Exit from Exitoso: How underprivileged Latinos in pop culture find and handle success

    I consider my Latino background one of the largest aspects of my identity. As the son of a Mexican immigrant and white U.S. citizen, often my ethnicity is the first thing people notice about me. Upon seeing me for the first time people also make assumptions about my moral character based on their previous experiences and how my identity has been portrayed to them by the media and other members of my identity. After researching and asking how Latinos are portrayed in the media, I was able to notice recurring patterns, tropes, and stereotypes. The most popular subjects I found in portrayals of Latinos were about Immigration and legal status, gang activity in relation to violence, crime, and drug dealing, and affirmative action policies. Only after reading multiple articles and looking at many cultural artifacts was I able to find sources that portrayed the successful members of the Latino community in a positive light, but even then they sometimes fall victim to the misfortune that plagues minority groups around the world, and especially in the United States. After reading and analyzing my sources,  I concluded that in pop culture media Latinos face problems of immigration status and language barriers, but upon transcending these barriers by either being U.S. born or naturalized, they face entirely new barriers including poverty and gang activity that might offer a feeling of success and belonging, but will ultimately end in demise.


When I began researching my identity and chose my cultural artifacts to examine, I thought I would choose one old and one new. I decided that movies would be a great source, as I found Latinos make up the largest demographic of moviegoers, and I personally know many people who have learned English through American movies. While there is no shortage of Latino media in Latin America and within the homes of Hispanics, it is much less represented and seen in mainstream, everyday life in the United States. However, I thought of two movies that portrayed Latinos characters, and are known by many movie watchers in the U.S. I chose the movie Scarface starring Al Pacino, because it is frequently referenced all across popular culture media especially in regards to monetary success. This movie also came out in 1983, so it provided great content from thirty years ago to compare and contrast to the content of today’s media. The second movie I chose was End of Watch, a 2012 film shot documentary style, providing a fictional first hand account of two police officers in LA, and how they fall victim to gang violence.


Opening scene of Scarface, Tony Montana gets sent to a refugee camp after interrogation upon arrival to the U.S. by law enforcement.


In the movie Scarface, Tony Montana begins his journey in the United States by being sent to a refugee camp. In the beginning of the movie, he is also interrogated by law enforcement. In the interrogation scene, Tony talks about how he learned to speak English through watching American movies. Upon closer examination, the law enforcement officers find a gang related tattoo on Tony, and immediately lose any thought of allowing him to have freedom on American soil and is sent to “Freedom Town”, the refugee camp. Before Tony Montana has a chance to fully explain the mistakes he made when he faced hard times in Cuba under Castro, he is toted off as the two officers talk about how he doesn’t believe a word he says and that “They all sound the same to me”. Scarface is sent to a camp and is offered a Green card by a man whose brother was tortured to death by one of Castro’s former generals, if he can assassinate the man inside of Freedom Town. Scarface does this, receives his green card, and begins working for the man who ordered the hit. Scarface begins helping with small jobs and crime for Frank Lopez, and ends up as a big player in his Cocaine business dealings across Miami, and to Bolivia.


Montage from the film after Tony begins increasing business with Bolivian Cartel leader Alexander Sosa


Scarface frequently finds himself in violent situations and gun fights, yet between these scenes he reflects on his ambition. He knows he commits crimes and violence, but he also knows that in the complex social structure of 1980s Miami he is not the only bad guy. He accepts responsibility to be the bad guy, because he says he would rather be honest with himself than use people like the other characters. Tony Montana makes a large fortune, but many enemies along the way and is ultimately slain in his luxurious mansion after he loses most of his close friends, and attempts a last stand against waves of gangsters.



After making his fortune and marrying the woman he loved, Tony’s greed begins to consume him and he finds himself in trouble with the law. The bad guy speech takes place after a dinner with his wife Elvira and friend Mani, before he leaves for New York to assassinate a political figure to gain the Cartel leaders assistance.


Tony Montana first appears on screen as a wise cracking immigrant who may have had a shady past, but quickly rises through the ranks of a large criminal organization and makes the fortune that he was after since he lived in Cuba. Regardless of the steps and precautions he could have taken, it was inevitable that he would fall victim to the violence and crime that he used as a tool for success. I believe that while this movie is seen as a classic action and crime drama, it is also a way to look into the way society is played out. The film uses many archetypes from real life, immigration events, difference in social conduct, stereotyped jobs such as the kitchen scene, and also very solidly portrays the gang violence and crime that is associated with Latinos in poor areas due to popular culture and media portrayal. Tony Montana came to America in search of the American Dream, and achieved it in terms of wealth by accepting the violent and troubling situations presented to him and using them to his personal gain, which would ultimately cost him his life.







       The second movie I analyzed takes place on the opposite side of the law as Scarface. End of Watch is about  Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, who are both friends and partners. The film portrays their personal lives and background stories, and how they have found success in law enforcement. The movie shows a positive relationship between the two friends, and they often joke about each other’s race backstory, which offers content that can be compared and contrasted as examples of firsthand media portrayals. Mike Zavala is a Mexican police officer and Brian Taylor is white, but majority of the criminals and suspects they meet are African-American or Mexican.


This movie takes place in LA, and even though Mike Zavala is portrayed as successful, you can see all around them the less fortunate members of the community are largely black and hispanic. Mike and Brian have interactions with each side of a gang rivalry, and through an interesting interaction and arrest, they gain the respect of one particular African-American gang member, who informs them of a hit placed on their heads after busting a Mexican cartel member, yet they are not too worried by it. The interaction that Mike has when interacting with the Latino gang members is very interesting, as they say things in spanish that should be disturbing but he writes it off, and they comment on how glamorous the Mexican cartel members weapons are. The movie poster shows Mike Zavala posing with the cartel members golden AK-47. As a member of the latino community, and a consumer of pop culture such as controversial Narcocorridos, I think that the bravery shown by Zavala and Taylor in the face of cartel danger is very inspiring.

Mike and Brian tail and arrest a known gang member “Big Evil”, they later become targeted for this by a large Cartel.


Mike and Brian are warned that their police activity and arrests are going to anger Sinaloa Cartel members.

The specific cartel they face in the movie originates from Sinaloa, Mexico, is known as one of the most wealthy and violent criminal organizations in North America, and in addition to LA gang violence and drug trafficking, they make money from human trafficking and assassinations. This movie really spoke to me as a Latino youth coming from an underprivileged background, because Mike Zavala was able to become successful and stable without a college degree, and was able to escape from personally partaking in criminal activity. The reason why I decided to use this movie as a source to analyze is because even though Mike Zavala was able to escape a lesser life through his law enforcement career, he still falls victim to the same circle of violence and crime that claimed the life of Tony Montana, and countless other latinos that resort to crime and gang violence to escape poverty.



One of the biggest learning moments for me was when we used the method to analyze advertisements. In a society where we are constantly bombarded by commercials and jingles that are meant to promote an item, it is easy to forget that these ads are supposed to solicit a reaction from us. Even if we can identify this, that may be what the producers actually want from us, a sense of “you can’t fool me, I am a smart consumer”, but by doing so we have wasted time and energy that could be used productively, to think about fast food or some fad toy we do not need.

Another learning moment for me was how much our view of certain popular culture artifacts dictate how appropriate it is. As I did research for this project, I decided to delve into a piece of culture that I frequently indulge in. Narcocorridos are a type of Mexican music genre that incorporates complex and compound time signatures, virtuosic instrument playing, and sings about the deeds and winnings of those involved in their respective business. Often, these “business” are innuendos for illegal activity, but the artists will also explicitly describe them in detail at times. Sinaloa and cartel activity are often mentioned in Narcocorrido music, and Big Evil is even listening to Narcocorridos in “End of Watch when he is arrested.

My favorite singer of Corridos is Gerardo Ortiz, who has songs that range from complicated love stories, to preparing for confrontation and violence. He also has survived an attempted assassination that took place in 2011, but lost his cousin and his business manager during the incident. I think it is very interesting that this music is so popular in the Latino community, yet the subject matter can be dark. While it is easiest to see the crime and violence, through the immense appreciation of this music we can see on a deeper level how it shows the work and devotion to a team and family that these individuals have as they are willing to endanger themselves to escape poverty or sometimes death.



“El Cholo”(The Gangster) official music video by Gerardo Ortiz.


“Quien se Anima”(Those who dare/are encouraged) official music video by Gerardo Ortiz.


 Narcocorridos about the lifestyle of people who dare or are encouraged in certain jobs and businesses. He has good friends, and family that gives him good advice as he has fun but gets work done. The lyrics lose some of the meaning and characteristics of the genre as an art form. The translation changes the natural rhythm that accompanies the music and creates the complex meter and music theory behind the songs.


                                                                    Works Cited

End of Watch(2012) Directed and Written by David Ayer

“Latinos in Hollywood: Few Roles, Frequent Stereotypes, New Study Finds”
Brian Latimer

“‘No Chicanos on TV’”
Cecilia Alvear
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1993 Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc.
Accessed through PSU Library

“Portrayals of Latinos in and by the Media”
Debra Gersh
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1993 Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc.

Accessed through PSU Library

Scarface(1983) Directed by Brian De Palma, Written by Oliver Stone