Why the Power of the Latino Social Community Will Disrupt Hollywood

Two weeks ago today, Dr. Grisel Acosta emailed the main account for Latino Rebels to let our group know that her personal blog post about “Boyhood” had gotten a lot of attention. She wanted to know: would the Rebeldes be interested in republishing her piece?

On February 9, we published Acosta’s piece. The piece was raw and provocative. It raised an issue that had been covered previously about Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film: that as much as the film was praised for its concept, it still reeked of typical Hollywood White Savior Tokenism.

Initially, when Acosta emailed our group and the group email was forwarded to me —as publisher of this site— I hesitated for a minute and considered not reposting Acosta’s piece. The author’s reference to “The Birth of the Nation” personally felt a bit too much for me, but I also felt strongly that since Acosta’s essay was already generating intense conversation in the social circles I followed, it was important to republish the piece as is.

Her original piece was already out there and she was asking that Latino Rebels help amplify her voice. Not surprisingly, Acosta’s views had struck a nerve. They weren’t manufactured, planned or coordinated (as some are falsely suggesting). Her post just happened, and it was a conversation Latino Rebels wanted to elevate. That is what we do: we listen closely to what the community is saying, and 14 days ago, the community was talking about Acosta’s piece.

In addition, as much as my 12-year-old son and I enjoyed “Boyhood,” I couldn’t shake those two scenes, where the mom character “saved” the life of one sole Latino gardener character (wow, a gardener) in a Texas world where everyone was Anglo. That one little subplot was cringeworthy, and Acosta’s essay made some salient points as to why she thought the whole portrayal was ridiculous.

So I gave the go to republish it.

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Two weeks later, that conversation has been amplified. Acosta’s essay was linked to several sites, such as The Guardian and yes, even MovieFone. In general, the conversation has been a good one. This was not a “controversy,” but there was real dialogue coming from so many places.

Acosta was interested in expanding the dialogue to a global level, and we were honored to help her. (FYI: Acosta shared more today in Salon.)

Throughout these last two weeks, I began to find out that other Latinos who caught “Boyhood” thought the same thing, from a meme that @ThePixelFactor tweeted to me….

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…to what Félix Sánchez of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts told The HuffPost:

Sánchez said this problem was visible in one of the year’s most nominated films, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” In the film, a Latino yard worker (Roland Ruiz) crosses paths with the main character’s mother (Patricia Arquette), who advises the young man to go back to school. During a second encounter years later, Ruiz’s character, whose life is now very different, thanks Arquette’s character for putting him on a new course.

Despite the widespread critical acclaim for “Boyhood,” Sánchez argued that a movie like George Stevens’ 1956 drama “Giant,” also set in Texas, does a better a job of portraying the Latino experience than Linklater’s film.

“It’s appalling that in the 50 years between the two films we still haven’t understood who Latinos are,” Sánchez said. “‘Giant’ was almost more correct at talking about the Latino condition, because it showed all the biases that people had and the fears they had about intermarriage—but once there was a child, it melted away that anger and that inability to conceive what this would be like… And then you compare that to ‘Boyhood,’ and we’re still in this ‘we need a white character to save us’ mode.”

It was a common theme that gets played over and over again in the conversations I and the rest of the Rebeldes have had for years with people in our online community. “Boyhood” was just another example of Hollywood’s problem, and Acosta’s essay was just another example of the kinds of pieces we publish. We do it to force the conversation because we know that such a conversation comes from the ground up: the social community.

It is real. It is unfiltered. It is risky. Yet it is nothing different from what we have been doing for the last four years.

A few days after Acosta’s piece was republished on this site, I received a Facebook message from Jonathan Marcantoni, a writer friend who does fantastic work. Jon had never contributed pieces to Latino Rebels, although I had admired his work and have always felt badly that I never followed up on an interview about his writings. Despite my dropping the ball on an interview that never happened, Jon and I were still friendly. I have always thought of Jon as a very low-key guy who rarely gets upset about things. However, in this Facebook message he sent to me, he was upset.

It all had to do with an email conversation Jon had with the founder of Awards Daily, a site that he loved a lot. I had no idea what Awards Daily did, who they were or what they represent, but Jon let me know that the page and its founder, Sasha Stone, had been champions of diversity justice in Hollywood for years. He was a loyal fan and reader of the site. Jon had also told me that site had also been a very public supporter of “Boyhood.” He then let me know that he emailed news of Acosta’s piece to Stone and that he had asked Stone for her thoughts. The response he received really shook Jon to the core—so he wrote about it on Latino Rebels after he asked me if he could.

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I said yes. Jon felt Stone’s emails to him came across as arrogant, and he was hurt by it. (By the way on the very same day Jon’s piece came out, I also said yes to a piece that basically counters the notion of “Boyhood” as a “racist” movie.)

Within a day of Jon’s piece getting published, we got the expected backlash from Awards Daily. My group was accused of being unprofessional for running Stone’s opinions without Jon asking permission (having been the recipient of my own emails tweeted out to the public, I know the feeling); that Latino Rebels were just a bunch of bloggers with “agendas” (typical criticism lobbed at those who don’t fit the privileged mainstream paradigm); that we were smearing “Boyhood” supporters and working for people in the “Birdman” camp because the director of the film was Mexican (all false, but some do think this was all a coordinated campaign); that we were a bunch of hacks (we’ve been hearing that for years); and that we could have easily focused on other movies like “American Sniper” (true, but as one friend told me, “Why is ‘Boyhood’ seen as such a sacred movie?”)

From what I could gather after those days of tweets and comments with two profiles who were either currently working at Awards Daily or used to work at Awards Daily (you can search my Twitter timeline for some of the exchanges), Jon was actively “seeking” enemies (not even close). In fact, Jon was a loyal fan of the site and really thought that the site would welcome honest discussion about Acosta’s piece with actual Latinos who shared a different point of view about the film, specifically about those two scenes.

I was also a careless editor for publishing not only Jon’s piece, but also Acosta’s. Interestingly enough, I was told if Jon’s piece hadn’t mentioned Stone’s name but instead had said “prominent Hollywood blogger,” that would have been ok. Even when I agreed to add an editor’s note to Jon’s piece, I was still seen as not ready for prime time. I was someone who allowed for stupidity to be published and on a preplanned mission to discredit Awards Daily, especially two weeks before the Oscars, because that’s when everyone is voting. Don’t you know that this is voting season? You are ruining “Boyhood’s” chances!

Because in the end, it’s all about the awards, right?

In essence, what I experienced was everything to kill the messenger in order to detract from the core issue: that “Boyhood” is just yet another example of the structural problems and attitudes when it comes to how Hollywood views and portrays U.S. Latinos. How can you not see that? I mean, the head of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts sees the problem. So does José Antonio Vargas. Yet when Latino Rebels contributors share very clear examples of such troubling attitudes from people whom you think are allies, these contributors (and their careless, amateur editor) are “agenda-driven” and want to “punish the wrong people.”

Got it.

Because the “wrong people” are the ones who think it’s “silly” to even talk about the serious. problems “Boyhood” has, and that anyone who brings up those two incredibly uncomfortable scenes is clueless and is out to destroy the award chances of The Greatest Film Ever Made.

Because the “wrong people” are like the high-level Hollywood executive who told me at a breakfast that Latino love going to movies, but they are not into “Rosa Parks” films. He continued: you got your “César Chávez” movie and it didn’t do well. You see? Diversity doesn’t matter, Julio, so please move along, you digital guy.

Because the “wrong people” would like to remind U.S. Latinos that we should chill because hey, you got another Mexican director who got nominated for an Oscar this year! As much as that’s a great accomplishment for Mexico, it’s not a token substitute to alleviate serious concerns. We will continue to fight for U.S. Latino filmmakers to get more opportunities, because that is what the community tells us. If that makes people feel uncomfortable and uneasy, then we are getting somewhere.

Because the “wrong people” tell us this about U.S. Latino moviegoers (and yes, this is an actual quote): “They don’t need to have a brown face on the screen as an incentive to pay the admission price to see a movie. The film doesn’t have to belabor the issues and problems of racial or ethnic discrimination, nor fictionalize or distort a historical truth for the sake of civil rights grandstanding. The film industry was built on entertainment, after all, and good films —like good art and literature— transcends color or creed. And their real measure, as such, lies beyond box office totals and Oscars.”

Because the “wrong people” tell us that we should be slamming Mexican directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu for not having a diverse cast in “Birdman” and just focusing on “Boyhood” is unfair. Newsflash: we can do both, because quite frankly, both are problematic within the context of Hollywood’s diversity problem. You can give us all the reasons as to how “Boyhood” is this amazing film and that it can’t be critiqued, but at least admit the film’s blatant tokenism. This is a deeper issue, and “Boyhood” perpetuates it, too.

Furthermore, instead of at least acknowledging that such attitudes are accepted and that yes, Anglo progressives display them just as much as anyone else (i.e., hey, I have Latino friends and I believe in immigration reform), it is easier to discredit those opinions that challenge the current thinking, because all you need are a few convenient Latinos who will defend the system and tell people who are trying to disrupt and improve the system that we have “agendas.”

These new voices, we are told, should relax and behave.

These new voices, they tell us, are being too sensitive and they lack the sophistication to express themselves.

These new voices, they remind us, are amateurs.

Yet these new voices truly understand where their communities are at and how they feel. These new voices are listening to where the conversation is heading and they are acting on it. They are not seeking permission nor acceptance. They do not seek enemies, nor do they seek division. But they will share the uncomfortable truth, a truth that has never really been part of the larger conversation.

Until now.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. A 1990 Harvard graduate in the History and Literature of Latin America, his personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on several outlets, including MSNBCCBSNPR,  Univision and The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.

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