Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Latino Who? Latino What? Latino Where?

Oscar time and invisibility of Latinos has never been more visible. What happened to the new opportunities brought on in the 1980s and 1990s for Latino filmmaking and Latino film representation? According to the L.A. Times, “these shifts took place because of the rising cadre of Latino film professionals entering the mainstream film industry, many of whom had gotten their start in Chicano and other Latino cinemas, as well as the industry's rising interest in the Latino audience.”

So what happened?

Money. It’s about money and the lack of belief or understanding by Hollywood that Latino buying power now exceeds $1.2 trillion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.  According to Latinalista.net, Latino buying power will be the largest multicultural market by 2012. How much richer does a demographic have to be to gain Hollywood’s respect?

The supposed know-it-all mostly white Hollywood still insist on its failed tradition of continuing to hire non-Latinos to select Latino projects (mostly written by non-Latinos) and then produce a finished product that fails with ratings or at the box-office. They’re baffled as to why “Latinos aren’t flocking to the theatres or watching their shows.” What do non-Latinos know about the Latino experience? Nada.

In 2002, when director Franc. Reyes was premiering his critically acclaimed film Empire, he was asked about the difference between his gangster movie and that of other “Latino” mafia flicks.  “What other movies?” he asked. And he was read a list: “Carlito’s Way?” Brian de Palma, he responded. “Scarface?” de Palma directed and Oliver Stone wrote it, he answered.  “Mi Vida Loca?” Allison Anders, he said. “What about Blood In and Blood Out?” Taylor Hackford. Reyes went on to say that these movies were about the Latino perspective but made by a non-Latinos. That’s why his films are unlike any other type of Latino-labeled gangster movie, unique in that it was actually 100% Latino, cast, story, everything.

Recently Black History Month was celebrated and Tyler Perry was all over the place, networks and cable. This is one smart dude who knows how to maneuver his way around white tontos.  Sure he’s highly criticized for exploiting his actors, writers and just about everyone who works for him, but hey, the networks and studio love him, so who cares who he screws on his way to the bank. I complained and my teenage smart-ass niece said something that got me thinking, “Tia, is it really THEIR fault our stories aren’t told, is it possible that we Latinos have some culpability here?” She was beginning to sound like Franc. Reyes. “Why are we still asking, begging?” I don’t know the answer, so I asked Latino Hollywood insiders–Yareli Arizmendi & Sergio Arau, Dan Guerrero, Dennis Leoni, Dyana Ortelli, Kathryn F. Galan, Bel Hernandez, Miguel Najera and Richard Yñiguez:

What would I do to improve the state of Latinos in Hollywood?

Yareli Arizmendi and Sergio Arau
(Actor,  Director,  Producer, Writer/Day Without A Mexican,  Naco es Chido)

Sergio Arau as “El Uyuyuy” and Yareli Arizmendi as “Macuca Reina” in
NACO ES CHIDO: The story of Botellita de Jerez more or less based
on the real facts.

Hollywood has to want to change. Does it? Who is Hollywood?
What exactly do we Latinos want Hollywood to allow us to do and to be? 
Be ourselves? Who are we? What do we have to say that is different from what is already being said? Or is it that we just want to have our actors say it?

Hollywood is changing…slowly. Prior generations of decision-makers are passing on the power baton to next. And who’s next? Latinos are definitely part of next. We are part of the resisted past, we are the present and we are the future. But what do we look like now? Interracial marriages have given way to a mixed race population. Latino, Black, Asian, there are no clean lines of demarcation. We need to be aware of what those changes mean for us. This is the new audience. But who is driving the creative wave and tapping into this market? Are we? This is not a rhetorical exercise; it is time that Latino professionals discuss the important demographic/social changes that have already affected the reality of an industry we think we know.

We are now in the 21st, are we people of the 21st century? How so? The ‘traditional’ business models in Hollywood and in every industry are falling apart. After much resistance the great distribution machine has had to pay its respects to the Internet.  Original, niche product is the order of the day. The mass market is fading; not cool to be a ‘one size fits all’ anymore. People are eager to find their special vendor at the open market and pass the word when they find it; the much sought after word-of-mouth. Are we taking our handmade products to the public square for sale or waiting to be invited?   Our point is; we cannot wait for an invitation to be part of a project. We must generate millions of independent projects and call on each other to collaborate. We need to explore, risk, dare, create new genres that surprise the establishment. Let it beg to be invited to our party. And lets not forget who our friends are. Latinos don’t grow up by themselves. They live in a society with Koreans, Russians, Blacks, Iranians, Jews, Hindus, Cambodians, etc.  Our best friends, teachers, bosses have a whole array of faces and stories they bring with them to interact with ours. Don’t erase them from our narratives; including them will paint the enviable party others will want to crash.  No shortcuts, it is hard work. But hey this is our world; shape it or someone else will.  And we know what that feels like.

Dan Guerrero
(TV/Theatre/Live Producer, Director)
Photo: Luther Orrick Guzman

Sweetie, if I knew the answer as to what would improve the state of Latinos in Hollywood, I would bottle it and make more money than Sara Lee with her baked goods. 

Dennis Leoni
(Executive Producer, Writer, Director)
The problem is a complicated one, but to try and put it as simply as possible, the only way Latinos are going to progress in the film and television industry is if we create a strong marketplace for Latino content. The African-Americans have done it, Tyler Perry being the latest example. But until Latinos start going to Latino films and watching Latino content on TV, nothing will happen. If we don't subscribe to our own content, how can we expect others to? If just half of the forty plus million Latinos in the U.S. faithfully bought Latino content, then the powers that be would see that there is money to be made, more projects would get green lit and more Latinos would work.

Now Spanish language is a different story because they have their own marketplace. But English-speaking Latinos are so intent on assimilating, it creates a problem for anyone trying to make content for English-speaking Latinos here in the United States. Another part of the problem is that Latinos so rarely get an opportunity to get something made that the expectation for every project to so high. Every Latino project can't be everything to every Latino. Obviously, it doesn't work that way for general market content and it shouldn’t for us, either.

Having said all of this, there is another solution for Latinos who want to work in the entertainment industry and that is to forget about Latino content, completely assimilate and make general market films and television. That should probably happen too, but it's a shame that we can't have both so that Latino stories can also be told.

Dyana Ortelli
(Film and TV actor, comedian)
“Mom, you and your friends have been having the same conversation for 20 years!” That is what my son said to me a few years ago when he overheard me on the phone having a conversation about the “state” of Latinos in television and film…under-represented and subjected to the same-old stereotypes. Sadly, he was right. Not much had changed. I had written letters in industry publications pointing out the inequity; I had spoken out at numerous industry conferences; I was even at the forefront of organizing a protest when a non-Latina was offered the role of our revered Frieda Khalo back in 1992. I used my stand-up comedy routine to try and get the message heard: “If you're Mexican and you’re an actor in Hollywood, you get to play all the UN-people, UNdocumented, UNemployed, UNeducated, On-drugs!” Lots of laughs, but these types of roles for Latinos pretty much remained the same. Our outcries and protests fell on deaf ears.

I started my career 25 years ago, and the truth is that I am still waiting for the opportunity to audition for the white-collar, business professional roles…attorneys, doctors, fashion designers…and the calls I get, for the most part, continue to be the same: the Mexican nanny, the housekeeper, the suffering gang member's mother, stereotypes. Latinos are simply not seen as part of the fabric of America.

While writing, creating and developing our own projects is obviously a given in order to improve the image and numbers of Latinos in the industry, it is also worth noting that, unless and until our community leaders are willing to have an on-going dialog with casting directors and producers to educate them, and demand the casting of Latino actors in a more positive light and in greater numbers, the state of Latinos in the industry will never see a significant change.

Kathryn F. Galan

(Executive Director, NALIP)
More Latino/as in decision making positions:  creative and production VP’s and above; marketing and publicity executives from the U.S. Latino community; lawyers and distributors who know and come from our community. This will require an aggressive campaign and commitment by studios, agencies, mini-majors, production companies, and management firms to recruit and train actual Latino/a executives –not just interns and assistants. The major colleges, business and law schools have great Latino/a candidates who need persuasion to embark on careers in the entertainment industry. The initiative needs to be funded in all seriousness so that film, television, and documentary production/broadcast companies’ train, mentor, promote, and retain mid-to high-level executives who can make decisions that change media to reflect the culture and community where we live in the 21st century. www.nalip.org

Miguel Najera
(Filmmaker, film and TV actor)
We need to find a way to create funding sources for our own films. If it means pooling resources, creating entities or shooting a la brava like some of us are already doing, then so be it. The studios promised to open doors years ago but as is noted only two Latino regulars have been cast for the new season. Create our own studio that should be our aim. There are Black owned companies that have studio space and series but we don’t. We need to create writing groups where the end result is to shoot scripts not more classes or attend ‘how to’ seminars. Award ceremonies are great but do not make films or get us on primetime. Mainstream studios compete for audiences and compete for ours while we compete with each other.

Bel Hernandez
(CEO/Latin Heat Entertainment & Publisher/Latinheat.com)
Photo: Angela María Ortíz S.

We Latinos have to get out of our own way. We need to stop trying to be the “good” Latino that will not create waves and will just go along with the status quo so as not be perceived as “difficult.”  Since when have any major changes occurred by not making waves?

If the African-American community had not stirred the pot, they would not have bankable stars, or films with and all Black casts and have Hollywood begging for more.

Their projects run the gamut from the Tyler Perry broad (and some Blacks even call them stereotypical) to the Spike Lee political-leaning fare such as Malcolm X.  In addition, Black directors like Forest Whitaker have found success by teaming with mainstream projects.

We as Latino entertainment professionals need to allow for the different voices within our community to be expressed. Academia and journalist need to better understand the complexities of the entertainment industry before they rush to judgment when criticizing some of the Latino filmmaker’s choices.

Parties on both sides just need to allow the evolution of Latino Hollywood to happen without throwing a roadblock at every turn, just for the sake of a controversial article that will get you hits.

Instead of criticizing…let’s try to understand the whole picture. We all need to keep the end goal in site, that unless we are allowed to create, without censure (either by the Hollywood studios/networks or journalist, policy makers, or academia), or allowed to fail and keep trying (just like every other group in the entertainment industry) our stories, that should be seen by the world, with our perspective (which is very rare) will never get out there.

That is not to say journalist and academia should not point out when there is a major travesty, but in the past it has been simple things like “another gang movie.” Scorsese has been allowed to make many “Mafia movies” (i.e. “gang” movies) without the outcry from journalist or academia of “another Mafia movie.” Latinos need to be afforded the same courtesy. www.latinheat.com

Richard Yñiguez
(Veteran film and TV actor)
I would ask Latinos to come together and produce projects for their own community! If we do this together as a group (a force, unity is strength in numbers) and we find investors from our own community, we would be able to produce positive and unique stories about ourselves—all with a commercial thrust—and with a goal to set up our own studio facility. We can do it if we come together in the name of trust and support for each other’s creative abilities. I'm ready to work.... are you?

Readers, what do you think? Disagree? Speak up! Personally, everyone above hit it on the nail. Now, what to do about it? I’ll include your responses in a follow-up article for LatinHeat.com


  1. As a filmmaker that happens to be Latino, I have experienced all sorts of situations that have allowed me to better understand how Latino's are viewed in Hollywood. Furthermore, I've been widely ignored by my Latino colleagues in the industry so, I felt compelled to comment on such an important debate. I, for one have not made a film that has a strong Latino message or cast. I have made feature films (two to be exact, PUSH and ANYTOWN) that were inspired by experiences and America's current political climate respectively. The truth is, I feel fortunate to have made the films that I have and to be "in the business." It's hard enough no matter who you are. That is unless of course your dad was a bigtime Producer/Director (as an example). Furthermore, I never wanted to be viewed as a Latino filmmaker but rather, a filmmaker that IS Latino. It's not like I can hide what Rodriguez really is. I'm very proud of my Puerto Rican culture and who I am. As it relates to Tyler Perry, man I wish I had his bank account but, he's anomaly. That's like telling an investor that your new independent film will make as much as "Paranormal Activity" or "The Blair Witch Project." Perry is simply the exception, not the rule. Give me a dozen more Tyler Perry's and then there's something to debate. I for one believe that many Latino's have become much more intergrated in American society and therefore have had opportunity's to shine on there own without the "Latino" label. As Latino artists, the choice is ours as to how we want to be viewed and the types of projects we want to be a part of. What pains me is how Franc Reyes has become the only voice of Latino filmmakers. I respect him as a filmmaker but, he definitely does NOT speak for me and, I'm sure the likes of Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo DelToro and Marcos Siega aren't following his lead or sharing his sentiments. Many years ago I was terrified to tell my parents that I wanted to be in show business and, much to my surprise and in so many words they asked me to be a trail blazer. Make my own mark and, do not get hung up on being a Latino artist... Be an artist and be the best at it!

    Respectfully, Dave Rodriguez, Writer/Director/Producer

  2. I see different good points in the interview, and also in the Dave Rodriguez comment, but I feel like I want to add something. I do agreed in some parts. My hopes are that next time the interviewers trust and ask a new filmmakers and new artists in this era about what "we think" As far as me, I think "we are the problem" I am very new in the filmmaker area, just with 4 shorts and one feature film, and producing a few more things. And when I tried to tell a story, I am not thinking if I am Latino, white, black, Asian, Indian, or some more. I just write the story... a firmness and strong story to tell. Which will happen to have some Latinos characters, because "that I know" but the important part is to make a good characters and a good story. Then a Latino actor will play it... but "Latinos here" if they do the story, they always do, crossing borders, the maid, the east LA gang, the quinceañera with a drug guy inside, the Chicano mafia, and so long... So, this has being made so strong here that "Hollywood" is what they think we are. -Like the babies when we teach them about the colors, "we say this is red, and this is blue", but what if, if we say the opposite? Is our own entire fault. SO then when they approach to us, "what they are going to bring to us?" a mafia Latina, a drug dealer, a Mexican crossing the border, a lovely lady that take care the white children, but with "no papers", because is what we offer to them. Is our own entire fault. For me, I tried, and maybe is why it's being so difficult to be accepted in Hollywood, because is not what they used to see, but I create something that has nothing to do with what I said before. So, it's true that now they are having a changing way of hiring Latinos, but is not because of the Latinos that are here, is for those that came with another successful movie from another country. And they are part of Hollywood now. I have my accent and my English is not that good as you can see here, but "you got the feeling" So if you want to be acceptable, and have the opportunity to have a role as lead doctor, a owner of the house... "we need to make different plots". Is our own entire fault. There‘s a lot of Latinos executives working in the studios, but they are "so afraid" to speak, and I understand them, believe me, so hard to have a nice income and be safe in a way, but... Is our own entire fault.

    Let's change... we are a few new thinking artists here... so we need to unite, but changing our own brain deleting the NO and save the YES. Since at the end, because the studio is not with us, we make the project by ourselves, right?, so, let's make something different... all start from us... Then we'll say> "we made a change and we have the same equals stories as them and IS ALL OUR OWN ENTIRE FAULT.

    Miguel Mas

  3. I'd like to share my experience as the producer of SOY ANDiNA. It's a very modest feature doc about a Puerto-Rican/Peruvian New Yorker that screened in most of the Latino/Latin-American Film Fests and on LPB's Voces last fall. I'm grateful for that. But the real discovery has been the non-theatrical/TV market -- schools, libraries, community centers in cities all over the USA with growing Latino Populations. They are hungry for good films that represent their culture -- They tell me that all the time and they ask me -- can I recommend other films? I know this article is focused on Hollywood features but I hope this is relevant.

  4. One thing that we have to be cautious about is who is "qualified" to represent Latinos and Hispanics? There seems to be this heavy emphasis on who is entitled to make stories about Latinos simply based on their last names. My last name is "Elmer" yet I grew up in a south Texas Mexican-American environment from my mother's side and a typical middle class "white" experience from my father's side. Does this make me less "qualified" to contribute a voice to Latino/Hispanic cinema? My experience is no less valuable. It's a shame to me sometimes to see that there is so much focus and emphasis on race and ethnicity in films, that the true story suffers. The films have become encumbered by purely propaganda and political aims. I long to see the day where a story is just a great film story, and it doesn't really matter what the race or ethnicity of the filmmakers or actors are.

  5. muy interesante, buena idea! thanks for posting!

  6. To everyone who posted a comment, I thank you and greatly respect your POV, suggestions and recommendations. Clearly, this is an issue that is not black or white and even the gray areas are conflicting. I would like to include some of your comments in my next blog. Please send me via email your contact info, if you did not post here to: eliawriter@gmail.com. I'd like to converse further with each one of you. Also, a colleague is researching a similar article for a mainstream Latino publication and your POV will provide for a more balanced article, presenting the various sides to this ongoing debate. Again, I think you all! Very, very helpful. Elia Esparza

  7. i think Latinos sometimes need a break and give the opportunity to prove their abilities in the business, i think someday they will be on the ranking in paginas amarilla and to prove they were also Latin professionals

  8. I am an intern at 20th Century Fox Development. Ive been in this game for almost 4yrs, starting out at Warner Bros' Green Hat Films and Mad Chance Prod as a non paid intern, and now have worked my way up to getting paid at Fox. I am not only one of the youngest to get these opportunities (starting out at 18 years old, now im 22), but I am also one the few, if any, latinos who are interning in the creative department. My ultimate goal is to one day become a writer/producer...

    Building experience in these major studios, I kept noticing the lack of latinos in the creative side. In fact, the only latino I ran into doing it big was a young Jairo Alvarado, 24yrs old, a former Warner Bros Jr Exec who is now a manager 3 Arts Ent, whom I admire and consider as a mentor. Jairo, however had nothing to do with my success in the beginning. I was heavily influnced and have been mentored by Scott Budnick, exec producer of The Hangover and Due Date.

    I personally think that its not just about us latinos buliding our own network within our culture, but also building a network with everyone else. Once we get the opportunity to access a studio, we not only have to work hard to stand out of our norm, but also build the relationships needed to take us to our goal. I cant stress enough how that has been key to my success so far. Each internship out of the five that i have taken has either led me to another position, or I have met new mentors in the process. Most recently, my newest mentor has been Zack Stentz, writer of Thor and X Men: First Class. Also, Paul Hanneman, president of International Distribution.

    Let us not exclude ourselves from people who are willing to help. Scott, a jewish white guy, saw in me a hungry kid from a rough area, Pacoima CA, worthy to intern for him once a week. That would later shed on my reltionships with Zack and Paul, two other white guys who see something in me that is worthy of their time, and countless other assistants to producers and execs. My whole point is that we should not be alone on this. We will need the help. Look at Jairo, how young he is in his position. He didnt do it alone, he worked hard to build those relationships and look where its got him now...

    - Jesse Carranza