The Immigrant You Won’t See in Sofia Coppola’s ‘Bling Ring’

In the age of immigration reform and Deferred Action are portrayals of undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes a good thing?

By Jorge Rivas Jun 13, 2013

Last year Diana Tamayo became one of six people charged in thefts involving more than $3 million in stolen goods from the homes of young Hollywood celebrities like Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom. Tamayo was indicted on one count of first-degree residential burglary, one count of receiving stolen property and one count of conspiracy.

She was part of a group of six young adults that gained national attention for breaking into homes of the rich and famous. The celebrity gossip site TMZ dubbed the group "the burglar bunch" while Vanity Fair referred to them as "the bling ring." Their capers briefly brought them the same kind of celebrity that they were drawn to target. 

The real bling ring, from left to right: Rachel Lee, Alexis Neirs, Courtney Arnes, Frank Prugo, Diana Tamayo, Jonathan Ajar, and Ray Lopez Jr. (LAPD)

The ring was largely made up of young women who attended a continuation high school in Agoura Hills, an unincorporated area just outside Los Angeles that sits next to Malibu. Augura is an especially affluent area where the median household income is over $108,000, compared to Los Angeles’ $56,266 median

Tamayo was different from the other girls in the ring. She lived in one of the few apartment buildings in nearby Calabasas with her family. She was elected class president and named "best smile" in the 2007 Indian Hills yearbook. And she’s an undocumented immigrant, according to Vanity Fair, citing reports from police officers. 

At her court hearing in October 2012, the Los Angeles Times noted Tamayo "shed tears as a statement was read in court, noting the potential for deportation because of the conviction." During court proceedings, Tamayo’s lawyer also said police officials threatened her and her family with deportation if she didn’t cooperate.

Director Sofia Coppola’s new film "The Bling Ring" is based on a 2010 Vanity Fair story about Tamayo and her fellow young burglars. But Tomayo’s experience is nowhere to be seen in the film. The film’s lead roles went to two white actresses, an Asian American actress and a white male. That’s the sort of omission that would typically spur an outcry from culture watchers–Colorlines included!–whom have decried Hollywood’s long, frustrating record of whitewashing people of color from history and culture. But there’s been no uproar over Coppola’s Latino-free version of the "Bling Ring." There’s not been the expected stream of articles and blog posts blasting the director for erasing Tamayo from the story.

Why the muted reaction? In the era of Deferred Action and comprehensive immigration reform, are we more or less interested in seeing the full range of immigrant life portrayed in popular culture? As the political debate turns on defining good immigrants vs. bad immigrants, would seeing characters like Tamayo in films be a good thing? I asked some smart people in film, who also happen to be undocumented, and the answer is, well, it’s complicated.  

"With immigration reform talks going on, I believe it’s a bit tricky because you don’t necessarily want to portray anyone bad at this moment. But at the same time not all DREAMers, not all undocumented students are top of the class people," said Frisly Soberanis, a Tribeca Film Fellowship alumni and college student. 

"Not all DREAMers are getting full rides to school and not all DREAMers have a clean record, and that’s something that as a community we have to start emphasizing," said Soberanis, who’s also an undocumented immigrant. "Not everyone gets the same opportunities as other people."

Diana Tamayo is shown in court as she faced burglary charges. Prosecutors agreed to dismiss charges of conspiracy and receiving stolen property in exchange for a plea. (AP Photo/Irfan Khan, Pool)

But showing the complexity of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. through films and television is easier said than done.  Roles for actors of color are already scarce and when the roles make it on the screen they’re not often the fully developed roles that leave positive, lasting impressions on viewers.

A National Hispanic Media Coalition study found that non-Latinos who have positive opinions about Latinos have less favorable opinions when exposed to negative entertainment or news narratives.

The study [PDF] found that after viewing just one minute of media content, people change the way they view Latinos. "When asked about Latinos’ intelligence," the authors write, "those who consumed negative news and entertainment pieces were much more likely to rate Latinos as unintelligent, while those who consumed positive pieces were much more likely to rate Latinos as intelligent. This is only one example of many from the poll that demonstrate that media content influences peoples’ opinions about Latinos."

Marco Galaviz, a third-year film student at New York University who was undocumented until recently, says that if we don’t talk about immigrants with criminal backgrounds they will always be excluded from immigration reform proposals.

"I have friends who got in trouble with the law for a variety of reasons, for driving without a license or for doing something else bad," Galaviz said. "But that doesn’t mean their rights should be taken away, that doesn’t mean they should be excluded from immigration reform."

Galaviz believes it’s important to show characters like Tamayos because "it is important to show these roles, to be able to show the complexity of undocumented people that are living in the U.S."

Galaviz says that if we’re only talking about the "hard working immigrant whose only crime was to cross a border" or the immigrant "who loves this country, never commits crimes, goes to school and becomes successful," then "we’ve essentially eliminated any other narratives specifically for undocumented youth and undocumented older folks who have had run-ins with the law." 

Tamayo is now working on a career in the nutrition and fitness industry, according to the L.A. Times.

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