Hollywood has fallen short in getting stories to the screen that are true reflections. Creators have a plan.
By Daniel Hernandez
Veteran actor Edward James Olmos didn’t hold back when he submitted testimony to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing on diversity in American media last September.
“White Hollywood does not want to tell the real stories of Latinos,” he said in his written remarks. Latinos, he lamented, “are in a worse place now” than in 1964 when he started in the business and made his mark with “Blade Runner” (1982) and “Stand and Deliver” (1988). “Just because there are several successful Latino actors does not mean that Latinos are making it in Hollywood.”
It’s one of Hollywood’s biggest open wounds.
Even as the big-budget film adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights” hit theaters and HBO Max on Friday to rave reviews, Latinos in Hollywood say they face outsize obstacles in getting stories that reflect their experiences to the screen.
U.S. Latinos in 2025 are expected to reach 20% of the population, according to census projections, meaning 1 in 5 Americans will identify as Latino in a handful of years. By 2045, a quarter of Americans are expected to be Latino. Yet study after study shows a vast gap between the number of Latinos represented in English-language Hollywood productions and their share of the population at large. USC’s 2020 inclusion study of 1,300 popular films found that 4.9% of speaking roles in 2019 movies went to Hispanic or Latino actors. And UCLA’s 2020 “Hollywood Diversity Report” found an underrepresentative 5% of the roles in scripted broadcast TV shows went to Latino actors in the 2018-19 season.
“I don’t need another statistic, I get it,” Eva Longoria, the actor and political advocate, said in a Zoom interview as she prepared to begin filming her directorial debut, “Flamin’ Hot.”
Closing the gap of Latino representation “is not only morally correct, but this is economically sound to do,” Longoria said. “They make one Latino show and go, ‘Well, we tried.’ Quantity is important.”
Over the last few years, as diversity and inclusion became more urgent industry concerns — and relative representation has improved slightly for Black and Asian Americans in Hollywood — many Latinos, from top-floor executives to actors just starting out, have taken action to close the gap that persists between the nation’s largest minority group and their presence in this country’s entertainment culture.
In October, 270 Latino creators, led in part by “Vida” showrunner Tanya Saracho, released an open letter to Hollywood with a five-point call for change, chief among them: “No stories about us without us.”
“By refusing to tell our stories and by refusing to put us in charge of telling them,” the letter stated, “Hollywood power brokers are complicit in our exclusion.”
Washington has gotten involved too. After the House Judiciary Committee hearing on diversity in the media in September, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office agreed in October to initiate a report on Latino representation in film, television and publishing at the request of Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), then-chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Behind the scenes, Congressional Hispanic Caucus members sought face-to-face meetings with executives in Hollywood, publishing and the news media about hiring and negative portrayals of Latinos.
A team of Times journalists examined the state of affairs for Latinos in the industry, finding dismal figures and a slow pace of change.
Reporters also tackled murky questions about what kind of representation Latinos lack or seek, and how some of their personal ventures in the industry soured their view of it.
“We’re talking about the single most important art form that humans have ever created,” Olmos said in his live testimony via video during the Judiciary Committee hearing. “Nothing attacks the subconscious mind more. You sit down before a theater screen, a dark room, with no peripheral vision. Everything goes into the subconscious, and it stays there.”
El Paso turning point
On Aug. 3, 2019, a 21-year-old believer in the white supremacist conspiracy theory the “Great Replacement” walked into a Walmart in the Texas border city of El Paso with an assault-style rifle and began shooting, intending to target Latino, specifically Mexican, people, according to a federal affidavit. Twenty-three people died, most of them Latino.
It was the largest anti-Latino racial massacre in recent history. Some blamed former President Trump’s demonizing language about immigrants. Others cited the cultural vacuum that allows negative ideas about Latino people to take root when stereotypes dominate.
Although the anti-Mexican element to the attack was skipped over in much of the mainstream news coverage, El Paso became a turning point for many.
“That’s when I dug in and decided that we were going to go all out and we were going to make this a top priority,” Rep. Castro said in an interview.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the attack, Castro penned a furious essay in Variety. “There is a dangerous nexus,” he wrote, “between the racist political rhetoric and the negative images of Latinos as criminals and invaders that Americans see on their screens.”
He and other lawmakers said they are prepared to use regulatory and political pressure to break Hollywood’s complacency on Latino representation.
“I don’t think any industry is off-limits” to government intervention, Castro told The Times.
“We know what happens in D.C. affects entertainment, and how we’re portrayed in entertainment is how we are treated in real life,” said Brenda Castillo, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “If we’re not seen, then we don’t exist, and then we’re treated poorly. We’re treated as noncitizens, as criminals and rapists, and that’s why our children are in cages.”
The 2% factor
“Forget whether Hollywood is Black enough,” actor Chris Rock wrote in an often-cited essay for the Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”