SAN DIEGO – Through perseverance and hard work, Latinos have overcome a long history of discrimination and made it to the U.S. Senate, the Supreme court and the Cabinet. You’ll find them in the executive suites of Fortune 50 companies, leading championship sports teams, and heading the nation’s largest nonprofit organizations. They’ve even made it to outer space.
That was easy. Now for the last frontier: television.
Studies have been done on what some call the entertainment industry’s “brownout.” One recent examination of the problem – “The Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media,” which was released last year by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race – found that Latinos lag far behind whites and African-Americans in landing leading roles. When Latinos have appeared on television, it’s usually in one-dimensional, stereotypical and cookie-cutter roles – the housekeeper or hoodlum, the cop or soldier, the sexpot or illegal immigrant, the gardener or gang-banger.
If a role is complex, nuanced or unpredictable, chances are it won’t be given to a Latino. In a town that built its reputation on imagination, the vision of television writers goes only so far.
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According to the Columbia study, from 2012 to 2013, nearly a quarter of Latinos characters on television – 24.2 percent – were linked to a crime. In 2011 and 2012, not a single network TV pilot was written by a Latino.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, Desi Arnaz actually led the band and went to work in a suit and tie. Since then, Latinos have gone backward. Today, they most often portray characters who are “foreign” and “menacing.”
A few weeks ago, in a fiery essay for Hollywood Reporter, comedian and actor Chris Rock informed liberals in the entertainment industry that they’re not as liberal as they think they are. Even though Hollywood is in Los Angeles County (48 percent Latino) and California (38 percent), studio executives still largely ignore the Latino demographic. If you think black-and-white television is a thing of the past, then you’re not watching television.
“Forget whether Hollywood is black enough,” Rock wrote. “A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist … just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s this weird town. You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true?”
The odds are not very good. The same goes for Puerto Ricans and other branches of the Latino family tree.
The walls might be coming down. If so, it’ll be because people such as 30-year-old Gina Rodriguez are swinging sledgehammers. The Chicago-born Puerto Rican actress and NYU graduate – who has been called “The Next Big Thing” by Hollywood Reporter – is now a Golden Globe winner for her role in the CW comedy “Jane the Virgin.”
Rodriguez is receiving praise for her acceptance speech, which was both humble and inspirational.
“This award is so much more than myself,” she said. “It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes. My father used to tell me to say every morning, ‘Today’s going to be a great day. I can and I will.’ Well, Dad, today’s a great day. I can and I did.”
I like the second half of the statement, where Rodriguez pays respect to her father and confidently claims her seat at the table – which she has undoubtedly earned through talent and hard work.
Yet I’m bothered by the first part. A “culture that wants to see themselves as heroes”? Meaning what? That Latinos – who have contributed to the fields of education, politics, sports, business and science and been decorated in every military conflict since the Civil War – need Hollywood to show them in a positive light, so they can see themselves that way? This gives Tinseltown too much power over our lives.
Those who run Hollywood don’t know the first thing about Latinos. That is their loss. But I don’t need them to tell me that my community is heroic – because I see reality, and I know the truth.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.