- Shows like “One Day at a Time” and “Vida” earned praise for their nuanced portrayals of Latino characters, but studies show little progress has been made over the past two years in improving representation across TV and film.
- Business Insider interviewed the people behind these shows as well as researchers, activists, and industry leaders about why Latino communities are still overlooked on screen and how to move Hollywood forward.
- Showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett and former Starz content exec Marta Fernandez also explained how “One Day at a Time” and “Vida” got made.
- “It’s challenging but I think it starts with openness and willingness to be able explore culture through storytelling,” said Ruben Garcia, cohead of CAA’s cultural business strategy group.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Norman Lear’s 1970s classic “One Day at a Time” was revived in 2017 to tell the story of a Cuban-American family, it evolved the portrait of the American TV sitcom.
The show, about a multigenerational family including a matriarch who embraces her sexuality, a single mother coping with post-traumatic-stress disorder, and two teenagers coming into their own identities, was praised by critics and fans.
But “One Day at a Time,” which ran for three seasons on Netflix and was picked up by ViacomCBS’s Pop, is a rare recent bright spot for Latino representation in Hollywood, rather than sign of a rising tide.
Little-to-no progress was made over the last two years in increasing Hispanic or Latino representation in US TV shows and movies, according to three separate studies from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and the talent agency CAA with analytics firm Parrot Analytics.
Latinos weren’t the only ethnic and racial group the research found were still underrepresented. Black and Asian characters were also missing from many popular TV and film projects studied.
But the statistics for Latino talent are striking when considering that Hispanics makes of 18.5% of the overall US population.
- Hispanic or Latino characters made up 4.9% of speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing US films in 2019, down from a high of 6.2% two years earlier, according to the USC Annenberg study. Forty four of the movies had no Hispanic or Latino speaking characters at all.
- On US TV, Latino actors during the 2018-19 season played just 6.6% of broadcast, 4% of digital, and 5.5% of cable lead roles, according to the TV portion of UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity report.
- Among US TV shows that premiered from 2017 to 2019, 5% of regular cast members were non-White Hispanic or Latino, according to the CAA’s latest TV diversity study conducted with Parrot Analytics.
The numbers are worse behind the camera in director and writer roles.
“We are being erased,” said Ivette Rodriguez, the CEO of American Entertainment Marketing, an agency that promotes Latino films, and the cofounder of the advocacy group LA Collab. “Our numbers are growing and we are being erased.”
Researchers, showrunners, and other industry experts told Business Insider that while there has been progress in terms of the types of Latino characters that a portrayed on TV, there are still systemic, cultural, and economic issues holding Latino talent back. And, while many were hopeful Latino representation would improve, there were also concerns that the industry could go backwards amid a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of colour, including Latinos.
‘We show up in droves and buy more tickets than other ethnic groups’
Consistently, Latino audiences are among the most avid moviegoers in the US and over index in consuming other forms of entertainment.
Twenty-six per cent of 2019’s frequent moviegoers â€” people who went to the movies at least once a month â€” were Hispanic or Latino, roughly the same share as the past two years, according to research by the trade group the Motion Picture Association of America.
The data creates a misconception in Hollywood that studios don’t need to cater to Latino audiences because they will show up for mainstream movies anyway, insiders said.
“We show up in droves and buy more tickets than other ethnic groups,” said Ruben Garcia, cohead of CAA’s cultural business strategy group. “It gives studios, networks, and buyers licence to say, ‘They’re already showing up. Why do we need content specifically for them?’ Imagine how we would show up if we were represented in new, nuanced, and more human ways.”
The Latino community is remarkably diverse, spanning dozens of countries, multiple languages and dialects, and identities. It takes a deep understanding of Latin culture to find storylines and marketing that audiences will rally behind.
Still, many studios and networks continue to perpetuate the same old tropes of drug cartels, or try to check boxes by casting Latino leads in one-note roles.
“Latinx is being diminished to an issue of visibility as opposed to an issue of representation,” Garcia said. “There is tremendous complexity and vibrancy to the Latin culture, and more often then not this culture is lumped into to one particular segment of the Latin community.”
So far, few recent Latino movies have managed to unite audiences across identities and experiences. Several insiders said they admired the success of films focused on other cultures, like “Crazy Rich Asians,” which became a phenomenon in part because it captivated viewers from across the equally nuanced Asian-American community.
“Our community is not doing that for various Latino movies,” said Gloria CalderÃ³n Kellett, the coshowrunner of “One Day at a Time.” She said that’s partly because the community is still “really fragmented,” but also because the movies themselves either aren’t connecting or getting the marketing support to get viewers’ attentions.
Shows like ‘One Day at a Time’ and ‘Vida’ were both greenlit because they had strong allies
CalderÃ³n Kellett credited Lear, a TV icon, with helping to bring “One Day at a Time” to the small screen.
“‘One Day at a Time’ was sold because of my white male ally,” she said. Lear’s credentials sold Netflix on the series, which CalderÃ³n Kellett and Mike Royce were brought in to run.
CalderÃ³n Kellett said Lear gave her the support to write her experience as a Cuban American, and build a predominantly Latino writers’ room.
“It was the first time I felt comfortable enough to write my family,” CalderÃ³n Kellett said. “People have wanted me to write my family before, but I also love my family.”
Starz’s “Vida,” a series about estranged Mexican-American sisters who return to their hometown of East Los Angeles, took a very different path to TV, but one that also showed how crucial allies are.
Former Starz programming exec Marta Fernandez, who developed “Vida,” said the premium-TV network was conscientiously trying to court Latino audiences after “Power” hit with Black audiences and “Outlander” won over women.
Fernandez was taking meetings with Latino creators, showrunners, writers, and directors when she sat down with Tanya Saracho, a former playwright who had ascended in TV with shows like “Looking” and “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Saracho had never been a showrunner before, but Fernandez was drawn to her voice and the concept she later brought to “Vida,” a property the network had been trying to develop.
“The best shows come from voices like Tanya that are just so clear,” said Fernandez, adding that she saw Saracho as “talent that hadn’t really had an opportunity to shine yet.”
Fernandez said Starz was fully behind “Vida,” but it still had a lengthier development process than some other shows she’d worked on. On top of writing a pilot and other materials that are typical in developing a show, Saracho filmed a seven-minute proof of concept video with three of the show’s leads.
“It informed and illuminated for senior management what this show can be in a way that pitch meetings and pilot scripts did not,” Fernandez said. “It’s an extra step that nobody wants to take â€” they just want their greenlight â€” but at the end of the day, I think it’s the step that we needed to finally get across.”
Fernandez â€” who is now president of Macro Television Studios, where she focuses full time on stories about underrepresented groups â€” said that oftentimes execs push back on material not because they don’t want to be inclusive, but because it’s beyond their realm of experience.
“I’ve never heard from an exec that we’re not doing Latino material,” Fernandez said. “The pushback execs give is, ‘I don’t understand this,’ and ‘can we can change this to dot dot dot.'”
Fernandez, whose family is from Spain, said she personally resonated with the cultural touchpoints in “Vida,” though she doesn’t identify as Latina. It helped her advocate for the show, which also tackles issues of gentrification and centres on queer characters.
It underscores the need for more content execs, agents, and other talent of colour in the industry. Garcia at CAA said investment in recruiting, education, and career readiness by agencies and studios can help with that.
“There are theories of cultural, economic, and social barriers that have kept the Latino community from getting into the industry,” Garcia said. “That’s one bullet point of the list of issues that we need to address.”
In spite of the buzz and critical reception of “One Day at a Time” and “Vida,” both were cancelled after three seasons. (The former was rescued by Pop.) Most TV shows don’t make it, which is why the industry also needs to take more chances on Latino stories if it wants culturally resonant hits, insiders said.
“It’s not an even playing field,” CalderÃ³n Kellett said. “Companies say they want Latino shows but I just don’t believe that’s true yet. If it was they’d try harder … They wouldn’t just buy six Latino shows.”
Getting a greenlight is half the battle
With productions stalled by the pandemic and mass layoffs sweeping the entertainment industry, one concern is that stories centering on people of colour will be disproportionately sidelined if budget constraints force studios to pare back on programming.
So far, Fernandez said she’s getting as many or more calls from networks looking for projects. CalderÃ³n Kellett also said she’s developing four projects for Amazon Studios as part of an overall deal, and is hopeful the studio will put its marketing muscle behind them. (“If they love something, they put a lot of weight behind it,” she said.)
Researchers, meanwhile, are trying to show Hollywood that diverse stories make good business sense. CAA’s 2019 report with Parrot Analytics pointed to higher audience demand for shows with diverse casts than non-diverse casts. UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity study showed that diverse films perform better at the box office and have higher ratings.
And Latino talent are uniting across the industry to demand more representation. LA Collab â€” which was created by Rodriguez, MitÃº founder Beatriz Acevedo, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti â€” is connecting Latino talent with the entertainment industry, similar to the way LTX Fest helps professionals in tech. More than 250 creators and writers through the Untitled Latino Project also signed in October an open letter calling for greater Latino representation, particularly for Black and Indigenous people in the community, and pointing the industry to lists and databases of Latino writers and showrunners.
There are other more subtle signs of progress, too.
Like the families in “One Day at a Time” and “Vida,” there are more nuanced Latino characters on screen today than in past eras. Hulu’s “Love, Victor,” a drama about a teen discovering his sexuality, is mostly talked about as an LGBTQ show but centres on a complex Latino family as well. “In the Heights,” a musical about a Latino community in Washington Heights that’s based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway play, is also expected to be released next summer after being delayed by the pandemic, expanding the spectrum of Latino storytelling on screen.
That comes from not only casting Latino talent on screen, but having writers, producers, script consultants, and directors who understand how to authentically portray those characters.
“It’s challenging but I think it starts with openness and willingness to be able explore culture through storytelling,” Garcia said. “There’s no more important time than right now to recognise the role of film and TV play in terms of how we interact with people and culture every day.”