Latino representation in Hollywood is not keeping pace with the explosion of the U.S. Hispanic population, and depictions of Latinos in television and film too often reinforce stereotypes. That was the message delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill by Clara Rodriguez, Ph.D., associate chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Fordham University, during a Sept. 8 forum to call attention to the lack of Hispanic actors, writers, producers and directors working in Hollywood.
“You should be able to have all types of movies depicting all types of characters,” said Rodriguez. “The problems come when the representation of a particular group is too narrow, one-dimensional and stereotypical.”
While Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, representing 13 percent of the total population, Latino representation in film and television has averaged 2 to 3 percent over the past 20 years, said Rodriguez. Angel Rivera (FCO ’83), national director of affirmative action for the Screen Actors Guild, also testified and told lawmakers that Hispanic actors actually landed 283 fewer roles in film and television in 2003 than in 2002. (See feature-length Rivera profile, Fordham Magazine, Summer 2004.)
Gains have been made on primetime television, where Hispanic actors now account for nearly 6 percent of characters. But even so, the characters depicted are too often domestic workers, criminals or cops, said Rodriguez, whose books include Heroes, Lovers and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood (Smithsonian Press, 2004) and Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media (Westview Press, 1997).
This consistently narrow depiction of Latinos not only reinforces sweeping generalizations of Hispanics, it can make it more difficult for young Latinos to see themselves pursuing certain careers.
“The actor and comedian John Leguizamo has said he never saw a Latin comic while growing up,” said Rodriguez, “so he thought his people just couldn’t do that.”
Colombian-born Leguizamo, who grew up in Queens, overcame that perception and has gone on to become an accomplished actor, known for his one-man shows Mambo Mouth and Freak. But just imagine how many Latino children are stunted, said Rodriguez, by the lack of Latino role models on television and in film.
“The people who fund film and television projects either are not interested in or don’t know the Latino stories that could be brought to the screen,” said Rodriguez. “Or they don’t think those stories will sell, which is not the reality.”
Consider the Nickelodeon animated program Dora the Explorer. Rodriguez served as a consultant on the show about a 7-year-old Latina girl who uses Spanish as she solves problems and overcomes obstacles. Within a year of its 2000 debut, Dora became the top show for preschool children on television and was in the top 10 of all juvenile programs. Realistic Latino characters can also be seen on the PBS drama American Family, which chronicles the lives of a Mexican-American family settling into life in Los Angeles.
Rodriguez senses a sincere interest among lawmakers to address the under-representation and misrepresentation of Latinos in media and said the next step is to fully engage the networks and movie studios to help address the issue. In Latin Looks, Rodriguez wrote that the U.S. government could address the issue by strengthening enforcement of the Federal Communications Commission’s parity guidelines, which require that the labor pool reflect the population served, and encouraging the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to place a high priority on fair representation of Hispanics in media.
There are signs that change may be coming. Advertisers have begun to recognize the buying power of Latinos and are tailoring marketing campaigns to appeal to the group. The hope, said Rodriguez, is that television networks and film studios will follow suit.