Historically, Latinos have seldom been the protagonists of Hollywood film stories, and their characters typically have been marginal and underdeveloped when they do appear. The use of stereotypes has been a major facet of Latino film representation, particularly in the era of classical Hollywood. In past decades, Latino characters often were presented as especially sexual, childlike, or aggressive. Although some films exhibited more positive or complex imagery of Latinos, the overall history is not fully known because scholarship in this area is relatively new. Prominent scholars of Latino film representation include Chon Noriega, Charles Ramírez Berg, Ana M. López, Clara Rodríguez, and Rosa Linda Fregoso.
The early negative stereotyping of Latinos in film has a direct relationship to the history of Latinos, and specifically Mexican Americans, in the United States. Mexicans and, later, Mexican Americans were often seen as impediments to the move westward by European settlers in the 1800s; notions of "Manifest Destiny" circulated in frontier literature, and other artifacts of popular culture tended to pose Mexican Americans as inferior in intelligence and integrity and thus unworthy of the rights of citizenship. Early films merely rearticulated these "American" stereotypes in their imagery of Mexican Americans and Mexicans. Films of later decades extended such stereotypes to Central and South Americans.
In the first few decades after the birth of American film in the late 1890s, a few Latinos in fact were involved in filmmaking or appeared as actors in films. These individuals were all from economically privileged backgrounds and had predominantly Spanish ancestry, however. In this time period there was no centralized film industry; rather, filmmaking consisted of entrepreneurs scattered around the country making silent motion pictures. A few Americans of Latino descent who made early silent films in this capacity included the actresses Myrtle Gonzalez (1891–1918) and Beatriz Michelena (1890–1942), who also produced the adventure films she starred in. As a small number of film production companies rose to dominate the industry in the 1910s and 1920s, Latinos working behind the scenes in film production virtually disappeared, however. They did not reappear in substantial numbers until the 1970s.
The earliest Latino characters appeared in silent westerns; they often played the villainous "greaser" opposing the white hero. Films that capitalized on this storyline included Tony the Greaser (1911) and The Greaser's Revenge (1914). The term "greaser," which was in popular usage at the time, was then used to describe Mexican bandits and other lazy, untrustworthy Mexican characters. Such representations began the Hollywood pattern of establishing Latino characters as "others" in contrast to whites. These images were not exported to Latin-American countries without protest, however. Complaints and a boycott of Hollywood films by the Mexican government in the early 1920s eventually led film producers to take care to disassociate negative Latino characters from identification with any particular country, leading to pan-Latino representations that typically still were denigrating.
In the mid-1920s there was a boom in opportunity experienced by a few, light-skinned Latino actors and actresses. Inspired by the immense popularity of the Italian actor Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), the original "Latin Lover," film producers provided opportunities to a few Latinos, including Mexican-born Ramon Novarro (1899–1968), Dolores Del Rio (1905–1983), Gilbert Roland (1905–1994), and Lupe Velez (1908–1944). These actors and actresses were cast in major roles, often as passionate, sensuous Latin Lover types, and became international stars in silent films of the mid- to late 1920s. The Latin Lover image capitalized on notions that Latinos were innately passionate and sexual, particularly in comparison with their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, with this sensuality at times paired with more negative traits of aggression or sadomasochism. These often were actually not Latino roles, moreover, but in fact characters of other ethnicities and nationalities. Latino film characters still were typical villains or servants in this era.