Latinos Are Everywhere, Except on TV. What’s going on?

Recent studies look at the growing the lack of Latino presence in films, TV, and news. The findings may annoy you.

Actress Rosario Dawson (L) and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez attend 'SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR' Experience during Comic-Con 2014
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company
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J. Weston Phippen
July 29, 2015, 9:39 a.m.

If the cur­rent rate of Latino in­volve­ment in the me­dia were to play out as it has, it would take 60 years for Lati­nos in lead film roles to match their share of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. It would take 100 years to do the same in TV. But even at that point, the Latino pop­u­la­tion would have already doubled.

Put more bluntly, if U.S. Lati­nos an­nexed them­selves and foun­ded their own coun­try, they would com­prise the 14th-largest eco­nomy in the world, with $1.6 tril­lion in buy­ing power.

Lati­nos make up 17 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. And they’re young, about a dec­ade young­er than the av­er­age White Amer­ic­an. They tune in­to ra­dio more reg­u­larly. They buy movie tick­ets more of­ten.

But look around. 

With all that buy­ing power, they’re al­most as scant on Eng­lish-lan­guage TV and the big screen as they were in the 1950s. Nielsen’s latest study on the sub­ject show that the ma­jor­ity of young Lati­nos prefer to watch TV in Eng­lish, a real­ity that will only rise as more are born in the United States. And des­pite the frag­ment­a­tion of me­dia on the In­ter­net and through smart­phones, Lati­nos con­tin­ue to watch TV the old fash­ioned way, with friends and fam­ily. So why are there so few Lati­nos still on TV and in film?

Frances Negrón-Mun­tan­er — a film­maker, Columbia Uni­versity pro­fess­or, and au­thor of a re­port called “The Latino Me­dia Gap” — has spent the last five years look­ing in­to this prob­lem. Along with her most re­cent re­search on the me­dia gap, she will soon re­lease two oth­er re­ports that look at the poor rep­res­ent­a­tion of Lati­nos in me­dia. For her last re­port, she ana­lyzed top-ten movies, top-ten TV shows, ex­ec­ut­ive po­s­i­tions, and guilds in Hol­ly­wood to find out just why there was such a dis­par­ity in the Latino pop­u­la­tion and Lati­nos on TV.

It began when Negrón-Mun­tan­er, a found­ing mem­ber of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Latino In­de­pend­ent Pro­du­cers, along with her co-work­ers tried to take stock of what they’d ac­com­plished in the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s first 10 years. They felt they’d helped a lot of in­di­vidu­als in their ca­reers, but there was no em­pir­ic­al evid­ence.

“I was one of those people who thought Lati­nos were bet­ter rep­res­en­ted now than in the past,” Negrón-Mun­tan­er says.

To her dis­may, that ini­tial as­sump­tion turned out to be flat-out wrong.

Latino me­dia par­ti­cip­a­tion has re­mained nearly flat since the 1950s. That dec­ade, the first that Nielsen rat­ings came out, Lati­nos were 4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion and 3 per­cent of top-ten TV lead act­ors. That gap has nev­er been as close since.

Lati­nos com­prise just 1 per­cent of news stor­ies. When they do ap­pear on cam­era, it’s not as an an­chor in a suit with coiffed hair but on the back­ground video feed as a crim­in­al or in re­la­tion to il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion.

A re­cent Me­dia Mat­ters For Amer­ica re­port went fur­ther and found that on news shows, “His­pan­ic guests are treated as ex­perts in only one sub­ject, rarely in­vited to dis­cuss is­sues oth­er than im­mig­ra­tion.” It’s a concept that con­tin­ues to typecast Lati­nos as one-di­men­sion­al.

In TV and movies, the Latino Me­dia Gap study found that when Latino men are cast in lead­ing roles or as sup­port­ing act­ors, they’re most of­ten as­so­ci­ated with both ends of crime. Lati­nos ap­peared as law en­force­ment 19 per­cent of the time, com­pared with just 14 per­cent of all act­ors. They ap­peared as blue-col­lar crim­in­als 18 per­cent of the time, com­pared with 11 per­cent of all oth­er act­ors. The Law & Or­der shows were big vi­ol­at­ors of this, the re­port found, as well as The Big Bang The­ory, where half the time a Latino was on cam­era, it was as a po­ten­tial crim­in­al.

As for Lat­i­nas, though their share of lead roles is in­creas­ing, since 1996 they’ve played nearly 70 per­cent of TV and movies’ most icon­ic maids. And they’re still por­trayed as “sexy spit­fire” types.

One pos­sible reas­on for this is an ut­ter lack of Lati­nos in de­cision-mak­ing roles. Just 2 per­cent of top dir­ect­ors from 2010 to 2013 were Latino, 3 per­cent of pro­du­cers, and 6 per­cent of writers. Even worse, of 45 stu­dio or net­work CEOs, none were Latino (just two were non-White men). When re­search­ers ex­pan­ded that to in­clude com­pany chair­per­sons, the only Latino in an ex­ec­ut­ive role was CBS’s Nina Tassler.

There’s such a lack of Lati­nos in ex­ec­ut­ive roles that dir­ect­or Robert Rodrig­uez cre­ated his own Eng­lish-lan­guage chan­nel called El Rey Net­work after he grew tired of ask­ing for more nu­anced Latino char­ac­ters. 

“You can only tell a net­work so long to cast a His­pan­ic,” Rodrig­uez told the As­so­ci­ated Press. “But if there’s nobody writ­ing the roles or cre­at­ing the roles, it’s even fun­da­ment­ally a lar­ger prob­lem.”

“We’re not mak­ing ad­vances at the levels where we can make de­cisions,” says Axel Caballero, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of NALIP. “That has a big im­pact on who we hire and who we cast.” It’s that dearth of ex­ec­ut­ive power that leads to the bland, ste­reo­typ­ic­al roles Lati­nos play, says Caballero. “That’s not only a missed op­por­tun­ity for [me­dia ex­ec­ut­ives], but it’s a mis­read­ing of the Latino land­scape.”

“It lim­its our de­vel­op­ment and how we are per­ceived,” says Alex No­gales, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Na­tion­al His­pan­ic Me­dia Co­ali­tion.

As chil­dren, No­gales says, we see ourselves in the char­ac­ters around us. If that char­ac­ter is a blue-col­lar this, or a po­lice of­ficer that, then “that’s how we’ll per­ceive ourselves.”

Contributions by Janie Boschma
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