in how society treats the men and the women of this mining town are quickly made clear; the men work and are part of the union while the women stay home and take care of the family. These men, and particularly those men from this generation with Mexican heritage, often saw women as weak and nearly useless in anything other than child rearing. This dependence seen in women of this time period was largely due in part to economics.Order now
The excessive gender distinction that created men as the working class prevented women from seeking means to become economically independent, thus never allowing them to act freely or to make key decisions regarding their position in life. In the early twentieth century, Mexican women adhered to strict gender roles; while Roman Quintero was forced to deal with increasingly poor work conditions, his wife Esperanza could only continue to run their home as she passively waited for change to come.
Esperanza had literally no power within her home, or the wider community, so that the concerns she had for practical matters were almost completely ignored by the activities of the male Union activists. The women within the mining community were consistently treated with the same patronizing disdain that the Anglo workers displayed toward their Mexican counterparts. However, as time went on she and several of her peers found the strength and power of self-motivation to challenge and resist the limitations their gender had enforced upon them. “I felt that if Johnny was going to be active in the union, why shouldn’t I?
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We felt that the union is not for the men only, it’s our union too. We felt that if our husbands were going to belong to the union, we should do something about it to. ” As the women shifted to a power position in union matters, married couples began fighting, as the men were hesitant to accept their wives interest in anything outside of their homes and relationships. Men like Ramon now had to confront the struggles of domestic life and the challenging feelings of emasculation that came along with taking a back seat to their wives.
Aside from being the primary voice of the film, Esperanza is also the point of contact and empathy for viewers. Ultimately it is her strength of character and courage that brings the community together under a greater sense of social equality and solidarity. Whereas Ramon and the other men of the community are forced to submit to authority, becoming increasingly vulnerable to the repercussions from management. Esperanza and the other women of the community present a more convincing and disciplined front. Zoot Suit,” directed and written by Luis Valdez was perhaps as meaningful and important of a film for its generation as Salt of the Earth, but presented the polar opposites in terms of gender roles. Valdez was influenced by the Chicano cultural nationalist movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s where the Chicano’s sought to establish their identities as separate from that of the European influenced colonization of the Americas. In the Chicano cultural movement El Pachuco represents the Mayan mythological ideal of In Lak’Ech, meaning that this alter ego embodies all Chicanos.
Essentially, the message the Chicano nationalists and subsequently Luis Valdez is trying to communicate through El Pachuco is that female desires are interrelated with male desires and do not stand alone. This leads to the women having little freedom to establish their cultural identity outside of and apart from their male counterparts. Pachuco is the ultimate male; his resolve, his confidence and his knowledge are everything this culture looked up to in an individual. By portraying Pachuco as the alter ego of Hank Reyna, Valdez is able to demonstrate how this “myth” would act in any given situation a normal man would find himself in.
Yet having an embodied icon walking and talking amongst common men greatly increases the pressure for every male role in this film to constantly and consistently exude masculinity. “El Norte,” directed by Gregory Nava displays the brutal realities of immigration and the brother and sister combination of dual protagonists allows for an in depth demonstration of gender roles with immigrants looking for success in the United States. Rosa’s journey is not similar to Esperanza’s in substance but she has to similarly fight several uphill battles throughout.
Enrique is also faced with hardships as he is in a constant fight to follow his father’s dying wish and to not become just another strong arm to be used by others. No matter what country Rosa and Enrique are in, they fall victim to the same gender roles in the workforce. While in Guatemala Enrique is out in the fields and Rosa is at home cleaning clothes and cooking. Consequently, in the United States Rosa assumes the same roles by working for a commercial clothing manufacturer and cleaning houses. Whereas Enrique was clearly destined to work as a day laborer; a fate initially delayed by his momentary stroke of good fortune.
It begs the question, is Gregory Nava trying to show the viewer that gender roles transcend cross cultural divides or is it simply coincidence that these characters fall into the same gender patterns that were prevalent in their home country? Either way, it seems as though no matter what situation they are in, they can’t escape the stereotypes of their genders, even though Rosa has been able to do everything physically and emotionally that Enrique was capable of throughout their treacherous journey. Is Gregory Nava at this point also saying genders are equal and the only thing that causes inequality is society?
Enrique did however find success; his job at the restaurant appeared to be his avenue to achievement in the United States. Yet all it took was one jealous coworker to destroy everything he had worked for. “Thus, the actions of men (culture) impact the life of a man (Enrique). Competition amongst male immigrants was fierce, as Enrique was not the only one with a story to tell that was willing to work hard to create a name for himself. In conclusion, “Salt of the Earth,” “Zoot Suit” and “El Norte,” were each effective in their own right and each still stand as staples of Chicano film culture.
Salt of the Earth” was graced with a strong female lead in a portrayal of a true story, and unapologetically sought to redefine a woman’s role in Latin America. “Zoot Suit” captured an important movement in Mayan and Chicano history and the embodiment of the captivating yet subtle El Pachuco is a character that will not soon be forgotten. “El Norte” went to dramatic lengths and gave a realist’s perspective suggesting that no matter how strong the desire may be, breaking barriers will always come with a high risk of failure; whether it be that of a struggling immigrant or simply one confined by the expectations of their gender.
Rosenfelt, Deborah Silverton, Salt of the Earth, Class Reader, 2014: 135-139.
Fregoso, Rosa Linda, Zoot Suit: The Return to the Beginning, Class Reader, 2014: 269-278.
Fregoso, Rosa Linda, Nepantla in Gendered Subjectivity, Class Reader, 2014:106-109.