“Two nights ago, a group of Mexican Americans picketed the Academy Awards presentation. The picket was in protest over the caricatures and racist representation of Mexicans in motion picture and that in those motion pictures where there are Mexican roles, it is seldom that Mexican actors get the roles.”
– Broadcast April 9, 1970
I wrote the sentence above in 1970 when I produced the first program on television about the lack of opportunities for Mexicans and other Latinos in motion pictures and television. Sadly, forty-six years later, Latinos are still vilified or ignored by Hollywood. As a recent Los Angeles Times article recently pointed out, proportional to their population, Latinos buy more theater tickets than any other ethnic group . But where are we on the screen? In the current debate over lack of diversity in motion pictures–exemplified by the fact that no people of color have been nominated for acting in the films of 2015–little attention has been directed to the lack of Latinos.
At the Oscars this year, Chris Rock made much about the lack of African Americans actors not nominated for the Oscars but not one mention of the lack of Latinos. And even Alejandro Iñárritu, winner of the best director award, who had a golden opportunity to mention the lack of Latino actors fumbled the ball.
Diversity has been traditionally interpreted as the lack of Black performers, writers, directors and producers. Y nosotros que?
Somehow, the fact that Latinos, the largest ethnic minority in the United States, are excluded, goes with little notice. The effrontery is particularly galling when you consider that so much of the green-lighting of films takes place in Los Angeles, whose population is more than 50% Latino.
Let us be clear: diversity at the Oscars means Latinos as well.
The reasons for our exclusion are multiple and have been discussed thoroughly among ourselves. The legacy of a hundred years of exclusion, the“who-you-know” nature of the industry, the fact that Latinos, whether of Cuban, Puerto Rican or Mexican origin born in the United States are still looked on as foreigners or recently arrived (my family line in Texas goes back to the early 1700s, before there was a United States). And the most basic fact, of course, is that there are no Latinos in Hollywood in positions of power to write or green-light projects about us in which we are also the protagonists.
What does it take to break this cycle in motion pictures that goes back more than 100 years?
The answer is: it takes us!
We already have examples. Like Shonda Rhimes’ pioneering work in promoting programming featuring minorities on national television, the efforts by Latinos to break the barriers is the only way to be heard and make progress. And on television we have our own examples of how to do this.
I am fortunate in having been Co-Executive Producer in Dennis Leoni’s pioneering drama series, arguably the first English language drama series about Latinos on prime time television, Resurrection Blvd. Little did I know back in 1970 that it would take until 2000 for us to have our first major English language series and that I would direct the successful pilot. Of course, there have been many attempts for a Latino presence on American television, prior and since. Going back to the original I Love Lucy starring a Cuban American, since then we have seen various attempts ranging from AKA Pablo, Greetings from Tucson, The Brothers Garcia, Cane, American Family, George Lopez, Ugly Betty, Resurrection Blvd, Devious Maids, Telenovela and Superstore to name a few.
While these programs have had uneven success, some lasted only a few episodes before being cancelled, others such as Ugly Betty and Telenovela have been breakout hits. What these shows clearly demonstrate is that we have the talent, universal stories to tell and the ability to attract large audience given the opportunity.
Another factor not to be overlooked is that each successful show generates more opportunities for Latino actors, writers and directors. This is how we grow a community of professionals within the industry.
What we have done in creating new opportunities in television we need to do in motion pictures.
But it won’t be easy.
We shall have to nudge, cajole, or forcibly take what is fairly our share of the Hollywood landscape. As a veterano activist, I have paid my dues, as have so many of my colleagues and peers. Many of us have spent our lives breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for all Latinos. Now it is up to a new generation to carry on the struggle.
We must do it ourselves.
What will it take?
Copyright 2016 by Jesús Salvador Treviño. Treviño is a television director (www.chuytrevino.com) , documentary filmmaker, writer and creator of Latinopia.com.