Sunday, September 19, 2010

NBC’s “The Event” A Major Casting Faux Pas?

(NBC Series Premiere, Mon. Sept 20, 9:00 PM)

Recently, Julio Martinez, Latin Heat correspondent gave the lowdown on NBC’s upcoming drama series, The Event, starring Blair Underwood who plays Cuban American U.S. President, Elias Martinez. (

When a member of the Television Critics Association asked Underwood “if he was Cuban American,” he responded, with a flippant, “I’m going to say yes.” He isn’t.

My initial response was among the negative. Latino roles are so few and if the script called for a Latino, why cast a non-Latino?

But it’s not as black or brown as it seems. A Facebook posting by veteran actor, comedian Lydia Nicole read:

“Congratulations to my friend Blair Underwood for playing a Cuban American President in “the Event.” I love that. And for all the haters out there pitching a fit because he is not Latino, let it go. Nobody complained when George Sanford Brown got to play a Black guy in “the Rookies.” And he’s Cuban.”

Lydia’s comment stopped me in my tracks because I realized my own biases stemmed solely from personal reasons rooted from my experience of having once worked at a historically Black institution, which have left me with some negative racially related experiences. Therefore, in fairness and in an effort to better understand this casting controversy, I invited Lydia Nicole, whose FB comment grabbed me, and to visionary music producer, Benjamin Esparza (no relation) to present their opposite views and maybe somewhere in between, we might have an Aha moment on how to conquer Hollywood’s ongoing blasé disrespect of Latinos.

Q:  Should it matter that Hollywood cast a non-Latino actor to portray a character that was written for a Latino actor? There are two Latinos (Lisa Vidal and Clifton Collins) cast in key supporting roles, isn’t this enough?

Lydia Nicole 
Actress, comedienne, writer, producer, motivational speaker

As an actress who has been in the business for the last thirty years, I too have gotten frustrated in the past when an actor from another ethnic group got an acting job that was written for a Latino. But in the last ten years as I have been working behind the camera, my perspective has changed dramatically.

I find what will work best is to embrace that a Black Latino character has been written into a major series and gently encourage the network to include Latino show runners, directors, and writers on the series to really make a difference.

That is where the power is.

It is not in begrudging a Black actor because he got the part. Because at the end of the day what we want is to pave the way for Latino actors to have the opportunity to play any character they are right for regardless of their background. I personally want to see Latinos, Blacks and Asians all represented. For me it’s not enough for a Latino to get an acting job. I want to truly see diversity represented on television and the big screen. And the fight is bigger than just having an actor of Latino heritage star on a show.

The fight is about diversity in front and behind the camera to tell our stories authentically and not stereotypically. I want to see this generation not be given the crumbs but be allowed to sit at the table and call the shots at every studio and network. But it will only come when we change our fighting tactics. Instead of demanding that the Studios and Networks give us by trying to strong arm them to force ourselves on their teams and play on their fields, we need to woo them by learning to use the power we hold in this country. As my friend, Dyana Ortelli, reminded me, via Facebook, Latinos constitute 15.1% of the total U.S. population, which converts to over 45 million Latinos. We Latinos in Hollywood need to get those Latinos to demand that the airwaves change by their votes and viewership.

As Nelson Mandela said “…we are powerful beyond our imagination.” And what I know is that the battle is won because of money, power and imagination and not from protests and complaints. So, instead of trying to force the Studios and Networks to include us as unwelcomed guests, let’s use our money, power and creativity to take ownership.

About Lydia Nicole: Actress recently took some time off from performing and lecturing so she could hone her skills as a writer and producer. During the last few years she apprenticed under the iconic filmmaker Robert Townsend. Under his guidance was given the opportunity to associate produce Why We Laugh, the comedy documentary on the history of Black Comedians. But now she is returning to her first love, performing. She is bringing her one- woman show “A Rose in Spanish Harlem to a theater near you.

Benjamin Esparza
Break Records, Founder & CEO

When I heard that NBC’s new drama series, The Event had cast Blair Underwood in the Latino president role, I was instantly infuriated. Clearly, NBC had yet again missed an opportunity to help end this long and ugly chapter in Hollywood tradition to only cast Latino talent in negative and disposable roles.

Maybe I’m ultra sensitive because of the anti-immigration, anti-Latino, anti-Mexican climate we’re currently experiencing, but whatever the network’s excuse is, it is simply no longer acceptable. I’m sick of Hollywood’s tradition of telling our stories their way, utilizing actors from white bread America. Pancho Villa (a Mexican General) was once portrayed by Wallace Berry, whose interpretation as a goofy fat buffoon was insulting and culturally insensitive. Zapata’s (another Mexican General) story went to Marlon Brandon and many other leading men also attempted to play Latinos—Yule Brenner, Paul Newman—none delivering accurate or believable performances. It wasn’t until in 1982, when Ricardo Montalban was cast in Star Trek II; The Wraft of Khan did a Latino actor have the opportunity to transform a character into one of the best villains of all time. Montalban’s powerful performance turned a mediocre film at best into a box-office hit earning $97 million worldwide and setting a world record for first-day box-office gross. The Wrath of Khan is generally considered one of the best films of the Star Trek series and is credited with creating renewed interest in the franchise.

Blair Underwood is a wonderful actor, no argument here. Why not just make him a Black president? It’s reality. Why a Cuban? The decision probably came about for two primary reasons:

One, producers were looking for a series for Underwood; two, they needed a story that incorporates a couple of Latinos to take advantage of the growing Latino demographic.

The pitch meeting with the NBC brass probably went something like:

Producers: We’ve come up with what we consider to be a timely cutting edge futuristic drama that includes the first U.S. Latino President

NBC: But we thought you said that Blair Underwood would star?

Producers: What if we cast Blair as the president?

NBC: Yes, but he’s black not Latino.

Producers: See? That’s what makes this idea so wonderful, we give Blair the role and because he’s playing a Latino president, Latinos will be thrilled, they’ll drive Nielsen ratings through the roof!

NBC: It’s a win-win. But won’t Latinos protests?

Producers: They bark but don’t bite. They’ll get over it, they always do. It’s entertainment after all. Blair will prove how powerful an actor he is, and NBC will have a hit! Besides, we’ll cast Lisa Vidal as his first Lady and that actor who looks white but is Latino, Clifton Collins, in a supporting role. Latinos will be fine. Why wouldn’t they be happy? They’ll be happy.

Hollywood decision-makers have continually dismissed Latinos as not important enough AND that they think Latinos will not notice these character faux pas. Combine this with Arizona’s racist legislation, SB-1070, well, guess what? Hell no, this won’t go! For Hollywood to continue to do so means the entertainment establishment wholeheartedly agrees with the political rhetoric and venom being spread against Latinos.

Hollywood’s blatant disrespect and terrible stereotyping track record of Latinos is as insulting to Latinos as when white actors portrayed blacks with painted “black faces.”  The times eventually changed, and when Blacks finally drew that line in the sand by flexing their economic power, Hollywood eventually came around.  Latinos cannot back peddle, not at this pivotal time in history. Our voices have obviously not been loud enough, so now we must speak through our collective pocket books.

To those who say Latino actors are not ready to carry a universal mainstream role or lead a primetime TV series, may I again, remind the naysayers of our growing Latino demographics and its multi-billion dollar purchasing power—if we don’t exercise this power, we’ll always be in the passenger seat. Latinos, we are in the driver’s seat, we can steer our own direction. Our spending power speaks volumes. It’s up to us, it always has been. 

Hollywood, America listen up: Latinos are here and we’re not going away. Shame on you, NBC, for once again robbing a Latino actor of the golden opportunity that The Event offered.

About Benjamin Esparza: He is founder and CEO Break Records music label, and an accomplished composer/musician. He produced Lalo Guerrero's "Vamos A Bailar-Otra Vez,” an award winning CD. Founding member of the 1960's East L.A. rock group "Acostics," Esparza is a member Board of Directors Hollenbeck PAL-ELA. Projects include Ed Begley, Jr.’s musical Cesar and Ruben, and several made-for-TV reality series VH-1 and MTV Music Videos, PBS: ELA Chicano Music documentary. Esparza is currently writing Take A Stand: A Musical Journey, the story of "Acostics" whose 60’s adventures include a glimpse of the life of Mexican-American family life and culture, music, humor, and racism experienced during that era, and a Japanese tour to participate at the Teenage Fair Battle of the Bands.

Casandra Moreno-Lombera
Another colleague, Casandra Moreno-Lombera, an award-winning indie writer/producer also weighed in on this controversy and said,  “Latinos have two beefs against Hollywood’s miscasting. 1) Hollywood does not create Latino roles. The Event storms the citadel by deliberately writing the leading role (of a president) to be a Black-Latino American. Let’s face it, they could have written the role to be Black-American only.  And, 2) Hollywood does not cast Latinos in leading roles.

“If we see either one of these two issues successfully addressed,” said Moreno-Lombera, “we should celebrate. At the end of the day, Latinos need to support The Event. If we don’t, networks will throw their hands up in the air and say ‘Latinos don’t respond to concrete development of key Latino characters/starring roles.’ Let’s not hate progress.”

Thank you Lydia Nicole and Benjamin Esparza. And, thanks to Casandra Moreno-Lombera. Whatever your point of view is, let it be constructive and forward thinking. Won’t it be wonderful when Latinos no longer have to have this conversation?

— Elia Esparza

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Our Hollywood Bel

Bel Hernandez Publisher, Activist, Leader
On Thursday, September 9, 2010, the National Hispanic Media Coalition at its annual Local Impact Awards Luncheon, in Pasadena, CA, is presenting the “Outstanding Service to the Latino Community” Award to Bel Hernandez, publisher of Latin Heat Magazine and Latin Heat Online. No doubt the awards presentation will include a recap of her outstanding contributions in helping Latinos in entertainment gain visibility, respect and work. Many owe their careers in part to Bel and her efforts of always representing the Latino actor, filmmaker, writer, behind-the-scenes professionals and technicians up front and center. The spotlight has never been about her or her publication.

Today, I’d like to share a bit of Bel the real woman, the true and loyal friend that she is. Those few who are in her confidence know her already but most of the people she is fighting for do not. Allow me to introduce you to my friend and colleague, Bel:

Bel, an actress and former professional Mexican folklore dancer gave it up to jump into the publishing world without knowing one thing about this industry other than knowing she had something to say and she was going to get it out in public. She never gave it a second thought that she would be competing with powerhouses like The Hollywood Reporter and the Daily Variety.

I have worked with Bel on and off throughout the past 15+ years. Anyone who has worked closely with Latin Heat can attest to the fact that at times our debates were very colorful. That’s what happens when two hardworking, determined and passionate women join forces to fight a common cause. I cannot say that she has always been a best friend, but I can say she has always been a loyal friend who never allowed any of our disagreements to get in the way of our mutual mission: To put Latinos on the Hollywood map.

When the rest of Hollywood is ignoring Latinos, Bel makes sure Latin Heat shines the spotlight extra bright and then knocks on the doors of decision makers without intimidation and states her case. When Latin Heat first started publishing, the subscription list was not very long. But the few Hollywood names that were subscribers, packed a powerful punch. It literally is a who’s who of Hollywood elite, and they read LH because they know it’s the main source where they can tap into who’s hot in Latinowood.

At the beginning, Bel went without any pay to first take care of Angie Ortíz, our Graphic Designer, and me. We worked for very little but it was enough to get by and enough to feed our passion to help Latinos. In 1995, we decided to co-host the first Latino Entertainment Media Conference in response to the dozens of calls we received from struggling talent asking for direction, opportunities. We often felt like the “Social Services Office for Latinos in entertainment.” One summer night while relaxing at former CBS weatherman Maclovio Perez’s famous Pasadena pink house, we came up with the idea of a conference where we would gather industry professionals to give out info to our readers. Bel and I immediately planned, plotted and made it happen. Bel combed through the Hollywood Creative Directory and called the most high profile names she came across. She talked to presidents and power brokers. She was able to get by the receptionists and in some instances talk to the “men” themselves (few women in power then). If any one said “no” to her, it was because of scheduling problems. Most said “yes” and we can only assume it was because they took the publication seriously and/or maybe wanted to be politically correct. We didn’t care the reasons why they agreed Bel hooked them with her convincing pitch. Our event budget came out to be $130,000 and we had no money. If the event had been a bust, she and I would probably still be washing dishes at the Sheraton Hotel in Universal City. But it succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and, from this one event, we co-founded the non-profit organization, Latino Entertainment Media Institute (LEMI) and hosted conferences for several years until the event outgrew us and Bel stepped aside for others to continue sponsoring industry conferences.

Hernandez and Esparza
at the 1st
 LEMI Conference, 1995
Bel has never turned down any request to help, ever. She’ll either share her resources or contacts she has cultivated during the past two decades. She’ll even take the time to make the introductory call for you. She’ll never say it, but there are several high profile talents who owe in part their careers to her relentless efforts.

I remember the first time we met Jennifer Lopez, I recall Bel saying, “This one, is going to be a big star.” Jennifer was our 2nd LEMI Conference Celebrity Co-Chair just as the film Selena was about to premiere. Neither one of us had any idea how big she’d eventually be, but Bel called it first. And, Latin Heat was the first media publication to support this future megastar.

One of the things that I admire most about Bel is her strength of character. Very little rattles her or if it does, she never ever allows it to show. She’s unreadable this way and it has gotten her far when pushing Hollywood decision makers. I read in the manuscript of an upcoming book titled, “How to Say I love My Life and Mean It,” contains a chapter she wrote titled “The Power to Say I Belong,” where she tells how her pregnant mother “weaved her way in and out of rows upon rolls of towering green and golden cornstalks, through the beautiful hills and valleys that surrounded her home in El Rancho del Padre in Momax, Zacatecas,” on her way to the midwife. She never made it and gave birth to Bel while in route. “She delivered me on her own; quickly measuring the umbilical cord and cutting it with a nearby rock. Afterwards she wrapped me in her rebozo.” No doubt, this is where her fearless resolve and strength comes from.

In 2007, I was diagnosed with stage one ovarian cancer and I was frozen with fear. I recall that the only woman I wanted to talk to was Bel Hernandez. I knew that she would not coddle me or let me crumble. I knew that if anyone could kick me in the A and knock some courage into me, it would be Bel. She not only calmed me down and reinforced my faith, she also offered to take over my pending projects on top of her own responsibilities with the magazine. She did this quietly without ever saying a thing to anyone. Because of Bel, I was able to take care of my health business and all that was waiting for me without having to worry about my own career responsibilities.

This is the type of woman Bel Hernandez is. And, she’s never asked for anything in return.

Latin Heat is growing into a media giant and I hope the next time the publication comes knocking, you’ll remember the sacrifices it has taken for Bel Hernandez to represent the Latino community. She is, after all, all about us.

Congratulations, Bel.

—Elia Esparza

From Angie, With Love
Angela Ortíz with Latin Heat Publisher, Bel Hernandez    
The first time I met Bel, I liked her, even though she was very cautious while she looked through my portfolio. The next thing I know, I’m doing a couple of small graphic things and the next issue of Latin Heat. That was in 1996.

After a few issues with some minor changes, she allowed me to make some major changes in the layout and a great working partnership, I can say, began. That doesn’t mean she didn’t have layout suggestions, which I would do and then end up doing my original layout. We laugh about that a lot now.

That’s how Bel and I have worked for many years. I think it was good for both of us. She learned more about publishing and design; which made our jobs so much easier. Today, it’s smooth sailing when we are planning our next projects. She has pushed me in directions I never dreamed of, like doing event photography for instance. My titles at Latin Heat have run the gamut from Art director, Production Manager, photographer and to the “NO” person.

Her passion for the publication and what it stands for (in print or online) really drives her to make changes in this world we know as Hollywood. When you meet Bel and you listen to her talk, especially about things that move her or bother her about the industry she loves, you know she is a driven person to the causes she supports. That’s the true her…I don’t think many people realize how much she has supported many talent(s) in Latin Heat.

The more I’ve gotten to know her, the more I admire and respect her. She’s a great mom; she has a really cool hubby, Enrique Castillo. And on a personal note, I can call her a friend, a very good friend. And I love her.

Thank you, Elia for introducing us.

—Angela “Angie” Ortíz

Taught Me Tools of the Trade
Brenda Herrera with Latin Heat Publisher, Bel Hernandez 
I remember picking up Latin Heat at the bookstore as a student at UCLA and thinking, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for…” without even knowing it! I read through it from beginning to end and it was then that I decided what I wanted to do with my life.

A couple years later, I landed at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival where I had the good fortune of meeting and working alongside Bel Hernandez. I told her that I was a big fan of Latin Heat and would love to work with her. That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship on several levels. She took me under her wing and showed me the ins and outs of the entertainment industry and gave me the opportunity to spread my wings. She trusted in me to explore and execute new ideas to help market Latin Heat. We made an awesome team and even better friends!

Bel has been a great inspiration to me for her tireless commitment to the Latino entertainment industry and I am honored to call her not only my mentor but one of my best friends! I couldn’t be happier for her to finally be recognized for her efforts after all her years of supporting Latinos in front of and behind the camera and never expecting anything in return. Besides showing me the ropes and handing me the tools to succeed in this business, most importantly Bel has taught me that when you are passionate about something, the satisfaction of seeing it come to fruition is reward enough.

—Brenda Herrera
Photos: Angela María Ortíz S. (Bel Hernandez/Brenda & Bel)
             Anselmo S. Ortiz (Angie and Bel)