Recently, Carlos Aguilar of Variety lamented the failure of Hollywood to invest in the Latinx community. While the article detailed Latinx directors grappling with the gap in industry representation, and the superficial generalities that lend to a perpetually untapped source of talent, it also begged a pressing question for screenwriters regarding niche storytelling in a sector with limited opportunity.
The article detailed changing the industry for the better, and with a hopeful eye toward the future, I’ve outlined five ways for screenwriters and industry professionals to lean into Latinx inclusivity to enable this transformation.
1. Trust the Audience
Latinx individuals make up 17% of the American population and 32% of frequent moviegoers, but it’s short-sighted to assume that only Latinx audiences are looking for Latinx stories.
VIDA, a series about the return of two Latina siblings to the predominantly Chicano LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights, premiered to critical acclaim; ONE DAY AT A TIME proved so popular that news of its cancellation prompted a high-profile fan campaign to revive it. The appetite for diverse stories, especially those featuring a growing segment of the American landscape, has reached an apex.
What’s more, that appetite has gone beyond tokenistic representation, with audiences clamoring for depth and authenticity. Screenwriters often stride the chasm between the artistic and the commercial, but in this case the bottom line is simple: write characters whose ethnicity is authentic to their identity, and the audience will rise to meet you.
2. Go Beyond the Umbrella
While “Latino/Latinx” and “Hispanic” are often used interchangeably as umbrella terms, they fail to express the nuance of the individual cultural experiences within the U.S. Statistically, Latinx individuals tend to more readily identify with their country of origin, while only 24% prefer the superordinate “Latino”. As a storyteller, the richness in that nuance is worth exploring; what’s more, the outdated depictions of generalized Latinx characters (which can often default to stereotypes) are quickly becoming a relic of the industry’s past.
“Such a superficial grasp of the distinct groups of people included in the ethnic terms “Latino” and “Latinx” has led to the perpetual omission of U.S.-born-and-raised Latinos in front of and behind the camera.” – Carlos Aguilar, Variety
3. Expand Your Personal Lexicon
Whether you’re writing from personal experience or looking for authenticity in a character from a different world than your own, invest in expanding your personal lexicon.
Start by familiarizing yourself with the term “ni de aquí, ni de allá”—an expression which essentially means “neither from here nor there”—evocative of the identity struggles yielded from histories sometimes involving colonization and subjugation. Representation is about more than a checklist of diverse roles; the true task at hand is exploring the uniqueness that these individual cultural facets can bring to a story.
Decide which story you’re telling, and be specific about the particulars of your character’s ethnicity. Even today, confusion regarding citizenship, immigration, and cultural origin permeates the highest levels of the national discourse. Clarity in your character’s needs, wants, and backstory aren’t just good for the world—they’re good storytelling.
4. Revive the Latinx Lead
Even with growing visibility, Latina leads are often fraught with sexism and colorism, and, barring a smattering of recent exceptions, the Latino leading man has all but disappeared (The Latino Media Gap, 2016).
Even so, Latinx creators whose focus is behind the scenes have been working on closing the gap. Tanya Saracho recently signed a development deal with UCP. Joel Novoa, Alberto Belli, and Diego Velasco have partnered with Aurora Guerrero (Mosquita y Mari) to develop a database initiative called Latinx Directors. As directors, producers, and showrunners seek out new stories, it’s passed time to revive the Latinx lead.
5. Build It, and They Will Come
Leaning toward vagueness in Latinx depictions (see the “any ethnicity” character description) seemingly became the norm in an era when too few parts were available for the tremendous pool of Hispanic and Latinx talent. The good news is, we’ve come leaps and bounds from 2014, when Chris Rock lambasted the lack of Latinx inclusion in the film industry in his Hollywood Reporter essay, stating: “You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”
Today, casting directors like Carla Hool are leading the industry in inclusive casting, granting access where once there was none and allowing universal stories to be told. Even so, while she admits that she’s an agent of progress, she “can’t change everything”: a world onscreen that reflects the same vibrant diversity as the real world will require creatives, above and below the line, to commit to making it happen.
Fortunately, with visionaries on the right side of production, and a pool of talent hungry for opportunities, you’ll be in good company as you write for a more inclusive future.
Joshua Noble is a Puerto Rican writer, actor, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his career in TV and film, he is a founding producer of The American Playbook, a series of conversations and new works highlighting historically underrepresented voices, and currently serves as Director of the National Actors’ Retreat. Joshua received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.