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Latino/a Mobility in California History

Genevieve Carpio, Javier Cienfuegos, Ivonne Gonzalez, Karen Lazcano, Katherine Lee Berry, Joshua Mandell, Christofer Rodelo, Alfonso Toro, Authors
Ivonne Gonzalez, page 3 of 5

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More than a Mayan Princess: Representations of Ethnicity and Gender in John Fante's "Ask the Dust" by Ivonne Gonzalez

Media Summary

This article investigates a discrepancy between Latino representation in mainstream film and Latinos' significant presence as consumers of film. According to recent market research, Latinos make up a large portion of movie theater audiences and constitute fan bases for popular, profitable movie franchises such as “Fast & Furious”. However, as a 2013 study by film scholars at USC reveals, Latinos are seldom depicted on the big screen. The article cites Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, who points out that big budget films are less likely to cast Latino actors since very few are household names who have the power to attract huge audiences to movie theaters. Latino representation on the silver screen is severely lacking, despite Latinos’ notable presence as mass consumers of big Hollywood film industry.

Additionally, the article mentions the hypersexual representation of Latina women on the big screen. USC's study shows that “Hispanic females” are more likely to be depicted in sexy attire and partially naked than women of other ethnic/racial backgrounds. This reinforces representation that privileges the white gaze upon Latino bodies, instead of promoting characters that Latino audiences can genuinely connect to. The contradiction that becomes central in the article is that “the industry” is aware of the Latino demographic, as evidenced by an increase in advertisements appealing to a Spanish-speaking Latino audiences, yet there is little interest in telling their stories in Hollywood. The article ends with one of the USC film scholars, Stacy Smith, concluding that this lack of representation may negatively affect whether Latino viewers perceive of their experiences as worthy of being told. The repercussions, therefore, lie in rendering Latinos invisible to a mass international audience and excluding them further from being part of “American” storytelling.

Reading Summary

Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Ask the Dust by John Fante tells the story of a young Italian writer by the name of Arturo Bandini who moves to Los Angeles from a small town in Colorado in the hopes of becoming a big-shot writer. Bandini’s life is changes drastically when he meets a young Mexican American waitress and becomes embroiled in an intense love affair that leads him to question his own American identity and the American landscape to which he belongs.  

[Chapters 1-5]

The book opens by detailing Arturo’s life as a struggling young writer living in a small hotel room in the gritty Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles. He dreams of the glamorous Los Angeles that had been promised to him; he dreams of “having” luxurious women in silver fox furs and drinking cocktails at fancy bars. Bandini desires women, wants to write about women, but he’s a young boy with no experience and big dreams - all talk, no action. He tries to get in bed with a prostitute one night, but fails miserably ends up paying her to talk to him instead (this is before Holden Caulfield in Cathcher in the Rye). He dreams of “buying” one of the exoticized Mexican women he sees around the city one day, until his fantasy materializes when he meets Camilla Lopez, a waitress at the Columbia Buffet restaurant. From the beginning, their relationship is tumultuous, as the two insult each other right  away upon meeting. Bandini mocks her for wearing old, worn-down leather strapped sandals, or huaraches. At the end of chapter 5, he insists on asserting his “American” superiority over the “dirty Greaser” Camilla and her Mexican “people” who had “failed” to create the “beautiful city” of Los Angeles.

[Chapters 6-10]

This section of the novel begins with Bandini relating his observations of what Los Angeles represents for him - a land where midwesterners either realize their dreams and revel in paradise or die old and trying. He also starts to think about how he himself was racialized by white kids back in Colorado who would call him called Dago, Wop, and Greaser (racial slurs for Italians/Italian Americans).

Bandini also feels insecure about his writing, having had only one measly story, The Little Dog Laughed, published in a magazine. He becomes ecstatic when a fourteen-year-old girl in his hotel expresses her admiration for his writing. Shortly thereafter, he receives a letter from a publisher accepting his second short story called The Long Lost Hills. With a new sense of confidence, he goes back to The Columbia Buffet to speak to Camilla, and after having a brief dispute in which Camilla accuses him of being haughty and  “different” when he disregards her new white shoes, pumps with heels. Nevertheless, they make up and head to Santa Monica beach and swim naked in the ocean at night. Camilla is affectionate with Bandini, and asks him to hold her naked, wet body, but he neglects her sexual advances. Instead, he retreated into his own thoughts, thinking about his newly published story and his ambiguous American identity.

[Chapters 11-15]

After that night at the beach, Camilla becomes increasingly colder and distant toward Bandini; he tries to make it up to her by sending her telegram poems and notes, but she rips them into shreds. She refuses to see him when he insists and stands waiting by her car until the end of her shift at the restaurant and leaves with Sammy, the bartender, instead. Feeling rejected, he becomes involved with an emotionally unstable  Jewish woman named Vera Rivken who lives in Long Beach. He visits Vera in an attempt to forget about Camilla, but instead, he finds himself thinking about Camilla while he’s laying in bed with Vera.

While in Long Beach, Bandini also experiences his very first California earthquake. The earthquake causes a lot of damage and death around the city, and he becomes worried about Camilla’s safety. As soon as he returns to Los Angeles, he runs to the Columbia Buffet and desperately tries to force Camilla to see him. She leaves with Sammy instead, and a few days after, she reveals to Bandini that she is in love with Sammy. Nevertheless, Bandini agrees to give Sammy constructive feedback on a few short stories that he had written. Sammy thanks him by giving him advice about Mexican women: “They don’t like to be treated like human beings. If you’re too nice, they walk all over you.”

[Chapters 16-19]

Camilla visits Bandini in his apartment room one night, her face beaten up and bruised; she tells Bandini that Sammy had beat her. They drink whiskey and fall asleep drunk, and thus begins another dramatic chapter of their relationship. Camilla begins to drink more and to his dismay, Bandini also finds that she is secretly smoking marijuana. She forces Bandini to take her to see Sammy in San Juan, where he lives in the middle of the desert. Bandini is shocked to see Camilla acting subservient around Sammy. “All the fight and glory was drained like blood from her veins.”

Despite his volatile relationship with Camilla, Bandini receives good news from his publisher - a book contract! He becomes excited about sharing his wealth with Camilla, until he finds out that she has been institutionalized at a mental facility. She escapes, and then wires Bandini to ask him for money. He gladly helps her out, and when they reunite he takes her to  Laguna Beach, where he tells her he’ll buy a house for them both. Bandini also buys Camilla a little white dog, and calls him Willie. Things seem to be going well at their new beachfront home, until Bandini leaves for a short trip to Los Angeles. When he returns, Camilla is gone. A few days later, he receives a telegram from Sammy telling him that Camilla was with him, and that he didn’t want her there. Bandini rushes to the desert in search of her once more, but he arrives too late; Sammy tells him that Camilla had left again. She had disappeared into the desert, and no trace of her remained. Bandini signs his first published book, to Camilla, with love, and throws it out into the nothingness of the desert.


Like films, novels can serve as a medium through which people receive ideas about a particular ethnic or racial group - and these ideas have the potential to either create damaging stereotypes about a group or humanize the experience of its constituents. Ask the Dust, written in the 1930s, delivers a charged representation of Mexicans in Los Angeles to its readers. What ideas, therefore, can be grasped from John Fante’s Mexican characters? How does the reader mediate between the narrator's (Bandini's) opinions of Mexicans as an ethnic group and his/her own interpretations? Ask the Dust can be read as a novel that adds overtones to Mexican American/Latino representation in bringing to life a character, Camilla, who is not merely a caricature; her character is complex and multidimensional. Alternatively, Camilla can also be interpreted as a fictional metaphor that represents Mexicanness according to the white gaze - exotic, rustic, and full of fiery passion.

In fact, Camilla is often spoken of by Bandini as something to be conquered - he thinks of her as a Mayan princess, after all, and fancies himself as the conqueror Cortez. Camilla then becomes a metaphor for the indigenous woman victim, La Malinche, who is “seduced” by Cortez and betrayed her Indian people in order to serve as his mistress. However, Bandini fails to ever make Camilla fully his and their relationship centers around this struggle and resistance on both their parts. She isn’t the “sweet little peon” that Bandini makes her out to be - she’s an independent working woman who drives, shoots guns, and seems to be in full control of her sexuality. In many ways, therefore, Camilla provides a counternarrative to the stereotype of Mexican women as docile, “traditional”, and family-oriented. For being a novel of the 1930s, Ask the Dust presents a Latina character that exerts agency over her own body; it presents a nuanced yet also slightly archetypal character that predates Lupe Velez’s “Mexican Spitfire”.

When considering the 2006 film adaptation of Ask the Dust, however, we can see how the statistics outlined in the article and the USC study manifest on the big screen. The film stars Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell, for one thing, proving the article’s point that when it comes to representation, big-name star appeal is prioritized. Moreover, we can clearly see that Salma as Camilla is overly hypersexualized and exoticized in the film in a way that isn’t quite profiled in the novel. She has a thick Spanish accent and wears provocative clothing, in addition to being overly sultry in speech and movement. Moreover, the film adaptation of Ask the Dusk could have been an opportunity to bring a dynamic, nuanced Latina character to the big screen, and to promote young Latina talent. 

Ultimately, the film tarnishes Fante's raw, compelling story of two young Americans struggling to make a place for themselves Los Angeles’s deranged Depression-era landscape, turning it instead into a romanticized, sexualized “love story” that will attract mainstream audiences. Camilla and Bandini aren’t meant to be passionate lovers in the mainstream sense - they’re meant to be awkward, indecisive, and dynamic characters that elucidate the tensions arising in a developing city during a time in which different cultures and experiences were colliding in new ways for the very first time. 

Discussion Questions
1. What do you think? Does Camilla's character subvert or reinforce stereotypes about Latinas/Mexican women? Cite examples from the text to support your claim.

2. Do the politics of representation differ across mediums (e.g. literature, film, art)? If so, compare two mediums that represent similar subjects and discuss how these mediums convey those subjects to audiences in distinctive ways.

3. How does Fante use first-person fictional writing to convey notions about Los Angeles as both a physical and imaginary landscape? In what ways can we compare it to a similar narrative in this Red Hot Chili Peppers music video/song? Discuss the parallels and differences between both narrative forms.
Join this page's discussion (5 comments)

Discussion of "More than a Mayan Princess: Representations of Ethnicity and Gender in John Fante's 'Ask the Dust' by Ivonne Gonzalez"

Latin@ or not, I'm lost in Los Angeles

I definitely agree with Ivonne that this trailer for “Ask the Dust” feels completely wrong, especially seeing it so soon after finishing the book. Both Bandini and Camilla are romanticized; jokes are added that don’t exist in the book, and they appear to have much more chemistry than do the unbelievably awkward and ill-fitting Camilla and Bandini in the novel. It’s clear from these discrepancies that, as is common with book-to-movie adaptations, some of the grit and uncomfortable feel of the book has been pared down and a false love between played up between the two main characters.
In the actual book, I think that by using Bandini to voice stereotypes about Mexican women in a way that is so vulgar, offensive, and startling (he is randomly racist towards her out of nowhere many times over, even when they seem to be getting along) Fante is illustrating his own disagreement with these stereotypes; he doesn’t slip them in subtly throughout the novel as if they were okay, but makes them obvious and jolting to the reader.
In terms of Camilla’s representation when it comes to the sexualized, sultry image of Latina women we so often see on screen, I would say that while her erratic behavior in the novel perhaps supports a general idea of women as “crazy” (though Bandini’s own behavior puts him in this category too…), she doesn’t seem stereotypically “Latina” to me. She doesn’t throw herself at Bandini, and she certainly isn’t smooth or consistently desirable, and her mysteriousness stems from her own chaotic mentality, and not from some sexual coyness. She is a lonely, confused, low-income girl hooked on marijuana and seemingly alone in a huge city, in love with a man who beats her. To me, the point of her character is not her Latina-ness but these characteristics. The behavior of both her and Bandini seem to serve more as a representation of the intense loneliness, confusion, and hard living that Los Angeles offered to many young people who had arrived hoping to take advantage of its promise as a land of freedom and opportunity. This idea of Los Angeles, as Mitchell impressed upon us in his analysis of California’s landscape, is mostly façade. I’d say Camilla’s story is more related to the RHCP song Ivonne linked to than to stereotypes of Latina women.
(I’d use examples from the text, but I already returned the book to Bass -__- )

Posted on 29 October 2014, 7:52 pm by Katherine Lee Berry  |  Permalink

Embodying Representation

Ivonne's response, and in particular her second question, brings to light the discrepancies between cultural productions like film and novel in representing ethno-racial subjects. One clear distinction in how racialized people are portrayed is the construction of the body. As the extensive scholarship on embodiment has shown, our understandings of identity are necessarily informed by corporeal acts. We see the bodies of Arturo and Camilla differently from what is described in the printed text what is acted out in the feature film. The book allows for a racialized body described by internal rumination and external assumptions, while the film is solely the external gaze of the actors and viewers. It would benefit our conversations on representation to place embodiment as a crucial locus of ethno-racial formation, not only for this week but for all narratives we discuss.

For further reading on embodiment, particularly as it pertains to technology and media, see Maria Fernandez's work on cyberfeminism and racism. 

Posted on 29 October 2014, 8:34 pm by Christofer Rodelo  |  Permalink

#LALL: Let A Latina Live!

I agree with Ivonne’s analysis of the difference in interpretation of Camilla in the book versus the film. I think that Latinas in the media tend to be portrayed as a vessel for consumption. Whether it be through the sexualization of the Latina body or simplification of her mind, the Latina role in forms of visual media serves for the purpose of enticing the audience to stick around, as the muse/something to be conquered such as in Ask the Dust, for outrageous comedic relief (ex: Sofia Vergara in Modern Family), as the 'bitch' type of character (Santana in Glee),etc. Unfortunately, Hollywood controls the manner in which Latinas are represented. It molds characters to convey a luring image, one that is not representative of all Latinas, but which garners them viewers and thus upholds these standards of what they believe it means to look and be Latina.

Posted on 29 October 2014, 9:36 pm by Karen Lazcano  |  Permalink

Diversity within the Latina/o community.

I do agree that there is a lack of proper representation of Latinas/os in the media. The Latina/o community is very large and we can find many minorities within minorities in this group. Although characters like Sofia Vergara (Modern Family) and Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives) have been known to be hypersexualized, it is interesting to also see how Latina lesbians are presented in the media. For instance, take the role of "Papi" in "The L Word." Although she is still a Latina, she takes the role of a "Latin lover" a typical role often associated with Latino males in the media. Regardless of where you go, the feminine Latin character appears to be hypersexualized and rambunctious and the masculine Latin character is portrayed as tough and having his way with his lovers. A good show that I have seen which does a better job at portraying Latinas is "Devious Maids" with an all Latina cast that presents the diversity of backgrounds and professions that Latinas possess. I believe that the show's co-executive producer Eva Longoria did a great job because she understands the lack of proper representation of Latinas in the media and wanted to make a statement.

The L Word Papi scene:

Posted on 30 October 2014, 12:20 am by Alfonso Toro  |  Permalink

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