As an avid consumer of film and television, and as a Puerto Rican who cherishes his African genetic and cultural roots, I derive personal joy and affirmation from the significant growth and development of Black characters and narratives in Hollywood after decades of stereotyping and neglect. Decades ago, I was moved by that stunningly beautiful and unforgettable film, Color Purple, and captivated by a series of Spike Lee Joints which broke through the white-washed world of the silver screen. A few years ago, films such as Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, and Selma have further integrated Blacks into that widely White narrative that is American history depicted on film.
Just last year, the erstwhile #OscarsSoWhite were transformed by an entire collection of Black-oriented films, most notably, Hidden Figures, Fences, and Moonlight, all three were nominated for Best Picture, Adopted Screenplay, and Actress in a Supporting Role, with an Oscar winner in each of those three categories. Three documentary films, 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and OJ: Made in America represented the majority of the five nominated for Oscars that year, with OJ winning the award. This year the newly historic blockbuster Black Panther, which has become an astounding cultural phenomena, is emblematic of a brighter future for Blacks in Hollywood.
All of these recognitions of Black excellence are well deserved. Yet, from a Latin@ perspective, it is difficult to ignore that during these last few decades of Black development in film, there have been relatively few if any Latin@ oriented films that have garnered comparable resources, attention, and distribution.
Many Latin@s do feel pride and joy with the advent of the animated feature Coco, which won an Oscar, and generated much deserved attention, commentary, and praise for its authentic portrayals of Mexican music, dance, and cultural traditions. Yet in their vast panorama of animation, Disney has yet to portray a Latinamericana, Mexicana or Boricua cartoon character, despite having Asian, Arab, Black, Polynesian and Native American female protagonists.
It may be a source of pride for some Mexican Americans in particular, that a trio of Mexican directors, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu have in recent years received much praise and several Oscars for their outstanding work. Yet, unlike Black directors whose plots and characters revolve around Black life in America, the themes and topics of these Oscar-winning Mexican directors reflect a wide range of people, places and historical periods—few if any having anything to do with that vast panorama of Mexican and Mexican American history. From these two intertwining histories, hundreds of captivating stories could have been told by these directors, and scores of notable characters portrayed and brought to the silver screen. Authentic and humanizing portrayals by these talented directors could have challenged the negative and stereotypical views millions of Americans have about Mexican people.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Latin@ life in America is the incredible absence of our characters, stories, and struggles on TV and the silver screen. This is especially discouraging when we observe that the increasing visibility of Blacks in every media gives Whites the illusion that by including Blacks their required diversity quota has somehow been fulfilled.
Most thinking Latin@s are very aware that issues of race and ethnic diversity in America are often viewed only through the lens of the Black-White dichotomy despite the demographic fact that Latin@s, now 56 million, have since 2000 been the largest pan-ethnic group in the nation. While Blacks are correctly viewed as being an integral part of this nation, there is no general understanding that Latin@s are also integral to the history, culture and development of America. Viewed as the eternal foreigner, when stories are told, scripts are written, characters are developed for film or TV, few of those making these decisions consider that we are even part of the social and historical landscape.
Given this neglect from media decision-makers, it is of paramount importance that Latin@ organizations respond and resist, as what happened recently with the Netflix Latin@-oriented sitcom “One Day at a Time.” Originally slated for termination after two successful seasons, Netflix finally decided to continue the series for a third season under pressure from the National Hispanic Media Coalition and 15 other advocacy organizations.
A study released just last year by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism confirmed that although Latin@s constitute 18% of the U.S. population and purchase 24% of movie tickets, they had just 3.1% of all speaking roles on film from 2007–2016.
Yet, the overall negative effects of relative Latin@ invisibility are exacerbated by their overwhelmingly demeaning portrayals through the most powerful media of TV and film. A national survey of non-Latin@s conducted by the National Hispanic Media Coalition six years ago revealed that commonly held stereotypes about Latin@s are consistent with the screen roles they play. Over 70% of respondents saw Latin@s as criminals or gang members very often or at least sometimes on TV or film. Yet less than half hardly ever saw a Latin@ attorney or judge. Over 95% have seen Latin@s play criminals, gardeners or housekeepers, the most common media stereotypes, yet barely 5% see them very often as doctors, nurses, lawyers or judges.
It doesn’t take a social scientist to correctly surmise that media-generated negative attitudes towards Latin@s could further increase ignorance, bigotry and violence directed against a group of Americans who have contributed so much to the character and development of our nation. This exclusion will also contribute to the increasing fragmentation of our social fabric and undermine some of the essential conditions that support our democracy.
Unless and until Latin@s are included in the social, cultural and historical narratives of our most powerful media, they will confront greater obstacles towards achieving recognition and equality. Authentic and fair representation of this growing group of Americans could also help ensure that future generations of increasingly diverse Americans, will benefit from a more collaborative environment in which to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Julio Noboa Polanco is a writer and retired Social Studies Professor. He joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Brownsville in 2004 as an Assistant Professor of Social Studies and subsequently the faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2008. His research interests focus on multiculturalism, curriculum studies and critical pedagogy. He retired in 2014, and is living now in Santa Ana, Costa Rica.