Latinos’ Absence in Hollywood Has Felt Deliberate. Is 2021 the Year It Changes?

Hollywood has been slow to nurture and embrace one of its core audiences. Will it change?

In the Heights
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Rosie Perez hasn’t been invited back to the Oscars since she attended the ceremony as a nominee in 1994 for “Fearless,” where she played a plane crash survivor crippled by grief.

“Not even to sit in the audience, not to present, nothing—and I’m a member,” Perez says. “I love the Academy Awards. I cheer on my peers, but it hurts. It’s like when your home team doesn’t ask you to come back into the stadium after you got up to bat and hit the home run.”

Perez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, describes a feeling that many Latino artists have experienced in Hollywood. Even those who are as accomplished as she, aren’t given a seat at the table.

“The biggest struggle has been navigating through other people’s shortcomings,” Perez says. “Other people’s bigotry, racism — and specifically the ones that don’t understand that they are bigots or racists.”

Hollywood is facing a moment of reckoning for representation. The film and TV studios are under pressure to recruit and hire talent — both in front and behind the camera — who reflect the melting pot of American culture and ethnicities. While there’s been an improvement when it comes to Black stories and casts (looking at “Black Panther” or “Judas and the Black Messiah”), the Latino community is still waiting for its moment of recognition.

At this year’s Oscars, only four of the 23 categories — Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc and Carlos Cortés in sound (“Sound of Metal”), Maite Alberdi and Marcela Santibañez in documentary feature (“The Mole Agent”) and Shaka King in picture and original screenplay (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) — had any form of Latino representation.

In 2018, a study by the Motion Picture Association of America found that Latinos had the highest moviegoing rate among ethnic groups, buying tickets to an average of 4.5 movies a year. But they don’t see themselves represented onscreen. A 2019 study, titled “Latinos in Film: Erasure On-Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,200 Popular Movies,” showcases the absence. The study, by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers and Wise Entertainment, examined Latino characters and workers behind the camera across the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2018. Only 4.5% of all 47,268 speaking or named characters across those 12 years were Latino, as were a mere 3% of lead or co-lead actors.

“Yes, change is happening, but it’s too damn slow,” Perez says.

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Rosie Perez in “The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max) Courtesy of HBO Max

Perez says she was ready to stand up for herself when she signed on to HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant.” But she was pleasantly surprised that the producers had planned ahead, supplying her with makeup that matched her skin tone, options for eyelashes and pants that fit her correctly. “I’m a full-figured woman and proud of it. In the past, I would have to ask, ‘Why can’t I get different pants that are going to fit my big fucking ass?’”

For his performance in 2011’s “A Better Life,” Demián Bichir became one of four Latino men in the history of the Oscars to be recognized in the lead actor category. He’s had a busy 2020, playing a physicist in George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky” and a hunter in Robin Wright’s “Land.” He’s currently co-starring in “Godzilla vs. Kong,” as a corrupt CEO.

“I think there’s a lot more stories to tell from us and about us,” Bichir says. “You don’t see many Mexicans who are astrodynamicists on a space mission, and there’s more. There are lawyers, surgeons, politicians, artists, beautiful stories that need to be told. We have to create them because no one is going to do it for us.”

But there’s hope that 2021 can begin to bring about more change, starting with “In the Heights,” the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical with a robust Latino ensemble. Later this year, Miranda will be making his directorial debut with the adaptation of the Jonathan Larson musical “tick, tick…Boom!” for Netflix.

Also stepping into the director’s chair: Eva Longoria, who has numerous episodic TV-helming credits, with “Flamin’ Hot” for Searchlight Pictures. Longoria beat multiple big-name filmmakers to tell the story of Richard Montanez, a Mexican janitor who created the spicy Cheetos snack.

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The upcoming remake of the 1961 best picture winner “West Side Story” is getting an updated treatment from Steven Spielberg with Latino breakout stars Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose in the roles of Maria and Anita, the latter of which was portrayed by Rita Moreno, the only Latina to win an acting Oscar.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be dipping into the Latino community. After Chloé Zhao (most likely) wins her Oscar for “Nomadland,” she’ll drive “Eternals” that will feature the most diverse cast of superheroes yet including Oscar-nominee Salma Hayek (“Frida”).

Ana de Armas blazed onto the screen with roles in “Blade Runner 2049” and “Knives Out,” but will now helm her own film in Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” from Netflix, in which she’ll portray Norma Jeane in a fictionalized chronicle of the life of Marilyn Monroe. She’s also going to be a central figure in the long-delayed James Bond sequel “No Time to Die.”

Oscar Isaac has a huge year ahead after starring in the Oscar-nominated short “The Letter Room.” The delayed “Dune” will have eyeballs on him after taking on the words of Paul Schrader in “The Card Counter.”

The animation realm will embrace the stories of the culture and Disney and Pixar delivering “Luca” and “Encanto” later this year. Sony Pictures will explore Cuba with cinematographer Roger Deakins with the computer-animated “Vivo.”

Mexican actress Melissa Barrera has a huge year ahead with the modern-day reimagining of “Carmen” and “In the Heights” alongside a beautiful Latino cast including Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace and Olga Merediz. If you thought Yuh-Jung Youn’s grandmother in “Minari” was Oscar-worthy, consideration should already be given to Merediz’s upcoming performance.

With the Academy’s diversity and inclusion standards set to go into effect in 2024, there’s a good chance the Latino acting statistic will soon change. And that Latinos in Hollywood will continue to become more visible. There’s more to come and we’re ready for them all.