The Hollywood Lens on Latinos is Out of Focus

Commentary by Rick Najera

I’m sitting having lunch (tortilla soup) at a major network commissary as I observe a mob of Hollywood types having their important lunch meetings. It’s business as usual. But the more I watch, the more I begin to worry. It’s not what I see that disturbs me it’s what I don’t see.  And what I don’t see at this studio is diversity.
Where have all the ethnic people gone?

I did not see them in last year’s Oscar nominations — the best film nominees did not have much diversity:  An English king with a stutter; an Irish boxer or sheriff with true grit; a tormented ballerina; and the World of social networking. No diversity?  Which is exactly what I see, or rather, don’t see at this studio. I might as well be sitting in a Hollywood studio commissary in the 1940’s.

There might as well be a sign that says,  “Whites only” and by that, meaning young, white and male,

which is what the Writers Guild of America’s recent study, Executive Summary of the 2011 Hollywood Writers Report: Recession and Regression, also noted.

To read the report go to:  http://www.wga.org

While the mostly White young males are writing the skewed Latino stories the “other America”, the ones you don’t see on the small or big screen much, are in the kitchen making my delicious tortilla soup.  It’s the young White male writers who decide what we’ll consume, see, and believe about the world around us.

One might argue we need more producers and studio heads of color to turn this around, but I say its writers.

It’s the writer who fills a blank page, which he provides to the producers and crew — the blue print of the world he sees.   Writers have the power to change our perspective when it comes to race and culture in this country.

Fade in:  A group of four dark foreboding Latinos wait at a coffee shop, talking in whispers. “The mood is sinister and foreboding.” With a few strokes of a keyboard the writer has chosen how one culture is shown.

The one group that lacks representation in Hollywood is Latinos.  Latinos are seldom seen on film or television, but when they are it’s either as drug lords, gangsters,  maids, or “illegal immigrants” or in sitcoms with regurgitated tired old jokes.

However, consider the facts the recent Census brought to light about U.S. Latinos:

  • U.S. Latinos are now at 50 million in this country
  • 90% of children younger than five in the U.S. is Latino
  • The largest majority of U.S. Latinos come from Mexico
  • Mexico is the third largest trading partner to the U.S.
  • Mexico is our biggest tourist destination and tourism is one of the industries that fund the dollars that buys American products.

So why is the view of Latinos so skewed to negative stereotypes and fear?  Because the people that create the Latino image on the big and small screen are seldom Latino.

Sometimes perception is more than reality, and the perception of Latinos is being, for the most part, written from the outside looking in. The Hollywood lens on Latinos is out of focus.  Society pays the price for the drumbeat of negative stereotypes that are shaping our everyday lives and building mistrust.

The recent passage of bills and laws against Latinos in Georgia and Arizona is a movement to keep Latinos powerless.  The media and Hollywood writers are fostering anti-Latino sentiments when they write about Latinos from an un-informed point of view.  They only add fuel to the fire by promoting stereotypes, as was the case with ABC’s sitcom Work It where the Puerto Rican character had the line, “I’m Puerto Rican, I’d be great at selling drugs.”

The recent WGA report on diversity outlined the television-earning gap , which has widened to the largest level in two years, with minorities underrepresented 3 to 1 in television. In film that underrepresentation widens to 7 to 1.

In other words, according to the WGA, writers are mostly White and women and minorities are underrepresented.  This is true not just for the WGA, but also the Directors Guild of America. Only 11% of all directors are minority males and a depressing 1 percent are female   The WGA report went on to say  “ At best minorities are treading water when it comes to their share of television employment, particularly as the nation itself becomes more and more diverse.”

What does it mean to the rest of America? On the surface one might argue very little but underneath it’s at a terrible cost.  Because when our worldview is out of focus, we all lose.  When a segment of our society is underrepresented and shut out from the media, and White males control the airwaves, we are building a more separatist America.

The tragedy is that our country IS more divided.  When Latino audiences watch TV and see so few images of themselves, the message to them and Latino youth in particular, is that they are not worthy enough to be included in America.

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Hollywood decides our American reality.   We consume hours and hours of either good images or bad with Hollywood writers mostly focusing on the bad.

I’m not advocating propaganda or censorship, I’m just asking for a closer reality.  I believe the only solution for real change starts in the writer’s room, even more so than producers and directors or studio heads. It’s minority writers that are most needed.

One might argue that when there is a Latino centric show written by non-Latinos, the Latino cast is powerless to ask for Latino writers, let alone demand it.

The writers only write about the America they know and see.  And with little or no connection to anyone Latino, other than their maid, gardener or the “illegal immigrants” they see on the news that is what they write.
Words conjure up images, depending on ones life experiences. If I say the word “Latino” what do you see?

Judging by the media, you might see a sea of undocumented workers flooding our borders like a human tsunami; you might see images of violent and ruthless drug lords. But what I see is different, perhaps because Latinos are not a strange alien culture to me.  To me they are my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and all very American.

The negative stereotypes also extend south of the border into Mexico. Mexico graduates more than 100,000 engineers a year, more than Germany, Canada or Brazil.  Where are those stories?

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If the media is to be fair and without bias, then we need diversity in the writer’s room. We need to demand more women and more minority writers.  Only then will we see the wonderful and inspirational Latino stories that I know exist. Latinos like my father who served in World War II and Vietnam, and raised five children.

Latinos like him, who bought homes, paid their taxes, and sacrificed their lives serving their country. These are the Latinos I see. My uncle was killed during world war two fighting for our great nation.   Where is his story?

Perhaps with more writers and directors of color behind the lens in Hollywood it might more realistically represent the diverse America I live in.  But how can we expect fairness and inclusion in Hollywood when we are not included in the writer’s room?  Until that happens Hollywood will see our Latino world out of focus.

Rick Najera is an award-winning actor-writer-director-producer with credits in film, television, theatre and Broadway; honored twice by Hispanic Business Magazine as ‘100 Most Influential Latinos in America’.  His writing credits MadTV and In Living Color, his award-winning stage production Latinologues; and the recent film Nothing like the Holidays.
For more information on Rick Najera and his projects go to:  http://www.ricknajera.com