When I was a kid, the Latino community was abuzz with hope when two feature films about Mexican-Americans were about to hit the big screen. Legendary playwright Luis Valdez’s look at Pacoima rock & roller Richie Valens, La Bamba, was released in 1987. It was followed by the 1988 release of Stand and Deliver , the true story of Garfield High School Advanced Placement math teacher Jaime Escalante, who delivered generations of Eastside kids to top universities.
My dad was active in the local chapter of the California Chicano News Media Association, the nation's first Latino journalism group, and the organization held a preview screening of Stand and Deliver for members and supporters. The reception’s chatter was: We finally made it. Latinos would be, from here on out, seen as full-blooded Americans, and Hollywood would include our stories as part of the tapestry of U.S. history.
Looking back brings disappointment. Latinos’ love for film — the Motion Picture Association of America says they’re responsible for about one in four movie tickets sold, a far greater per-capita showing than any other race or ethnic group — has largely been unrequited over the decades. Following the 1992 release of Edward James Olmos’ film about the Mexican Mafia, American Me, the Latino boom in Hollywood faded and never really returned. Since then, Latinos have grown to become America’s largest minority, outnumbering whites in California. They represent nearly half the population in Los Angeles County, home to the film and television industry.
After African-Americans were shut out of the acting categories of the Academy Awards for two years, Hollywood was shamed by the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, an Academy Awards boycott and protests outside the annual ceremony. This year, after a record three black actors were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and African-Americans were recognized in the Lead Actor and Supporting Actor categories, a Variety headline read, in part, “Diversity Makes Comeback.” TMZ and ABC Eyewitness News reacted similarly. Yet Latinos were shut out of the top categories, including acting and directing. The biggest-name nominee of Latino descent this year is Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose “How Far I’ll Go” (written for Moana) got a Best Original Song nod.
When African-Americans were excluded from the acting categories in 2015 and 2016, it inspired a national movement. When it happens to the nation’s largest minority, it’s called a comeback for diversity.
Hollywood is reluctant to talk about its diversity track record. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences turned down L.A. Weekly’s request to interview its director of talent development and inclusion for this story; a publicist said the Academy “would like to defer the interview for a few weeks, when we have news to announce on that front.” Asked to weigh in on diversity for a 2015 L.A. Weekly cover story, the Academy declined as well.
For the second year in a row, Najee Ali of Project Islamic Hope is organizing a protest outside the Academy Awards ceremony at Hollywood's Dolby Theater. Last year’s focused on the shutout of African-Americans in the acting categories. This year’s is about Latinos. “The mainstream media has essentially said the diversity problem is solved, because they're looking at it in black and white,” he says. “Latinos are overlooked in Hollywood — as if they’re invisible.”
April Reign, the former attorney who started the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter phenomenon, says it’s still on this year, too: “#OscarsSoWhite isn't over, because we haven't seen representation of marginalized communities in film.”
She says #OscarsSoWhite was never just a black issue.
“The fact that there has been one good year for blacks in film does not erase or undo the more than 80 years of underrepresentation of black people and other minorities,” Reign says. “Hollywood has been reluctant in hiring anyone who isn't a straight white male, the Latino community included.”
In 2014 Chris Rock argued in an essay for The Hollywood Reporter that the industry still sees Latinos only as a service class. UCLA’s annual “Hollywood Diversity Report” on roles in TV and film, released this week, shows that Latinos fare the worst of any minority in the industry. The report found that Latinos got 5 percent of broadcast TV’s scripted roles. A 2016 USC study found that Latinos were cast in 5.8 percent of speaking roles in TV and film. “Latinos tend to be the most underrepresented group if you look at their share of the population and their share of roles in front of and behind the camera,” says Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and the author of the UCLA report. “You don't see much of a change here.”
William Nericcio, director of San Diego State University’s Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Science program, has been tracking Hollywood’s bittersweet affair with Latinos for years. His book Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of ‘Mexicans’ in America tells the story of how U.S. pop culture has distorted and stereotyped the Latino experience. “There’s no tradition of respecting anything Mexican in Hollywood,” he says. “Visual apartheid is a beautiful way to put it. There’s a whole tradition in Hollywood of rendering us invisible.”
In 1910, D.W. Griffith's The Thread of Destiny helped introduce the term “greaser” to American pop culture, according to historian Ken Padgett. A greaser was a Mexican bandit. Throughout the first half of Hollywood history, Latino characters were bandits, lovers, stoners or “weak, bumbling” fools, according to Padgett. Many of those portrayals, of course, were performed by non-Latinos.
Even in the rare instance when a Mexican was portrayed as a hero, as was the case for Charlton Heston’s character in 1958’s Touch of Evil, that hero was often played by an Anglo. Fast-forward to modern times and you don’t have to look far — Ben Affleck as a Mexican-American CIA operative in Argo, British actor Charlie Hunnam as a Mexican-American narco-trafficker in the forthcoming American Drug Lord — to find similar casting choices.
“It's one of the fascinating facts of Latinos in Hollywood that more were nominated for Academy Awards between 1947 and 1963 than any period before or since,” says Brian Herrera, a theater professor at Princeton, and the author of Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in 20th-Century U.S. Popular Performance. “We don't always think of the 1950s as the golden age of opportunity for Latino actors.” Back then, Ricardo Montalbán was starting to get big roles. And Desi Arnaz was practically a national phenomenon.
Since then, there were no major Oscar nominations for Latinos until the late 1980s, Herrera says. (Edward James Olmos was nominated for his portrayal of Escalante in Stand and Deliver; Norma Aleandro was nominated for Supporting Actress for 1987’s Gaby: A True Story.) That ’80s wave of success was fueled, in part, by Chicano social consciousness in the 1960s, particularly in theater, according to Herrera. Valdez of La Bamba fame had founded El Teatro Campesino near San Jose in 1965. Olmos won a Tony Award in 1979 for his Broadway acting in Valdez’s Zoot Suit. “They were coming from outside Hollywood — from theater — and crossing over into film in the later ’70s and into the ’80s,” Herrera says.
Many of the Latinos who’ve seen recent success in film have launched their careers outside of Hollywood. The Latinos with the most Oscar wins in recent years, Alejandro González Iñárritu (named Best Director in 2015 and 2016) and Alfonso Cuarón (Best Director in 2014), are from Mexico City. Sin City director Robert Rodriguez has based his Latino-centric El Rey television network in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Even today’s top Latino Oscar contender, Miranda, is not a product of Hollywood but a New York Puerto Rican.
Much of the problem is that 90 percent of decision makers at major Hollywood talent agents are white, according to the 2014 “Hollywood Diversity Report." “Hollywood has been aggressive in not engaging with Latino culture in Los Angeles,” Herrera says.
Some Hollywood executives see the Latino market as a Spanish-language demographic that’s better served by the Mexican film market and the likes of Univision and Telemundo. “When Hollywood thinks Latino, they think niche market, not mainstream market,” Hunt of UCLA says. But 62 percent of Latinos in the United States speak English, according to the Pew Research Center. The success of La Bamba and Stand and Deliver proves that Latinos yearn to see themselves on the big screen — and not just as gangsters, maids and immigrants.
Latinos have had more success on television than in film in recent decades. Nericcio of San Diego State University says Melissa Villaseñor, a Mexican-American from Whittier, broke Saturday Night Live’s “mole ceiling.” And he’s psyched that TBS’ Conan is airing a “Conan Without Borders” show from Mexico City on March 1.
Part of the solution to the diversity problem in film is educating studios and agencies, according to Herrera. He argues that the industry’s exclusion of Latinos could be partly solved by getting actors, writers and directors gigs on the ground floor. If the talent pipeline isn’t delivering diverse candidates, the Academy Awards will almost never see Latinos in top categories.
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He warns that Latinos shouldn’t get their hopes up when they see Diego Luna in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story or Gina Rodriguez in Jane the Virgin. “There's still no clear sense that Hollywood is especially invested culturally in Latino talent,” Herrera says. “It’s a cycle. I don't think progress is permanent.”
Hollywood has to look at itself in the context of this great Latino city and take down its studio walls.
“One of the reasons Latinos can be marginalized politically is we are so marginalized in portrayals in television and film,” says Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. “There's no excuse for not courting and hiring Latino actors. There's no excuse at all. There's plenty of talent out there.”
Brian Herrera is speaking at UCLA’s On the Presence (and Absence) of Latinos in U.S. Popular Performance event on Monday, Feb. 27.