Actors Laura Gómez and J.W. Cortes on Diversity in Film and TV

May 9, 2016
10:26 AM
(George A. Spiva Center for the Arts/Flickr)

(George A. Spiva Center for the Arts/Flickr)

The subject of diversity in the entertainment industry is certainly not a new phenomenon. The push to develop a broader spectrum of opportunities for different racial, ethnic and gender groups has been the perpetual white elephant in the room for decades. In recent years the very topic has obviously been something that cannot be ignored. Where silence may be golden in some instances, it clearly is not when it comes to the topic.

It seems as if anyone and everyone who has a gripe, an axe to grind or a chip on their shoulder is getting up on the podium to speak. Why shouldn’t people speak up on the issues which affect them the most? At this stage in the game there may be some incentive for those who do take action with regard to the matter. In continuing with efforts to belabor this point, one can add a sense of nothing to lose and everything to gain to the mix. It does make perfect sense, which is an oddity of sorts in an especially turbulent business that can often be morbidly cruel and unforgiving.

Given the countless studies and numbers being bandied about which paint a dire portrait of how our content options are painfully lacking when it comes to diversity, voices can no longer be muted. And this is a virtual impossibility given the current state of the entertainment industry. This is definitely the case when it comes to Latinos in the business appearing in less than two percent of films and television shows, according to a joint study conducted two years ago by the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. The study, which was dubbed “The Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media,” pointed to the many gross displays of inadequate representation in spite of the fact that Latinos by and large account for an estimated 17 percent of the population in the United States.

Laura Gómez plays inmate Blanca Flores on the Netflix series 'Orange Is the New Black'

Laura Gómez plays inmate Blanca Flores on the Netflix series ‘Orange Is the New Black’

“I think there’s a perception in Hollywood that in order to have success abroad, you need a star to carry the film. Money talks, and in a way, the star system has created that illusion, and there are not that many Latino stars, in the way that Tom Cruise is, for example,” states actress Laura Gómez, who plays inmate Blanca Flores on the ultra-popular Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.

Why? Because this industry is a reflection of society, and Hollywood has an uneven casting record of about 73 percent white actors over minorities. Then, when it comes to Latinos, even with the high level of purchasing power that we have, the industry hasn’t been able to figure out the formula for success with the Latino community — due in part to the fact that they tend to put us all in the same box, not understanding the basic differences of each culture. I do think that the TV industry is starting to catch up faster than films, so now we have show’s like Orange Is the New Black, American Crime, etc., that at least have more nuanced characters than film, not to mention what Lin Manuel Miranda has achieved with Hamilton on Broadway, although there’s still a lot of work to do.

J.W. Cortes, who plays Detective Carlos Alvarez on FOX’s Gotham, offers his take:

There are several reasons for this unusual phenomenon. I think for a long time there’s been a lack of understanding of the business of not just creating content but getting content to film and television. I think that not understanding the dynamics involved with creating content and getting it to where it needs to go cause a bit of confusion. And so when you don’t really understand how the mechanisms work you’re going to go and spend a lot of time trying to figure it out for yourself. What happens is eventually you get to a place where you get frustrated and you don’t want to continue anymore because the end result isn’t one that you were going for. Or you wind up putting out content that isn’t seen by a large group of people. So you’re back to square one. You try to figure out this algorithm to get your work out there. A lot of that I think is attributed to that we don’t get to speak to the show runners or the executive producers or the writers who are already working. So there is no mentorship there. Nowadays there’s more mentorship that is coming about because of the lack of diversity in those rooms. So I’ve taken it upon myself to not just talk about what the problems are but to mentor as many young actors as I can.

What Gómez and Cortes speak of is not entirely surprising. Each plays his or her role in representing the aforementioned two percent of Latino actors who appear on the silver and flat screens. Each has had to deal with the countless hardships actors face on a daily basis while navigating Hollywood’s treacherous currents and vicious undertows. Both are part of very eclectic ensemble casts in their respective shows, which have huge followings particularly when it comes to Latino audiences. And it is no big secret that Latinos hold an enormous amount of purchasing power when it comes to content and advertising dollars. In fact, according to Ad Age’s 12th Annual Hispanic Fact Pack the top 50 Latino marketers increased their spending by nearly 18 percent to the tune of $3.8 billion.

This begs the question: with this great purchasing power Latinos possess, will we fully be allowed to grasp the responsibility that comes with taking ownership of our own narratives?

Gómez, who uses her celebrity as a platform to work on prison reform with the Women’s Prison Association, dispenses her take on the matter:

We need to have more women and people of color behind the camera and in decision-making roles. That’s just a fact. Only then could someone understand that perhaps a role written for a man could actually be a woman, or not think the character is white by default, especially if no specs are given about it. Many times people write or cast based on what they know, so it takes an outsider to shift things around. Hollywood, much like politics, is dominated by middle-aged white men, and I just think we need more voices shifting the focus towards the need for diversity. There’s a hungry audience out there, who would respond positively to being fairly represented.

J.W. Cortes plays Detective Carlos Alvarez on Fox's 'Gotham'

J.W. Cortes plays Detective Carlos Alvarez on Fox’s ‘Gotham’

Fair and accurate representation in the entertainment business is about as commonplace as spotting water in the Sahara Desert. Having all the right people in the necessary rooms in order for roles to be properly cast and content to be properly written isn’t always the case. And whereas being a male Latino can have its advantages and disadvantages in the entertainment field, being a female and Latino in the business can prove to be more difficult. According to a report issued by the Writers Guild of America (West) in March, only 135 writers employed in 2014 were Latino, compared to 3,548 who were white. The breakdown with regard to gender amongst Latino television writers was 77 for men and 58 for women. With regard to the Latino share of television employment, the Latinos were outnumbered by whites by more than five to one.

Statistics such as these are beyond telling and plainly have an impact as to how content is being put together. In the cases of the characters portrayed by Gómez and Cortes, this is crucial. Whoever is actually in those writer and producer rooms is essential in the further development of their roles. The recurring roles each have are at the mercy of development teams. While they may not be prominent at the current moment, things can change over time. In what manner the source material is treated and by whom when comes to their characters is also vital. This applies more to the origin story that is Gotham, specifically when it comes to the Detective Alvarez character Cortes has been working with the past two seasons.

With regard to his current role, Cortes, a former Marine gunnery sergeant and active detective with the NYPD, said:

Alvarez was a very prominent force in the Catwoman comic book series. He was very much an integral part of that story. On our show Selina Kyle isn’t Catwoman yet. She’s barely a teenager. And so I think we may have a couple of seasons before she fully develops into Catwoman. And maybe then they’ll expand on that relationship between Alvarez and Catwoman. That’s just one aspect of what I think could possibly happen.

For viewers of the show they’ll notice that my character is one of the few speaking detectives in the GCPD. It seems to be that Alvarez is the go to detective. Whenever he isn’t seen the other two detectives, Gordon and Bullock, are referencing Alvarez. He’s involved in some sort of way. I think it’s time. I think the audience will definitely enjoy seeing Alvarez more involved in the cases and the detective work, the ins and outs, getting his hands dirty, if you will, in the working of these cases.

While on one side Cortes, along with the audience, may have to exercise a great amount of patience with the development of his character, Gómez has to deal with more than just that with her role given the extremely graphic nature of her show. According to USC’s Comprehensive Annenburg Report on Diversity (CARD) for 2016, the numbers with regard to female sexualization and objectification did more than raise a few eyebrows. The percentage of women shown in sexually revealing clothing on streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) was set at almost 35 percent, which was slightly ahead of the numbers for film but did not surpass the amount tallied for cable and broadcast stations. A similar trend was seen when referencing women shown in either partial or full-frontal nudity.

“I think there is a difference between a sex scene being gratuitous versus being essential to the journey of a character, and what [Orange Is the New Black] has that’s very powerful when it comes to sexuality, it’s precisely that it is a part of the essence of that world we’re portraying, and when it goes deep into it, there’s usually such a rawness to it,” Gómez shares:

I love that about most Latin American or European films also –things don’t just happen to please the audience. But that’s not the overall rule in Hollywood. It’s almost as if the formula includes the inevitable naked scene. It’s just ridiculous and of course my thoughts are, why are Latinas always these sexual objects on film and TV? I find it boring and unimaginative.

While many may see the two actors as being from two entirely different plateaus, the fact is they’re not. Cortes and Gómez represent a small fraction of an almost miniscule percentage in the business which undoubtedly illustrates that a problem exists. Although they are part of the minority in Hollywood in more ways than one, they refuse to be silent about it. The very thought of receiving any backlash for speaking on the issues of the day, showing support of a political candidate of their choosing or continuing charity work with law enforcement and military personnel is a foreign concept to the two seasoned actors. It’s safe to say with the likes of them and others, such as Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the small ranks are beginning to assert themselves and stake their claim.

Maybe in the grand scheme of things this is a sign that the cultural ground is shifting again as it seems to do every ten to twenty years.


Daniel Rivera is a host and entertainment reporter from New York City. Many know Daniel as media jack of all trades who has an all-out hustle, immeasurable knowledge of pop culture and geeky charm. Follow him @DanielRiveraTV.