Just over a year ago, a gunman drove more than 600 miles to shoot and kill people because he viewed Latinos, who have lived in El Paso long before the U.S. was even founded, as invaders. The massacre in a Walmart not far from the U.S.-Mexico border was an act of terror — the deadliest attack against Latinos in more than 100 years.
What motivated such monstrous hate? I am asking this question not only as the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, but also as the father of two Latino children. Today there is a dangerous nexus between the racist political rhetoric and the negative images of Latinos as criminals and invaders that Americans see on their screens.
It’s clear that many Americans have a fundamental misunderstanding of who Latinos are. Prejudice has existed in the United States for generations, but the image of our community created by film and television has done little to counter bigoted views, and too often has amplified them. I bet most studio executives are progressives, yet the industry is regressive. Hollywood looks like an America of yesteryear. You can draw a clear line from the pervasive lack of positive Latino representation on-screen to the rise in hate crimes against our communities, including in El Paso.
In this moment of pandemic and protest, Hollywood needs to reckon with its systemic injustice and exclusion of our communities.
The entertainment industry is the main narrative-creating and image-defining institution of American society. Unfortunately, Latinos are often depicted as stereotypes, if we’re represented at all. A study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that Latinos had a speaking role in less than 5% of movies. Of these characters, nearly 50% were criminals or “angry.” These negative depictions are often the only images that millions of Americans see. Even when positive stories do get told, they are often overlooked by the awards shows that could encourage more production. Let’s not forget: Generations of Latino actors have felt forced to change their name, even their appearance, to be included in roles, forfeiting their heritage and robbing our community of role models and dreams of being seen on-screen.
At the heart of this failure of representation is the lack of diversity in the industry, especially among those in positions of creative authority, such as writers, producers, directors and executives. Latinos prop up Hollywood economically, accounting for nearly one in four of all box office ticket sales, but they account for a mere 4% of directors and 3% of producers. This cannot be an accident in a city like Los Angeles, where Latinos are nearly half the population.
Hollywood is in effect a redlined industry, generating wealth and opportunity for the handful of conglomerates who run it while excluding the hardworking Latinos who live all around it. The case for government intervention is clear: Hollywood is failing to include Latinos on its own, meriting increased scrutiny from community leaders and elected officials. Taxpayer dollars flowing to an exclusionary industry, particularly in the form of production credits, deserve special attention. Why should we subsidize exclusion?
Since last year, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been meeting with studios, talent agencies and other industry stakeholders. Many executives have argued the fact that Latinos disproportionately go to the movies is an indication that we’re OK with the status quo — this lazy argument places the onus on the excluded group to counter discrimination. We’ve heard the talking points about the importance of diversity, yet except for initiatives undertaken by organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there are few signs of actionable plans with tangible metrics to increase Latino representation.
From astronauts who traveled to space to farmworkers keeping us fed, there are more than 60 million Latinos in the U.S., each with a unique story. Whether recent immigrants or families who’ve been here for generations, Latinos in all our racial, gender and geographic diversity deserve to see ourselves on the big screen and streaming at home. Latino families are under assault from the Trump administration and enduring disproportionate harm from the coronavirus crisis, and Hollywood must take responsibility for its role in building an inclusive society. This means empowering Latinos to tell their own stories as showrunners, directors, producers and executives.
Latino stories are universal, and more than capable of selling tickets and winning awards if told right. Hollywood has a civic duty to tell Latino stories — and by so doing, to take a stand against hate. The only question is whether Hollywood will finally give Latinos the opportunity to tell our stories.”
Congressman Joaquin Castro is the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and represents the people of San Antonio, Texas.