It’s Time to Stop Erasing Latinos from Hollywood

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A new report released this week by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has quantified how unequivocally the Latinx community has been shut out of the film industry. The study, bluntly titled “Latinos in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,200 Popular Movies,” reveals the dismal state of representation and inclusion in Hollywood. Reaching as far back as 2007, the analysts found that only 3 percent of these films had Latino stars or costars; overall, only 4.5 percent of all speaking characters were Latinos. 

In something of a catch-22, too many of the films that featured Latino characters were arguably doing more harm than good for the Latinx community. “At a time where Latinos in our country are facing intense concerns over their safety, we urgently need to see the Latino community authentically and accurately represented throughout entertainment,” said the lead author of the study Dr. Stacy Smith in a press release.

The data in the report reflects the harmful stereotypes that dehumanize Latinxs, with approximately a quarter of all Latino actors being cast as criminals — most often as drug dealers or gang members. In contrast, a miniscule percentage of the actors were cast as people who worked in STEM careers, whereas the majority were depicted as people who worked in jobs that do not require a college education. These portrayals are so far from the truth, but It’s not hard to imagine them reinforcing the rhetoric of racists

Jennifer Lopez (whose film Hustlers hits theaters in a few weeks) is one of the most frequently hired Latinos in the industry. But the most ubiquitous Latina to receive top billing per this report is actually Cameron Diaz, who not once was placed within a Latino context for her role, effectively nullifying any possibility for her to represent the Latino community in a substantive way. The implication here is that it’s okay to be a Latino in Hollywood as long as you are white passing and are cast in roles that have nothing to do with the Latinx community. 

This erasure happens on another level for characters that are understood to be Latino — but are not written to be anything beyond that. A majority of the Latinos who were cast in leading roles were entirely stripped of their ethnic heritage, devoid of any tangible or spoken observation that would describe their lineage — meaning, these actors didn’t have a flag of the DR hanging off their rear view mirror, didn’t use slang like bacano that would help viewers surmise where they might have spent their formative years. Lots of films flat-out erased Latinos: Nearly half had no Latinos with speaking roles, and even more than that cast no Latinxs whatsoever. 

Chicano Film Festival

Behind the camera, Latinos need to lead projects, not just be hired for them. This is a crucial way toward expanding inclusivity at the top — and from the top. After all, the data indicates that having a Latino director, producer, or casting director, makes it two or three times more likely that a Latino will be cast in the film. P.S. Only 1 out of the over 1,300 films considered in this report had a Latina director and only 1 had an Afro-Latino director, so there’s a lot of nuanced work to do on this front. 

Ultimately, when Latinos are left out of films, it makes it much more likely for Latinos to be excluded from so many other opportunities — to do meaningful work, to live a life of dignity, to not live in fear for their lives.