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Beyond Stereotypes

Moctesuma Esparza delivers. He has produced some of the most lasting positive images of Latinos in film and television of the past twenty-five years. Films like The Milagro Beanfield War, Selena and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez have helped launch careers like those of Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos and inspired Latinos and audiences worldwide. He’s fought hard to get these films made. They are gems among the usual films about Latinos that Hollywood has been perpetuating since the inception of the film industry.

“When I finally decided this was going to be my career,” said Esparza, “I chose to take on the role to transform our image, not just in the U.S., but in the world; to transform an image Hollywood had created which was stereotypical and demeaning, into an image of us as a people, as human beings of this land, who have something special to offer this country and the world, along with the rest of the native people of this continent.”

Esparza, who received a B.A. and MFA in Theatre Arts, Motion Picture and Television from UCLA, began his film career in the 1970’s producing documentaries. Compelled by the social activism of the era, he brought a new political awareness to television with his Emmy-winning Cinco Vidas, a documentary that explored the Chicano civil rights movement in East Los Angeles. Esparza also produced the Oscar-nominated short Agueda Martinez: Our People, Our Country. In the mid-eighties he partnered with Robert Katz and under their shingle Esparza/Katz Productions produced not just films about Latinos, but also the African-American experience such as the Emmy Award winning Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which put Halle Berry on the map. In 2005, Esparza established Maya Cinemas, a chain of multiplex theaters, and in 2007 he was the catalyst and founder of Maya Entertainment, an independent multi-platform content distribution company now run by Jeff Valdez.

But in four decades of working in the industry, producing critically acclaimed and commercially successful films, has Esparza see the image of Latinos in Hollywood transformed? His answer is an immediate and a resounding “No.”

He then adds: “In fact, they have gotten worse.”

Stereotypes in the media are simple, one-dimensional portrayals of a certain group of people, usually based on race, gender, religion, profession or age. To some degree we all stereotype people who are different from us. In Hollywood, filmmakers often use stereotypes to quickly establish certain characters like the Latino drug dealer, immigrant or gangbanger. Asians are smart and lacking sex appeal; blonds are dumb and African Americans are hip-hop thugs.

But ask any Latino who has grown up being marginalized by the portrayal of negative stereotypes and they will tell you it’s not the occasional stereotype they mind, it’s the constant barrage they object to. It’s the images of mostly maids, illegal immigrants, gangbangers and drug dealers that their children are subjected to, that shape the image they have of themselves and these images are promoted worldwide. Ask the actors how they feel about constantly having to audition and play these stereotypical roles and they are speaking out---no longer keeping quiet for fear of not working.

“I am not mad and I am not rabid, but I am passionate and I am pissed,” said actor/producer/director/musician Esai Morales in a recent radio interview on KTLK 1150 in Los Angeles. “This is about ignorance and fear… this business has always been run by white men. It’s always someone’s image of what reality should be.”

Morales, a self proclaimed actorvist, first came to Hollywood’s attention in 1983 for his role as Paco Morales opposite Sean Penn in the critically acclaimed Bad Boys about teenagers in prison. A graduate of Manhattan’s School of Performing Arts, Morales moved to Hollywood soon after the release of Bad Boys where he landed the role he is most recognized for as Ritchie Valens’ brother in the hit biopic La Bamba, written and directed by Luis Valdez.

He’s been lucky to have played his share of detectives, FBI agents and even a Civil Liberties lawyer in the futuristic science fiction drama Caprica for the SyFy Channel. However, he has also had to play roles that he calls the four “H” stereotypical roles for Latinos in Hollywood: Hostile (“I’ll cut you”); Hormonal (“Ay Mamacita”); Humble (“No señor, we don’t want no trouble”); and Hysterical (“Ay Lucy”).

“I don’t think you want to stay away from the stereotypes,” actor/director Cheech Marin said recently at the Television Critics Association Conference in Pasadena. “I think you want to confront them and deal with them.”

Cheech began his career as one half of the marijuana loving comedy duo Cheech and Chong. Playing a stereotype is what made him a household name. After several comedy album releases, the duo went on to make six films starting with the now cult classic, Up in Smoke in 1978. In 1985, Cheech struck out on his own starting with his directorial debut on the film Born In East L.A. (based on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.) in which he starred as a U.S. citizen who is mistaken for an illegal alien and deported.

Cheech’s most recent role was in the now cancelled CBS sitcom Rob, about a clueless gringo who marries into a Mexican-American family, was definitely not a stereotypical role. In this instance, Cheech’s character Fernando---a Republican---was doing the stereotyping, joking in one of the episodes that between his “100 illegal immigrant family members” he thinks they “have like, three Social Security numbers.” The Latino blogosphere was on fire screaming “stereotypes.” Critics panned the show, calling the writing racist. Rob only lasted eight episodes.

Alex Nogales, President of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a non-profit, media advocacy and civil rights organization, which grades the four major television networks on diversity, believes it wasn’t racism that led to the cancellation of the show. “It just wasn’t great writing,” he claims. Nogales stressed that there was only one Latina writer (Laura Valdivia) on the Rob writing team. However, he explains, “She was not one of the senior writers,” and continues, “What we need are more experienced writers who actually write the episodes or are story editors. Junior writers don’t have a lot power. As a junior writer you can’t tell the head writer that his jokes are stereotypical.”

But yes, its true, Hollywood has not been able to wean itself off the negative Latino stereotypes in 60 years. As they say, writers write what they know, and the majority of the Hollywood writers who write Latino characters don’t know any Latinos other than maybe their “illegal immigrant” gardener or maid they hired, or the drug dealer they heard about in the news, so it is from that narrow view of Latinos that they write.

Case in point, Ted Cohen and Andrew Reich, creators of the ABC mid-season sitcom Work it, which offended the transgender and Puerto Rican community with their show, causing it to be yanked off the air after only two episodes. GLADD and the Human Rights Campaign claimed the show reinforced negative and damaging stereotypes about transgender people. Meanwhile the Puerto Rican community’s furor over the line of dialog, delivered by Puerto Rican actor Amaury Nolasco: “I’m Puerto Rican---I’d be great at selling drugs,” was heard across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In Washington, DC. members of Congress José Serrano and Nydia Velázquez called for an apology.

Social media played an important role in helping these groups voice their concerns and outrage. By going viral, they built support and momentum for their issues, and their concerns found their way to the network and producers of the ill fated show.

This season, the Latina maid character rears its controversial head in the TV show Devious Maids developed by Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives), a remake of the Mexican series Ellas Son La Alegria del Hogar. The fact that Eva Longoria jumped on board as executive producer dissuaded many Latinos from publicly attacking what they perceived as another potential stereotypical sitcom. However, ABC decided not to pick up the show and just when we thought the four lead actresses (Dania Ramirez, Judy Reyes, Roselyn Sanchez and Ana Ortiz) were going to be out of a job, Lifetime networks stepped in and is looking to air it.

Longoria defended the show in a recent online interview, “When we get backlash [from the Latino community] saying ‘Oh they’re playing the stereotypical maids,’ my immediate response is ‘so you’re telling me their stories aren’t worth telling? That they have no complexity in their lives?’ That’s what angers me, especially in the Latino community.”

She goes on to say, “I played Gabrielle Solis, a very affluent Latina [on Desperate Housewives] and we got backlash on that from the Latino community saying ‘that’s not accurately reflected.’” She cautioned, “Sometimes you can’t win and I think that people really need to look at the paradigm of television and realize this is a very powerful medium for Latinos to have a voice. Let’s support it so that they will make more.”

However, Nogales points out that Latinos have no voice on whether a show gets picked up or not, “Top network executive decide the quality of a show---if it gets on the air---and there is not one Latino executive who has a say on that.”

Television creative executives at the networks are key if more Latino shows are going to get produced in Hollywood with less stereotypes. Not since Desi Arnaz headed the Desilu Studio in the 50’s, has there been a network executive who can greenlight a TV show, until now with half Puerto Rican Nina Tassler, President, CBS Entertainment. CBS also has two other Latinas in creative executive positions: Christina Davis, Executive Vice President, Drama Series Development and Edith Espinoza, Vice President, Comedy Series Development.

NBC also has three Latino creatives: Jada Miranda, Senior Vice President, Drama Programming; Joey Chavez, Manager of Drama Programming; and Lourdes Diaz, Vice President of Drama Programming. ABC has no creative executives on their rosters. But it is ABC that employs more Latinos actors. In all, over eleven Latinos are currently cast in starring or co-starring roles on the ABC fall TV shows. ABC also has a track record of constantly looking for the next Latino crossover star. Their more recent find is William Levy, a Cuban telenovela star, with a major following in Mexico and Latin America. Levy was hand picked to join this year’s Dancing With the Stars cast, and although he did not take the trophy home, he is now a household name across America. He won the hearts of America and the world over with his moves and good looks, and sooner rather than later we are sure to see him on other TV shows.

ABC is also responsible for introducing Sofia Vergara to American TV audiences. After being cast in several ABC pilot series (Hot Properties, The Knights of Prosperity), she finally hit gold in Modern Family as Gloria Delgado Pritchett, a role for which she has been nominated for a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a NAACP award, and has won a SAG award for Best Ensemble. However, Vergara has recently come under fire for playing up her accent, drawing criticism from the Latino community and bloggers alike claiming she is perpetuating the “hot and spicy” Latina stereotype.

“I don’t see anything bad about being stereotyped as a Latin woman,” Vergara countered in a recent interview with The Beast. “We are yellers, we’re pretty, we’re sexy, and we’re scandalous. I am not scared of the stereotypes.”

Viviana Hurtado of the Wise Latina Club claims Vergara is playing up her “Latinaness” to “cash in on the stereotypes.” Last year, Yahoo ran a poll titled “Why Latinas Love and Hate Gloria from ‘Modern Family,” and a Latina Magazine poll showed that 53% of the online voters thought Vergara intentionally exaggerated her Spanish accent, calling it “super-annoying.”

Capitalizing on her Latinaness, playing up her accent, and being gorgeous and loud, is this criticism valid or is it an over sensitive reaction? How about giving her credit for the times Gloria defends her “Latinaness” on the show -- or when Gloria espouses the wisdom of her country’s customs. And off screen, is not Vergara the Latina businesswoman, a good role model -- parlaying her television role into a mini-empire?

Whether it is the Jewish Princess, the Asian Geek, the Italian Mafioso, the country hick, the feisty Latina, stereotypes will always exist in Hollywood. However, if these characters are written in multi-dimensional manner and steeped in reality---more than likely they will come off as real characterizations.

The key is writing reality from a personal point of view. Award-winning cartoonist and political satirist Lalo Alcaraz explains, “I don’t know if stereotypes can be better, but Hollywood is going to have to catch up to reality”. Alcaraz claims that stereotypes are changing and Hollywood is still steeped in the old ones. He rattles off a few, “There’s the banda guy; not the cholo, but the narco guy. ... In my work I use stereotypes all the time, but I try to flip them and have them reflect reality,” he explains. “As artists and writers, we have to cope with the responsibility of writing characters that represent what is actually happening in the world. Even if am doing a comic strip, I try to show reality.

“We all need to go out and look and see what the new Latino reality is,” Alcaraz adds. “Especially the young Latinos who today who doesn’t speak Spanish, but kind of appreciate being Latino and are starting to understand what it means.”

In January, Variety broke the story that Esparza was leaving Maya Entertainment, which had “fallen victim to the vagaries of a weak domestic theatrical and homevideo market.” Co-chairman Jeff Valdez, the founder of SiTV (now Nuvo-TV), would take the reins and refocus the company’s efforts in the digital marketplace. “We will continue to produce films and release some theatrically on a case-by-case basis, “ said Valdez.

In addition to continuing to run Maya Cinemas, Esparza is co-authoring, along with Frances Negron Muntaner, Director for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, a study entitled Latinos in Media: Inclusion, Exclusion and its Impact. The study takes a look at image, employment recognition, statistics the impact on the community and includes a plan of action. They plan on presenting it in July at the Minority Telecommunication Media Coalition Conference in Washington, DC.

According to Esparza’s study, from the 1950-60 there were thirteen Latinos who could headline a movie. Today there are only five and they are all women, with only one, Cameron Diaz, whose name alone could raise the money for a film. The others, Zoe Saldana, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and Eva Mendes fall into the co-star category.

On the television side, Esparza points out that out of four recent top shows with Latinos storylines, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Modern Family and Wizards of Waverly Place only one (Wizards) had positive Latino images (all but Modern Family are now cancelled).

“Go back 60 years,” Esparza says. “You had the Cisco Kid [Duncan Reynaldo], you had Zorro, you had High Chaparral [Henry Darrow, Rudy Ramos]. You had I Love Lucy with Desi Arnaz who was not only the one in the couple who was level headed, but he also owned the studio. Look at those heroic male roles and compare it to today on television.”

But diversity in Hollywood can be gauged by the increase of minority talent. The fact that there are now a handful of Latino writers whose writing of more positive Latino roles has helped change the Latino image, is progress. Robert Rodriguez did an excellent job with his successful Spy Kids film franchise about the Cortez family of spies. Roberto Orci is a writer/producer of big budget studio films and is sure to write in Latinos roles or hire Latinos in non-stereotypical roles in his films like Transformers (Amaury Nolasco, Ramon Rodriquez), Star Trek (Zoe Saldana); and The Proposal (Oscar Nunez) among others. Television executive producer and writer Silvio Horta and executive producer Salma Hayek employed dozens of Latino actors and several Latino writers during the five years Ugly Betty aired on the ABC network, many of those roles devoid of the stereotype stigma.

Nowadays you can turn on your television on any given day and see doctors (Sara Ramirez on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy), detectives (Jon Huerta on ABC’s Castle, and Lauren Velez and David Zayas on Showtime’s Dexter), fairytale characters (Lana Parilla on ABC’s Once Upon a Time), and other non-stereotypical Latino roles in hit shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Glee, Office, etc. The list goes on to include 40 Latinos in total for the 2012 Fall Season, according to Latin Heat.

So the jury is still out. To say that the portrayal of Latinos in film and especially on television have not improved, at least in the past two decades, is disingenuous. What we can say for sure is that stereotypical roles in Hollywood will never completely disappear.

Bel Hernandez Castillo is the publisher of Latin Heat.