#EndLatinXclusion in Hollywood: Why representation matters

A graphic that says 'Dear Hollywood, #EndLatinxExclusion
Image via Deadline

With the rise of movements such as #MeToo, #OscarsSoWhite and most recently #BlackLivesMatter, society has seen a greater demand for social change on all fronts of the cultural landscape. In the entertainment industry, there has been a calling for more minority representation to be featured, both in front of and behind the camera.

Minority representation can take many forms, including implementing more female centered storylines, positive and authentic portrayals of queerness on screen and BIPOC visibility in media. In the movies, on television and in award shows that highlight the best stories in film and television, there are major issues in terms of Latinx representation both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. A recent example is the cancellation of ABC’s The Baker and the Beauty in June, which suffered due to low ratings.  The decision to cancel the only show with an all Latinx cast on network television has upset a lot of viewers and creators in the Latinx community. Shortly after that cancellation, the Emmy Awards completely neglected many Latinx shows in its nominations. All these factors are reasons why there needs to be more films and tv shows being greenlit by Hollywood. 

From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the United States celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month. This 30 day annual celebrates the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans in US history, culture and achievements. 

On Oct. 15 2020, to mark the end of the month,  270 Latinx creators working in the American entertainment industry signed an open letter addressed to Hollywood. The letter calls for more Latinx inclusion and systemic change in the entertainment industry. Signees include Lin Manuel Miranda (playwright best known for In the Heights and Hamilton), Tanya Saracho (showrunner of Vida) and Gloria Calderon Kellett (co-showrunner of One Day at a Time). The letter opens by drawing attention to  why the Latinx community finds it challenging  to celebrate the heritage month:  

“As we come to the end of Hispanic Heritage Month in the midst of a  global pandemic and continued racial injustice, many of us in the Latinx  community have found it difficult to celebrate”, the letter reads. “Inspired by the  activism of the Black and Indigenous communities, many of whom also identify as Latinx, we stand in solidarity with our fellow Black, Native and Indigenous writers, co-signing their WGAW Open Letters and echoing their demands for systemic change in our industry.” 

The letter continues to discuss Hollywood’s lack of Latinx representation on screen and the erasure of Latinx people and culture. It calls Hollywood studio executives out for their refusal to tell Latinx stories and refusing to put Latinx creators in charge of telling their own stories. The letter calls out Latinx projects being developed without a Latinx writer, producer or director for being “filtered through a White perspective.” It goes into the details of hearing the excuse that there’s no Latinx writers to hire and for writers in that community.

“We are tired of hearing ‘we couldn’t find any Latinx writers to hire.’ We are tired of Latinx writers being asked to repeat Staff Writer and lower staffing levels, which not only ensures that we stay at those levels, but also helps perpetuate the narrative that Latinx writers don’t exist at the Showrunner and other upper levels.” 

The letter included a list of five demands for Hollywood to implement. The first is to make stories about Latinx people made by Latinx people. This demand asks that writers, directors and producers on Latinx centered narratives are actually Latinx, and that it is not enough to only hire one Latinx writer on a project. 

“Hire more of us, Listen to us. Put us in positions of power. Don’t know how to find us? Reach out to the WGA, or go to one of the TV writer lists created by members of our community,” the letter states. 

 The second demand is to actually greenlight projects created by Latinx writers. The letter states that “only a handful of pilots by Latinx writers are bought each year, and most of those are never made”. This highlights the industry’s neglect of not giving these Latinx writers a chance to actually get their projects made and shown to an audience. 

The third is to properly represent all aspects of the Latinx community’s lives and culture. This includes representation of diversity in its population, which includes greenlighting more stories that reflect the diversity of the Latinx experience, such as within the Latinx LGBTQ+ community and Black and Indigenous Latinx. 

“We are more than just White Latinx and Mestizxs. We are Black and Indigenous. We are LGBTQIA. We are undocumented. We are Disabled. We have different religious backgrounds and spiritual beliefs. We are more than our trauma,” the letter boldly states. 

The fourth demand is to invest in the growth of Latinx writers. This means providing more promotions that move Latinx writers up to showrunner positions rather than keeping them on the same lower staff writing positions for the entirety of their work. The fifth and final demand is to hire more Latinx talent on non-Latinx projects. Latinx writers want to be given the opportunity to write more than just stories about their identity. They want to be able to write American stories from different perspectives. 

“Our voices and our perspective will undoubtedly enhance yours and that of all Americans.”
Following the letter and the demands, it provides a list of all 270 creators who have signed and are in solidarity with this project. The #EndLatinXclusion project was launched by the Untitled Latinx Project (ULP), which was founded by showrunner Tanya Saracho who is best known for creating the critically acclaimed Starz show Vida. ULP is an all-Latina advocacy group that aims to unite creators in the community to increase representation. The letter includes research on the percentage of specific ethnic groups in the United States population and percentage of those groups who are TV writers. The two largest ethnic groups in the US are White and Latinx people. Approximately 60 per cent of the US population is white, while 64 per cent of TV writers hired are White. In contrast to that, Latinx make up about 18 per cent of the US population, while only 8.7 per cent of TV writers hired are Latinx. This data accounts for the overall total number of writers employed within the 2019-2020 TV season which was 2362. The study includes two categories of analysis: TV writers and screenwriters employed.

Percentage of US population and American TV Writers by Ethnic Group from 2019-2020 (Untitled Latinx Project)

Within the Latinx Ryerson community, there seems to be a similar sense of never feeling represented in film, television or in the majority of mainstream media. One of the many cultural student groups at Ryerson is the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS). OLAS is dedicated to empowering the Latinx community and sharing the beauty of everything that Latinx culture has to offer. A few of the activities that OLAS runs are social events that aim to empower Latinx students as well as providing professional development opportunities to help students network and find job opportunities. The organization has several sectors at various Universities across the greater Toronto area which are united under the recently established Coalition of Latin American Students. 

The current president of OLAS Ryerson, Fernando Marte-Henriquez, shared his thoughts on the open letter and on feeling unrepresented in mainstream media. He mentions never really seeing himself on screen:

“Apart from Latin focused networks on mainstream media, talking about Hollywood movies and stuff popular in North America,” says Marte-Henriquez. “You don’t really see Latinx influence other than the telenovelas.” 

Another member of OLAS, Paloma Torres, who is currently in her second year of Media Production at Ryerson, gave a similar response of not really feeling seen on screen growing up, apart from one movie. 

“The only representation that I identified with was Spy Kids,” says Torres. The dad is Mexican and the mom is white, and I was like ‘Woah, that’s me!’ I thought that was really cool. But other than that there hasn’t been much over the years or even now. It’s more like token Latin characters. I think there is a need for more Latin representation in the media.” 

Carla Gugino, Antonio Banderas, Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega in “Spy Kids.” (Miramax)

Torres found it difficult to answer which Latinx figures she looked up to in the media because there were not many options for her. Many of the characters that she saw reflected, as mentioned, were stereotypes, which did not reflect her and many other Latinx kids experiences. This drives home the points of the letter that demand that Latinx stories need to be greenlit by Hollywood with accurate representation both in front of and behind the screen. In order to do that, the stories need to be authentic from a proper Latinx perspective so harmful stereotypes are not the norm in the media. When asked about what needs to be done in order for Hollywood to better represent the community, both Marte-Henriquez and Torres gave a variety of answers. Torres remarks that there are more mainstream television shows featuring Latinx people than when she was growing up but thinks more should be done in terms of expanding the representation to all aspects of the culture. 

“I guess there’s more with shows like One Day at a Time and how they’re getting more popular,” notes Torres. “But I do feel like there are so many cultures within Latinx America that don’t really get represented. There’s Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans that don’t get equal representation in movies and TV.” 

Marte-Henriquez poses another argument for how Hollywood can create better media that properly represents the culture. Speaking on how the culture should be represented without resorting to things like stereotyping or cultural appropriation, Marte-Henriquez notes the nuances of representation on screen: 

“It’s difficult. because at the same time I look at it from a perspective of you don’t want to take away the role from somebody who might deserve it as well just because they’re Latinx and you want to increase your diversity quota,” says Marte-Henriquez. “One of the things we discussed in OLAS is cultural recognition. Not using cultural appropriation to promote certain things in the movie but actually what it stands for, what’s its meaning behind it.”

Both concluded by touching on how there’s hope in the small steps being taken to ensure that there is more diversity in media for their community. Marte-Henriquez speaks about how these small steps are being seen in Toronto and in the entertainment industry. 

“Latinx involvement in the industry is increasing. You can see it here in Toronto like some of the short films coming out,” notes Marte-Henriquez “People participate in film not only behind the camera but in front of the camera as well. You can really see a community starting to build of Latinx people wanting to help each other, especially in the industry where you might get a role because you knew somebody.” 

Torres highlights the power in community and the difference that can be made when the creators in it come together. 

“Finding out about this movement, you realize that Latin creators are coming together and creating a united front. Bringing to light that it’s not okay to keep being unrepresented,” says Torres.

Marte-Henriquez makes similar comments on Latinx creators calling out the inequalities within the industry. 

“I want to say we’re taking steps in the right way and especially those actors and creators you were mentioning earlier [the names mentioned in the letter], we’re seeing that push,” says Marte-Henriquez. “We’re seeing people come out and just not be okay with being on the sidelines.”

What all this tells in terms of the nature of how the industry has been working for many years, despite small changes, is that it’s time for some bigger change. As mentioned by Marte-Henriquez and Torres, Latinx people have always seen stories about worlds apart from their own. The letter’s multiple claims shows that it’s time for Hollywood to seriously address this lack of authentic and nuanced representation of Latinx culture, Latinx people or Latinx communities on screen. It was never an equal opportunity, but the letter proves that Latinx creators are trying, and hopefully Hollywood will be able to listen to the letter’s demands.