Arguably, one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets is its dependence on America’s Latinx community. As the youngest ethnic group in the U.S. with the largest increase in median age, who attend the theater more than any other group, buying 26 percent of movie tickets, making up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and projected to have an outsized role in the country’s economic growth by 2023, Latinos are a driving force behind the success of any theatrical release.
Latinos have been especially important as writers’ rooms have gone digital and productions adjust to the reality of the surging Covid-19 pandemic — they make up a disproportionate majority of Hollywood’s “essential” workforce, putting them more at risk of contact and contagion as they provide the meals, services, talent, and audience that support the film and television industry. As 40% of California’s population, they comprise 53% of positive Covid-19 cases. This overwhelming force propelling and supporting Hollywood remains largely invisible on-screen. Latinos remain the least represented and most stereotyped people group in American media: a fact so infamously widespread that it has been the subject of headlines from The New York Times to Forbes, with little change in over a decade of productions.
The Latinx population, with all of its intricacies and diverse perspectives, has become the subject of much punditry and breathless examination in 2020 as experts question why a people group hailing from 26 countries, with a legacy of U.S. citizenship by way of colonization, immigration, and naturalization, and speaking eleven dialectical variations on the same language (before including the Bronx and East LA) might vote and spend as something other than a homogeneous block. Latinos are not a monolith, and the country that benefits immeasurably from their contributions is past due for a reckoning with that fact.
Unpacking the Myth
Successful shows are often modeled on or inspired by their predecessors, with an obvious lineage from LIVING SINGLE to FRIENDS, BRADY BUNCH to MODERN FAMILY. For emerging writers, that can be a minefield for inheriting old tropes, and an especially prevalent one is the curious case of the invisible Latino. While representation has been improving in niche shows like EAST LOS HIGH, DIARY OF A FUTURE PRESIDENT, GENTEFIED, and SELENA: THE SERIES, Latinx characters remain scarce in mainstream film and television, especially in ensemble casts.
Classic sitcoms like SEINFELD have passed down an alternate reality where New York City is almost Latino-free; THE MINDY PROJECT and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER feature no leads from Manhattan’s largely Caribbean-Hispanic population. GIRLS took place largely in Brooklyn (where some zip codes are almost 80% Hispanic), with neither leads nor guest stars hailing from the largely Hispanic population.
On the West Coast, NEW GIRL, set in a city with 5 million Latinos, featured just one Latinx character in seven years: a gardener played by Marques Ray. MR. MAYOR features Ted Danson leading a relatively-whitewashed City Hall (Los Angeles hasn’t had a white mayor since 2005).
Medical shows have a better track record — about 3.6% of nurses in the real-world medical field are Hispanic — meaning SCRUBS, starring Judy Reyes, remains the (surprising) leader for most accurate medical TV series.
Still, the absence of intentionally written Latinx characters lends toward the myth of a monolith, and too often a single Latinx character is expected to represent a vast array of cultures. Inevitable stereotypes of illegal immigrants, caricatured service workers, hot-tempered men, and sexpot women with dark hair, olive skin, and vague accents follow — erasing the on-screen presence of (among others) Afro-Latinx, Mestizo, Asian-Latinx, Chicano, Nuyorican, and Indigenous Latinx characters.
Whether writing a police procedural, medical comedy, or period drama, a script without research will always suffer. Part of that research should be into the cultural demographics of your script’s setting. If your characters express their identities in the same ways as the actual Latino population in the U.S., age, time, geography, and family ties will become important factors in fleshing them out. Films like CHEF, INTO THE SPIDERVERSE, and THE 40 YEAR OLD VERSION benefit from the inclusion of specific Latino representation, showcasing cultural differences between characters who live in East LA, Miami, Brooklyn, and Spanish Harlem. As a result, the stories are more robust, and even supporting characters are more three-dimensional.
It Starts on the Page
Showrunners like Moisés Zamora and Gloria Calderón Kellett, along with writers like Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Evangeline Ordaz, know that if you want to tap into the richness and diversity of a specific American experience, go to the source. Hiring a diverse team is always positive, and an absence of representation in writers’ rooms is often the root of the problem when it comes to two-dimensional Latinx characters.
Felix Sánchez, the co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, puts it plainly in an interview with NBC Latino:
“It all depends on who is in the writers’ room because they control the words and images the actors produce… When you don’t have diverse writers, you won’t have three-dimensional minority characters.”
The Latinx population is growing everywhere, and changing the meaning of the term “All-American.” An industry with few Latinx leads, writers’ rooms with no Latinx voices, and stories featuring characters without a specific Latinx background exist, quite simply, in a world that is entirely removed from the realities of its audience.
Specific depictions examining the Black-American, Jewish, Irish Catholic, Italian-American, and Asian-American experience have driven the market for film and television, providing a window into the facets of the vast American landscape and honoring idiosyncrasies of diversity within those communities.
As the Latinx audience grows in purchasing power as well as population, the television and film industry may find a post-pandemic renaissance in the simple act of representation.
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.