Shows like 'Ugly Betty' help change perceptions

Only a handful of Latinas in the entertainment industry took a public stand during last year’s uproar over U.S. immigration policy, while tens of thousands of marchers in Southern California took to the streets to protest restrictions on undocumented workers. Yareli Arizmendi, who wrote and starred in “A Day Without a Mexican,” was one of those who demonstrated.

“There is a lot of fear of ‘what could happen’ that would rob them from being citizens and fully participating,” Arizmendi explains about Latinas whom she describes as being in some kind of “lethargic state.”

But as Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, puts it: “Different people work in different ways, and they don’t have to be at the forefront of every issue.”

Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment who is of Puerto Rican and Jewish heritage, picks her battles.

“I’m an entertainer,” says Tassler about her choice not to publicly participate in the immigration debate. “That’s what my job is: to create quality programming.”

In that regard, Tassler has attempted to create opportunities and reverse stereotypes by supporting actors’ and writers’ workshops across the country, and hosting mixers for Latino writers in order for them to network with industry players.

“It’s important to me to reach deep into the community and promote Latino artists,” says Tassler, who is the driving force behind “Cane,” a TV drama about a wealthy Cuban-American family. She also greenlit another Latino-centered drama, “Yo,” which is produced by Salma Hayek and Julia Alvarez.

“We’re beginning to see changes happen,” says Tassler, who claims that four seasons ago, there were only six Latino regulars in primetime, while today there are as many as 22.

“The key is to reach across the cultural divide and allow us as a people to establish a high profile,” she says.

For many, the underrepresentation of Latino characters in popular culture indicates that race and ethnicity do matter in Hollywood. The umbrella term ‘Latina in Hollywood’ blurs cultural disparities between actresses and industry executives with diverse backgrounds, according to “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria, who, along with Hayek, was a visible participant in the immigration marches. “We all have mixed ethnicities today,” says the Texas-born thesp, who has been involved in various activist organizations, including the United Farm Workers, the Mexican American Legal Fund Assn., the Dolores Huerta Foundation and the National Council of La Raza. “They’re no pure races anymore.”

More important, actresses like Longoria and L.A. native America Ferrera broke down barriers to reach mainstream popularity with roles that underscore rather than underplay their backgrounds.

Far from being a color-blind show, “Ugly Betty” is as politically engaging and multidimensional as its producer, Hayek. During the immigration protests in spring 2006, for instance, the show’s subplot dealt with Betty’s father, who as an illegal immigrant struggled to reunite with his family after being deported.

“I felt that we had such a wonderful opportunity to get engaged and place a familiar face on the immigration debate,” says Ana Ortiz, who stars as Ferrera’s sister in the Emmy-winning series. “We showed that (immigrants) could be your friend, your neighbor.”

Hayek has used her leverage as a producer to push her agenda. In April, she, along with partner Jose Tamez, joined forces with MGM to create the production label Ventanazul, which strives to develop, produce and acquire Latin-themed films with a mainstream appeal.

“We live in a culture of fear, but Salma is a powerhouse,” Ortiz says. “She does not give in.”

For her part, Longoria hopes that positive media representations of Latinos will have a trickle-down effect on society at large. “It so important to recognize the positive contributions from Latinos in the media,” she says. “It’s by showing all that we’re doing and showing how big of a role we play in American culture that we can change public perceptions and in turn public policies and values.”

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