Activist group topper asks that 'reality be portrayed'

When Raul Yzaguirre turns on his television set, the president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) says he sees virtually nothing but wasted opportunities to cast Latino actors in a wide array of roles.

“How can you have a show set in L.A. where we are 40% of the population and not have a Latino in it?” Yzaguirre asks. “Almost every situation has a secondary character, a doctor, a lawyer or a judge. Why can’t those be Latino? You don’t have to change the storyline or the major stars. I’m only asking that reality be portrayed.”

His continued frustration with the major broadcast networks comes more than 1-1/2 years after the NCLR called for a one-week national “brownout” of television programming on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC to draw attention to fall 1999 programming that was devoid of Latino characters.

“The entertainment industry is a powerful medium and it’s got to be held accountable,” Yzaguirre says in an interview from the NCLR’s headquarters in Washington. “I think we’ve been able to make some progress but we want more Latino-themed pilots, we want to build the bench strength.”

Yzaguirre thinks that in order for such progress to make its way to the television screen, steps must first be made behind the scenes with the hiring of more Latino scribes to help write the shows. Casting directors must also make it a priority to assemble a diverse cast.

Yzaguirre’s perfect example of the kind of program TV needs more of isn’t even on one of the major networks.

The NCLR lobbied heavily earlier this year for the renewal of cabler Showtime’s “Resurrection Blvd.,” which features an almost all-Latino cast headed by Elizabeth Pena and Tony Plana, and also features predominantly Latino talent behind the camera.

Despite its less-than-stellar ratings, the pay cable channel has ordered a second season of the Dennis E. Leoni-created skein about a Latino family of professional boxers set in East-L.A.

“It’s got all Latino stars acting in it who are superb craftsmen,” Yzaguirre observes. “The only negative part is that it’s only one show.”

Disappointment, success

“Resurrection Blvd.” came along shortly after the bitter disappointment Latino activists felt when CBS announced in May that it wouldn’t be airing Gregory Nava’s “American Family” pilot, starring Edward James Olmos.

Yzaguirre says civil rights groups like the NCLR have had no choice but expand their role and to take the entertainment industry to task for what they charge is a “virtual absence” of Latino stories.

“We were all about fighting discrimination and poverty but we realized we were having a hard time getting our message across in terms of civil rights issues,” he says. “When we thought about it, we realized people didn’t realize who we were as a community and didn’t realize we had suffered any civil rights violations. We realized the public wasn’t educated about our history.”

Yzaguirre places a large portion of the blame for this lack of awareness squarely on the shoulders of the entertainment industry, which, according to studies commissioned by the NCLR, has gradually not only been portraying Latinos less, but also in an increasingly more negative light.

“(The industry) creates a picture of America where we are absent when we are very much there,” Yzaguirre claims. “And when it gets around to portraying us, it portrays us in a way that’s not real by portraying us as gardeners and maids, pimps, drug-runners and losers of every kind.”

Advocacy groups such as NCLR have been able to put some pressure on the major broadcast networks resulting in the hiring of executives to monitor and increase diversity. By September, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox had signed memorandums of understanding to change employment practices and representation of minorities.

While the progress on the television front has been slow, Yzaguirre says at least the concerns are being addressed — unlike in the film industry, where, from his vantage, major studios don’t seem to be concerned with the issue.

“If we were to give out Academy Awards for worst portrayal of Latinos, there would be lots of competition,” he says. “The studios are more insulated, not having to produce every week so we don’t have advertisers that we can go to. But it’s something we have to focus on in the future.”

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