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  • Daniela Bonscher

“Running Spice”: Latine Criminalization and Stereotypes in Star Wars Episode IX

Updated: May 1


Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron with Chewbacca in Star Wars

Image Courtesy of Disney


Given the lack of diversity in previous Star Wars films, the sequel trilogy’s addition of a Latino lead hero—Poe Dameron, as portrayed by Oscar Isaac—was refreshing. Poe is a talented pilot and trusted confidant of Princess Leia, both of which are highly significant in-universe accolades. Even where his confident personality results in brash decisions, he is held accountable for the costs of his mistakes, allowing for depth and growth. The visibility of a dependable, accomplished, and multi-dimensional Latine character in such a massive franchise is a great point of celebration.


However, the last installment, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, added a terrible twist: Poe is also a former spice runner, the Star Wars equivalent of a drug dealer. Despite his presence as a hero representing significant progress, the change in Poe’s character partially recontextualizes his story into the trope of the untrustworthy Latino bandit, reverting back to film stereotypes concerning the criminalization of Latines. Considering the undeniably powerful cultural influence of Star Wars, this decision is made all the more harmfully disappointing.

Despite his presence as a hero representing significant progress, the change in Poe’s character partially recontextualizes his story into the trope of the untrustworthy Latino bandit, reverting back to film stereotypes concerning the criminalization of Latines.

In Episode IX, Poe displays questionable, even criminal, behavior that was not present in previous films. He knows how to lightspeed skip and hotwire speeders, signaled to the audience as irregular rule-breaking activities when Rey and Finn react to him with increasing suspicion. One of the film’s running jokes is for Finn to question Poe’s secretive knowledge, asking with a skeptical confusion, “How do you know how to do that?”


Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron with John Boyega as Finn in Star Wars

Image Courtesy of Disney


This builds up to the main heroes running into Zorii, a mysterious former crew member of Poe’s who immediately threatens to kill him with a blaster to his head, angry he betrayed her and their past group by leaving for the Resistance. When his friends inquire further, she finally exposes his origins despite his protests as she bitterly declares, “Oh, funny he never mentioned it. Your friend’s old job was running spice.” The looks on their faces say it all—Poe is ashamed, his friends are shocked. Despite being such a narrative blow, this reveal of Poe’s former “spice running” is immediately followed by a joke about his friends’ disappointed reaction and his subsequent defensiveness. The usage of the gag, from the big reveal to the varied responses, signals scandal to the viewer, with Poe’s shame over his past as the punchline.  

The looks on their faces say it all—Poe is ashamed, his friends are shocked.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron with John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars

Image Courtesy of Disney


The narrative damage is thus complete: Poe Dameron, a Resistance hero, is a former drug dealer—a past only exposed by his former fellow gang member whom he betrayed. These new cues added in Episode IX, particularly given that there were never any allusions to such traits before, begin associating Poe’s narrative with the stereotype of el bandido. A trope frequently used throughout the history of cinema, the bandido was utilized in Westerns as the violent antagonist, a shady Latino man who is untrustworthy for his unpredictability and engagement in criminal activities. Given Poe’s overconfident outbursts in the previous films, the addition unfortunately opens the potential for audience members to reinterpret and stigmatize his story as an intergalactic version of the violent and criminal Latino stereotype.

These new cues added in Episode IX, particularly given that there were never any allusions to such traits before, begin associating Poe’s narrative with the stereotype of el bandido.

This modern manifestation of the bandido is also reflected in a visual shift into a more rugged costume. Poe’s outfits from Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi  (shown left and center, respectively) primarily consisted of flight gear or leather jackets, in line with his hotshot hero character. However, his outfit from Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker on the right demonstrates a slightly changed aesthetic. His blaster holsters are now heftier and more prominently visible for gunslinging. The scarf on his neck evokes the bandido bandana, and the new bags laid across his chest become strangely reminiscent of a bullet belt. To make matters worse, this bandido image is often imposed upon Mexicans in film; Oscar Isaac is of Guatemalan and Cuban heritage, conflating real-life cultures and further criminalizing Latine people on screen.


Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron in Star Wars

Image Courtesy of Disney


This distasteful narrative and imagery around the bandido were also utilized in a film with a global audience of millions. It’s Star Wars—undoubtably one of the biggest franchises of all time, where concepts of criminality are frequently associated with swaggering unpredictability and cool personas. Proceeding to criminalize one of the only Latine characters in an intergalactic space-Western series—popular for its already established fan-favorite smugglers, scavengers, and bounty hunters—is then ironic and disturbing. Why is Poe Dameron’s past treated as shameful? Why does the narrative negatively frame a character who represents the opportunity for more people to see themselves included within the stories of a beloved franchise? For such a pop-culture powerhouse to use the blatant narrative weapon of el bandido, especially in the conclusion of a trilogy making progress towards diversity, racist archetypes are spread through a cinematic vessel with a massive cultural reach.

Why is Poe Dameron’s past treated as shameful? Why does the narrative negatively frame a character who represents the opportunity for more people to see themselves included within the stories of a beloved franchise?

This calls to the importance of diversity in franchises like Star Wars and the cinematic galaxies beyond. Additionally, these issues should not erase the power in Poe Dameron’s presence as a Latine hero either. The audience can grasp onto Poe’s confidence and leadership qualities, fleshed out by Isaac’s charisma. We can make ourselves aware of the imposed harmful narrative tropes while celebrating the victory in his character and presence. We deserve to cling to the representation present in our own universe—and there deserves to be more positive depictions of Latines in films, for we are so much more than “running spice.”

 

Works Cited

Abrams, J.J., director. Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019.

Aldama, Frederick Luis, and Christopher González. “Yesterday’s and Today’s Bad Hombres.” Reel Latinxs: Representation in U.S. Films and TV, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, 2019, pp. 57–74.

“Poe Dameron.” Characters of Fiction Wiki, Fandom, Inc., https://characters-of-fiction.fandom.com/wiki/Poe_Dameron. Accessed 19 February 2024.

“Poe Dameron.” Heroes Wiki, Fandom, Inc., https://hero.fandom.com/wiki/Poe_Dameron. Accessed 27 March 2024.

“Poe Dameron.” Star Wars, https://www.starwars.com/databank/poe-dameron. Accessed March 27 2024.

“Poe Dameron.” Wookiepedia, Fandom, Inc., https://starwars.fandom.com/wiki/Poe_Dameron. Accessed 27 March 2024.

Ramírez-Berg, Charles. “Stereotypes in Film.” Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, 2002, pp. 38–65. Texas Film and Media Studies.


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