A spate of 2014 media studies tells us what we already know: Latinos are absent on the big and small screens, while largely filling a majority of movie theater seats and over-indexing for broadcast, cable, streaming and gaming media.
The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts co-sponsored, together with the National Association of Latino Producers, a study by Columbia University professor Francis Negron called Latino Media Gap. The key findings of that study were that Latino characters are increasingly marginalized, that stereotypes abound and that consumer pressure does have an impact on media decisions. And a University of Southern California study was aptly summarized by the New York Daily News as “Latino stars barely there (or nude).” The two studies can best be understood by examining Hollywood’s 7 deadly Latino sins.
First: Whitewashed Casting—Latino characters, played by non-Latinos. When folks like Ben Affleck take on roles like Tony Mendes in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Argo, it perpetuates a practice of “dressing-up” Latino characters by using white actors. The same holds for roles on TV series. For example, Lili Taylor as Captain Sandra Maldonado on Fox’s Almost Human didn’t even try to portray the character ethnically. Similarly, Nicole Ari Parker as District Attorney Jacqueline Martinez on TNT’s Murder in the First does not convey any sense of Latino identity. My first thought while watching Sakina Jaffrey as Linda Alvarado on Netflix’s House of Cards was that I had never seen that actress before, only to learn that Jaffrey is of Indian heritage. Cliff Collins as Javier Acosta on Fox’s Gang Related is another casting decision that’s difficult to understand. Collins’ make-up looks deliberately dark, and his Spanish dialogue sounds diction- coached, not native. Why go to all this effort to convert a non-Latino actor into a Latino stereotype? Many Latinos see through the ruse immediately and get the sub rosa message that a Latino was not good enough to play a Latino character.
Second: BFFs. Increasingly, Latino male actors are playing significantly fewer leading roles and more supporting roles in which they are relegated to playing the principal actor’s best buddy. These actors “assist” the scene or principal actor, but the storyline rarely revolves around their character. Don’t misunderstand, these are competent and experienced actors, who do get on-air face time, but their characters have limited plot relevance. Examples include: Raymond Cruz as Detective Julio Sanchez on TNT’s Major Crimes; Marisa Ramirez as Detective Maria Baez on CBS’s Blue Blood; Manny Montana as Johnny Turturro on USA’s Graceland; and Jon Huerta as Javier Esposito on Castle. If these professionals received equal time and more character development opportunities, we’d see them nominated for Emmys in the Best Supporting Actor categories; but because they are cast in truncated roles, they never receive the industry recognition they deserve.
Third: Se Habla Español—Kinda. The use of interspersed Spanish-language dialogue has been increasing on TV and the big screen since its successful use in Universal Pictures’ Fast and Furious franchise films. Over the last two summers, FOX’s The Bridge and Gang Related and FX’s The Strain advanced the use of Spanish dialogue with English subtitles. On Gang Related, gratuitous Spanish-language dialogue for the sake of “bonding” with Latino viewers is experienced as contrived and fake. In contrast, The Bridge has set a high bar for the authentic use of regional Spanish by native speakers, who transcend language barriers and seamlessly present a dramatic bilingual storyline. At the other extreme, it was a disastrous experiment on CBS’s failed ¡Rob!
Fourth: International Latinos vs. U.S.-Latino actors. Hollywood has always preferred the international Latino to the U.S. Latino. The international Latino is often whiter and more familiar to Hollywood, but these actors don’t always resonate with U.S. Latino and non-Latino audiences. For example, ABC’s The Bachelor featured Venezuelan-born and U.S.-raised Juan Carlos Galavis―well-intentioned casting that backfired for many reasons, but mostly because of the astonishing cultural differences that were out of sync with American sensibilities.
Let’s examine the canvas painted by FX’s The Strain, executive produced/co-created and directed by Mexican-born Guillermo Del Toro. The beautiful Argentine-born actress Mia Maestro plays Dr. Nora Martinez, straddling the international fence: legitimately a Latina, yet closer to a European profile. Contrast her to the Latino family—on the same show―featuring Miguel Gomez (Bless me Ultima) and Adriana Barraza (Amores Perros). Miguel’s character is a tattooed, muscle tee-wearing son of an undocumented, Spanish-speaking, hard-working Mexican woman. The mother and son characters represent lower-class immigrants. This bifurcated social class portrayal, contrasting an educated Latina of European heritage with poor mestizos, is a shameful formulaic perpetuation of telenovela class distinctions.
Fifth: Sex Gods and Goddesses. I am a fan of Sofia Vergara, who, as one of Hollywood’s highest-earning actors at $30 million last year (according to Forbes), has developed an entertaining persona that is a mash-up between Latinas Rita Hayworth and Charo. My concern relates to the singularity and narrowness of the sex kitten/boy toy roles that have become a Latino staple. This tendency is not limited to ABC’s Modern Family or Troublemaker Studio’s Machete Kills, but extends to Eva Mendes in Universal’s 2 Fast and 2 Furious and to Zoe Saldana in Sony Pictures’ La Colombiana. The sexualized Latin image is not limited to Latinas; it has ensnared Adam Rodriguez in Warner Brother’s Magic Mike and William Levy in Univision’s Triunfo del Amor.
Sixth: Fuzzy Math. Hollywood rarely visualizes Latinos in the future or in locations like Los Angeles or New York, which often serve as a backdrop for blockbuster films. A perfect example is NBC’s The Night Shift, which (although the show looks like it was filmed in Lubbock) is set in San Antonio, Texas. Although 56 percent of San Antonio’s population is Mexican American, not one Mexican American actor was cast as a series regular.
Paramount’s recent Star Trek sequels present a more complicated racial/ethnic issue. In the film, the Dominican and Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana played the iconic Lt. Ohura, a black character, but since Zoe is also Latina, the diversity boxes get double checks. Similarly, Cuban American Gina Torres plays black characters on USA Networks’ Suits and NBC’s Hannibal, but her Afro-Latino ethnicity skews the actual Latino representational numbers. This is in contrast to Afro-Latina actress Daniella Alonso, who plays a Latina character, Dr. Landry De La Cruz, on NBC’s The Night Shift. Characters should be clearly defined as either Afro-Latino or black. Martin Sheen, born Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez, has always said that he is Latino by birth but Irish by profession, an acknowledgement that his roles shouldn’t be misperceived as true Latino representations. Do we really believe that Cameron Diaz is always playing a Latina character?
Hollywood still does not understand that Latinos are not a race, but a community made up of many ethnic groups. We need to show all the segments of this community; the issue is context. A film like Warner Bros. Pictures’ Her is set in Los Angeles, which has a 49 percent Latino population, yet it reflects an almost all-white city. A casting director must present an accurate reflection of America and must also ask the question: Does this actor represent the right ethnicity for San Antonio? Miami? New York? Understanding diversity is not hard, but if there are no Latino casting directors, Latinos will get miscast, non-Latinos will be cast as Latinos and actors will be asked to leverage their ethnicity for lip-service diversity purposes.
Seventh: Villains. If a Latino actor is lucky enough to be cast in a lead role, that role is often that of the bad guy. Such roles have common characteristics: a friend or colleague you trust, who inevitably betrays you; a boss or authority figure who cuts corners; a complicated “cable” character you love to hate. Kevin Alejandro played such a role on CBS’s Golden Boy. Alejandro’s character was brash, a bully, a jerk, a jealous opportunist who never failed to blow every good opportunity that came into his life. Alejandro played that role opposite heart-throb Theo James (Divergent). Benjamin Bratt’s character on Fox’s 24: Live Another Day was the CIA station chief in London. He was the boss who betrayed his team. He found comfort in colluding with the enemy; when his expiration date popped up, no one cared. Bratt’s character was juxtaposed against series star Kiefer Sutherland. In The Night Shift, Freddy Rodriguez plays the inept and insensitive hospital administrator who is more concerned about hospital costs than patient well-being. Rodriguez’s character is out of sync with the trauma doctors he manages; he’s not respected. During the first episode, he gets beat up by the handsome non-Latino lead. Rodriguez plays opposite Australian beefcake Eoin Macken. Get the pattern? Cool white guy has to put up with Latino a-hole.
Fortunately, there are new projects on the horizon that bring balance and well-thought-out entertainment. Seth McFarlane’s animated Fox comedy series Bordertown has hired brilliantly funny writers like Lalo Alcaraz. ABC’s comedy Cristela, starring South Texan Cristela Alonzo and CW’s Jane the Virgin, headlined by Gina Rodriguez have garnered industry kudos and a strong social media fan base in advance of their fall premiere dates. If Cristela succeeds, and I believe it will, perhaps it will convince Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels that real Latinas, not faux Latinas are funny. After 39 SNL seasons, no Latina has ever been hired as a cast member on SNL; only 2 Latino comics have ever made the cut. And Guillermo Del Toro’s animated film The Book of Life, opening in October, also looks promising. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention HULU’s series East Los High, a contemporary teen dramedy. Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey network, together with Troublemaker Studios are seizing on an opportunity to lasso the male youth demographic, many of whom are Latino, mostly under 20, who are drawn to gaming-like programming that presents a heightened sense of reality.
FX’s Sons of Anarchy, which features strong Latino characters, was cited by Forbes as one of the seven best dramas of 2013. FX’s The Bridge, often mentioned as the new Breaking Bad, was also singled out by Forbes as one of the best new shows. Both of these FX shows feature Latinos’ in-culture as authentic images of Latino modernity. The Bridge incorporates northern border Spanish, spoken authentically by fluent speakers. The Bridge, like Showtime’s Orange is the New Black, also captures some of the best-drawn LGBT characters, projected through a Latino lens. Sons of Anarchy features rugged Latino figures who claim the screen in every scene. These shows set the future standard for Latino imagery that will build audiences by attracting both Latino and non-Latino viewers.
From an economic point of view, however, only one of the top 20 grossing films in 2013 featured Latino actors as principal characters. The film Fast and Furious 6 earned more than $788 million worldwide. The areas for improvement are clear. The best change agent wins a lot of money and gets to write the next chapter in American media. All that’s needed is the vision and the will to get it done. ¡Sí se puede!
Felix Sanchez is the Chairman and Co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.