“Sometimes there has to be a breakdown in order for there to be a breakthrough,” Fanny Véliz Grande tells Latino Rebels.
For 15 years Grande has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild —known since the 2012 merger as the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA— and she is currently on strike with 160,000 of her fellow actors and the more than 10,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
While Grande describes her time working as an actor in Hollywood’s traditional system as “terrible,” she hasn’t given up. In fact, seven years ago, she and her husband started their own production company, Avenida, to address what she sees as systematic inequalities in the entertainment industry that keep Latinx people out. At Avenida she’s producing her own content and helping others do the same.
Now Grande is preparing Avenida’s own streaming channel, one that will “have a really generous (revenue) share with our creatives”—a strong break with the Netflixes of the world.
“When web stuff started coming out, I remember… the new party line from the studios is, ‘We just don’t know how much money we’re going to (make). We don’t know what this revenue stream is going to look like,'” says Aimee Carrero, explaining how the industry did away with the residual payments to actors and writers that made long-term careers possible. “Well, guess what? Now, we know. It’s been over a decade. We know and you know, so let’s do it.”
Carrero is perhaps best known for voicing the first Latina Disney princess in Elena of Avalor, and she’s since gone on to star in projects ranging from The Menu to The Consultant. A member of SAG since 2009, she considers herself somewhere in the middle of her profession—between Tom Cruise and the folks who just joined the guild, hoping to make acting their full-time profession.
She deems the strike a “livelihood” issue for actors in the middle like her, who work at the craft full-time but aren’t household names and aren’t making the money to keep acting full-time. A number of factors have combined to lower their wages, and it’s not just how residuals have disappeared.
“In 2022, I spent over $2,000 auditioning,” Michelle C. Bonilla estimates. She’s been a union member for 29 years, a working actor with credits in shows ranging from 9-1-1: Lone Star to The Casagrandes. Those receipts show the cost of the ongoing pandemic practice of “self-tapes,” where instead of going to studios for auditions, actors film themselves and submit their videos for consideration.
As a single woman, Bonilla pays someone to read lines opposite her, does her own hair and make-up, checks her own lighting, and edits her own tape—usually in less than 48 hours. It’s a big ask for a SAG membership where around 13 percent make less than $26,470 per year—-the amount needed to qualify for union health insurance. And it often comes with outrageous stage directions, causing Grande to stop going after parts in ads altogether. “The casting directors asked us to do so many things, like get in the car and drive while you (read). Like, first of all, that’s dangerous!”
And that’s not the only way studios take advantage of actors who consider themselves lucky to be in their profession.
“I don’t come from family wealth,” says Carrero, before recalling, “My very first series regular job was shot in Vancouver. And they gave me $5,000 to move all of my stuff. But that’s one time. We were on for three years. For the three years, I was supposed to live off this $5,000. That was my relocation fee. At the time the Canadian dollar was way higher than the American dollar, and I ended up spending those $5,000 before I even stepped foot in Vancouver.”
The list goes on, and it’s often worse for Latinos, who are navigating all of that in an industry that literally doesn’t value them. For example, Grande remembers booking parts on the Spanish-language version of commercials where, despite speaking English, she and the other Latinos wouldn’t be considered for the higher-paying “mainstream” version.
Or, as Bonilla recounted, Latinos get audition scripts written entirely in English but with a note at the top that simply says, “in Spanish,” with the expectation that the acting hopefuls will translate the script for free. Adding insult to injury, these notes often don’t specify what type of Spanish.
“Is this taking place in Cuba? Is this in Panama? Is this in Mexico?” she recalls wondering. “Often we would get from the casting director, ‘It doesn’t matter. No one will know the difference.” And that appalled us. What do you mean ‘No one will know the difference’? It matters to me!”
Add the threat of AI into the mix, and it’s easy to understand why actors felt had to strike.
“I remember scrolling through Instagram and finding something on my Explore page which was like, ‘Some retailer uses AI for the first time for models.” And the model was this mixed ethnicity model. And that was a totally fake person, that was an AI-generated person. And that just made me feel like shit, because then I’m thinking, ‘Not only are we hired to a lesser extent than our Caucasian counterparts, but also now we’re even more dispensable,'” says Carrero. “I can see (AI) only deepening the racial inequality that we have in the entertainment industry. You don’t have to go out and do the work and foster new talent, especially within our communities. You can just type in whatever the trope is —spicy Latina character in the style of Aimee Carrero without having to hire Amy Carrero— and that eventually will be the death of many careers.”
It’s a damning vision, but each of the Latina actresses Latino Rebels spoke with still has hope.
“There’s a labor movement happening in this country,” Carrero says, “and I think that workers, in general, have just reached a tipping point. We’re tired of seeing labor exploited and that labor only benefiting those in the highest economic brackets with little to no distribution of wealth for the laborers. Heads of corporations are amassing and hoarding enormous amounts of wealth on the backs of the average worker. And when we ask for our fair share, they claim poverty. They claim that our demands are ‘unrealistic’ in the words of (Disney CEO) Bob Iger.”
Bonilla is heartened by the change she’s been able to spark as a SAG member. Remember those untranslated audition pages? Well, Bonilla brought them to SAG (along with other self-tape issues) and got two resolutions passed on audition practices, ensuring her issues are part of SAG’s collective bargaining priorities. Before the strike, the studios had even agreed to either stop asking actors to translate scripts or pay them for it.
And for her part, Grande is excited about what changes might spring from this particular moment.
“I really hope that we come out of this empowered, knowing that we can take charge of our own careers,” she says. “Anytime I’m on a panel, I tell actors, ‘Stop. Stop waiting for an agent to call you. Stop. Build your own. If you don’t know how to write, find a writer to write with you. Don’t know how to produce? We’ll help you. There’s enough talent in our community to be able to create our own lane.”
With SAG issuing waivers for independent companies willing to meet their demands, it may just be time to throw out the old studio and new streaming models in exchange for something more equitable, creative, and open to Latinx and other people of color. Maybe then we’ll finally get the exploitation-free content we’ve been asking for.
Cristina Escobar is the entertainment reporter for Latino Rebels. She is also the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade