Is Argo a Whitewash of Latino Identity?

Hola Meltingpot Readers,

This weekend el esposo and I went to see the film Argo. In case you haven’t heard about it, Argo is the movie based on the true life rescue of six hostages held in Iran during the infamous 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The hero of the story, Tony Mendez, is the CIA operative who concocted a plan to sneak the hostages out of Iran by disguising them as a Canadian movie crew. It sounds outrageous, and it was, but desperate times called for desperate measures and with Iran and the United State on the brink of war, the times were truly desperate.

The film, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is really good. El esposo and I were on the edge of our seats, stomachs clenched in worry, for the entire film. I love this type of real-life suspense movie and will probably even use it next semester for a case study when I teach my class, Ripped from the Headlines. And I hear the Oscar buzz is already buzzing for Argo. There’s only one part of the Argo Kool-Aid I am not sure I should drink and that is the casting of Affleck to play the role of Tony Mendez.

In real life, Mendez is a Latino. And there has been plenty of backlash from some in the Latino community regarding his portrayal by a White actor. I don’t need to rehash the entirety of said backlash, but the two main issues cited are the fact that Latino actors so rarely get the ‘good’ roles in major Hollywood films, it seems particularly cruel to take a real-life story with a Latino main character and let a White actor have the job. The second issue is even more insidious and I’ll tell you why. Far too often the only roles Latinos get to play in Hollywood are negative stereotypes; gang members, gardeners, maids, etc. In reality, the hero of the Iranian hostage rescue happened to be a Latino man, but in the movie, that hero is White. So here you have a huge opportunity to diversify public opinion about the Latino narrative in America and it is completely lost.

The real Tony Mendez today.

I get it. I see the problem here. But here’s the one hiccup I have with the critics. Latino is not a race. Latinos come in every color of the rainbow, including white, so the whitewash outcry may be a little off base. In real-life, Tony Mendez and Ben Affleck don’t look all that different. In fact, if one didn’t know Mendez was of Hispanic descent, it wouldn’t be obvious. He looks White enough. And apparently Mendez didn’t grow up with his Latino father and barely speaks Spanish. As an actor/director, I can’t exactly fault Affleck for thinking he could play this role authentically. It’s not like he changed Mendez’s name or major physical characteristics.  And it’s not like Mendez has stated that he pulled his inspiration for the Argo project or his time in the CIA from his proud Latino heritage. So, did Affleck whitewash Mendez’s image or was his image already white to start?

Don’t get me wrong, meltingpot readers, I still see the problem as it was stated. I would guess that nine out of ten movie viewers who see Argo, or even hear about it, will not realize that the hero of the film is Latino. And I get that Benicio del Toro or Benjamin Bratt or Esai Morales could have played this role and that message would have been crystal clear. But identity politics are complicated and this isn’t a clear issue of Black and White or even brown. So who is right? Is Affleck casting himself another Hollywood whitewash? Did he have an obligation to cast a Latino actor? Does anybody know if Tony Mendez is upset over Affleck’s portrayal?

What do you think, dear readers? I’d really like to hear your opinion.

I’m listening.


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15 Thoughts to “Is Argo a Whitewash of Latino Identity?”

  1. If a story line involved a Caucasian man passing for a Latino I would definitely cast Ben Affleck.

    1. Ms. Meltingpot


  2. Nobody

    “In real-life, Tony Mendez and Ben Affleck don’t look all that different. In fact, if one didn’t know Mendez was of Hispanic descent, it wouldn’t be obvious. He looks White enough.”

    Wrong on all counts. His appearance is no different than people that are typically classified in the US as Latino. He looks absolutely nothing like a pale WASP. If he were in Arizona, he would be approached on suspecion of being an illegal immigrant.

    And while you might not consider Latino a race, Hollywood most certainly does. They are who you should be directing that complaint to.

    1. Mi

      In Arizona, Ben Affleck may be approached on suspiscion of looking like an illegal immigrant. That depends on the mindset of the immigration enforcement agent.

      1. Nobody

        No he wouldn’t.As ignorant and backwards as those authorities might be, they aren’t that stupid. He’s the whitest white guy around. Did you ever see Role Models?

    2. Ms. Meltingpot

      Point well taken. If you could get me “Hollywood’s” email address, I will most certainly send them the message. In the meantime, my blog is my soap box.

      1. Nobody

        Yes, but you prefaced it with “But here’s the one hiccup I have with the critics.” So like I said, it’s Hollywood you need to take this up with, not the critics.

        1. Ms. Meltingpot

          Okay. I see what you mean. Point taken even better 🙂 Thanks for not giving up on me.

  3. Ms. Meltingpot

    Thank you. And thank you for taking the time to start the conversation here. I am always trying to stress the point that there isn’t only one authentic Black experience, so I completely get the argument for the Latino community. That being the case, we have no right to silence or ignore the white Latino experience. And while we’re at it, I don’t think Latinos think of themselves as White or Black anyway, so we’re coming at this all kinds of wrong. But such an important conversation to have.

  4. Natalie

    i also think that “latino” is a culture and not a race. i’ve always thought that most latino people are mestizo (amerindian + european), some are just amerindian, some are of african descent like us here in america, while others are a mixture of all three like in Brazil. whatever the case, i hate the whitewashing that hollywood does. not only is it offensive, but it’s just plain pathetic! this is why i no longer watch hollywood movies. i watch foreign movies. hollywood is a joke!

    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      As I mentioned above, if only I could get Hollywood on the phone, I’d love to tell them exactly what I think about their ‘pathetic’ whitewashing methods. I also like foreign movies.

  5. Wendy

    I agree 100% LATINO IS NOT A RACE!! (But what is a race?) I show a power point when I teach first semester Spanish that shows that people from Latin America come in all colors just like folks in the USA do. Their heads SPIN!
    I really like what Christina commented as well; there is no one latino experience.
    Also thinking way back (and possibly a bit off subject) to a Race and Ethic Relations class a took an ion ago, I could have more DNA in common with a person of a different shade of skin than a person who shares my skin color. Race is also a social construct.

    1. Ms. Meltingpot

      Clearly we agree here. (great minds) But I am still amazed at how many people still think all Latinos look alike, as well as have the same cultural experience. We have so much to learn. (sigh).

  6. Mi

    Hi LT,

    First, I would like to say I admire how you blog consistently. A few days ago, I started to write a comment on the topic of ‘Queen of Sheba’. As I was writing, I navigated away and somehow lost my comment – which was rather long. I told myself I will rewrite it when I revisit. Pouf! When I came back, you have already moved on to other topics.

    Second, I am currently not happy with Ben Affleck for a different reason (He seems not to support Obama. I may be wrong.) However, I have no problem Affleck portraying a Latino or a Black man for that matter… as long as he does it well and he has the blessing of the person portrayed…

    Third, some of the points you made on this post reminded me of ‘Race 2012’, a PBS election special.

  7. You make some great points and I appreciate how you clarify the distinction between unjust hiring/casting decisions in Hollywood and accurately representing an ethnic identity. Identity is so tricky because it is often socially-constructed and/or situational. It’s probably best to carefully and critically consider one’s definition of “Latino identity” before jumping on the justice bandwagon with regards to Argo. Perhaps there are white (or even non-white) Latinos who felt perfectly represented by Affleck’s characterization of Mendez. It’s worth considering. Just like there is not one “black experience” there is certainly not one “Latino experience.”

    I wonder if justice-oriented folks (myself included) are so poised to calling “Foul!” (and for good reason; there’s plenty of foul play around) that we shoot first and ask questions later. If so, then perhaps we’re committing the same crime that we’re accusing the foul play-ers of committing.

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