John Leguizamo on Hollywood’s Latino representation problem

You can be as talented as Marlon Brando or Ingrid Bergman, you can write like William Shakespeare or Arthur Miller, you can have the screen presence of Ryan Gosling or Jennifer Lawrence. But if you look Latino or have a Latino last name, the odds are against you in Hollywood.

And by Latino I mean born in Latin America. Neither in Spain nor anywhere else in Europe. These are white people. We Latinos are 19% of the population and the largest ethnic group in America, and we were here long before the 16th century conquests. How are we not more visible on screen and on stage? If much of the United States was Mexico until the 1840s or later, why aren’t we more visible?

Mexicans in East LA volunteered as extras in westerns at the Casting Tree from the 1910s through the 1930s. They were placed in the background of a film genre that was an appropriation of Mexican culture. The words were all Spanish: “Cowboy” comes from the Spanish word vaquero. Lassos, rodeos, broncos, corrals, ranches, the chaps, the hats are all parts of Mexican culture. The 10 gallon hat comes from the Spanish idiom light brown beau. No cowboy hats were worn in England, Ireland, Germany or the 13 Colonies. But they were worn in Mexico. And yet, who were the leads in the westerns?

We need a better pipeline for Latinos in movies, TV shows, and plays. We need a system for our stories and our projects. We need managers who give the green light.

If you take a big white film and make it a Latin film, it’s a hit. Take the new Top Gun and recast it with all the Latinos, it’s a hit. Take a show like “Succession” and make all the characters Latin, that’s a hit. The funds are there, but you must be willing to attract us. As it stands right now, if your name is Garcia, Perez, or Hernandez and you look Latino, you won’t get the same opportunity.

I’m not talking about white or white-passing Latinos. I mean indigenous Latinos. I mean Aztec, Maya, Inca or Taíno. I mean Afro-Latino or a mix of both. Most of the time, the Latinos you see on screen are white or translucent — because Hollywood is steeped in colorism.

Can you imagine an Indigenous looking Latino in A Streetcar Named Desire? Can you imagine an Afro-Latino starring in Risky Business? Even if that had happened, studio execs would have written off the success with something like, “That was a one-time thing!” “That was a stroke of luck!” “An aberration!” Lightning never strikes twice with Latinos.

For the record:

12:14 p.m. November 3, 2022A previous version of this article said that Marlon Brando portrayed Emiliano Zapata in a 1960’s film. The film “Viva Zapata!” is from 1952.

Even white Latinos are still stigmatized by their name and culture. Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada is still called Oscar Isaac. Bruno Mars dropped his Hernandez. And while our actors cannot be cast, our stories are still co-opted. The Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata was played by Brando in the 1950s with a full brown face and flared nostrils. Eli Wallach went brown-faced as a Mexican in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as Tuco — a snarling and disgusting lowlife — to address how studio execs thought a Mexican would behave. In Touch of Evil, Orson Welles cast the whitest actor of all time, Charlton Heston, as a Mexican. A light-haired, blue-eyed man playing a Latino, with a brown face, hair dyed black, and a fake mustache. Here, too, real Latinos were only attracted – extras in the Mexican border town.

It didn’t stop there. They had Al Pacino in tan makeup, coked up and wild like a Cuban in Scarface. The studios loved him so much that they put him in “Carlito’s Way” as a Puerto Rican from Spanish Harlem. They surrounded him with Latino actors, but none of us had leading roles. In our own stories, we still only supported players.

Then there was Antonio Banderas in El Mariachi, Marisa Tomei in The Perez Family, Ben Affleck as CIA agent Tony Mendez in Argo, John Turturro as Kegler Jesus in The Big Lebowski, Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls” and “Being the Ricardos” …

Speaking of which: Spaniards are not Latinos. Spaniards are white Europeans. Latinos were born in Latin America or had ancestors born there. For the most part we are mixed race people from all over Latin America. Well, all of Latin America except Argentina, which has largely exterminated its native people. Well there! I’ve broken it all down for you.

When Shakespeare wrote plays, men played the women’s roles. When women were finally allowed to act, the experience became so much more authentic for the actors and the audience. In a perfect world, anyone should be able to play any role. But Latinos are rarely cast, even in our own stories. So what may seem like a one-off example of casting a white actor is actually part of a deeper chasm of opportunity across generations.

The industry also doesn’t have enough Latino executives or development managers or directors or writers. I’ve featured Latin American stories with Latin American heroes and success stories, and leaders say, “We loved it!” or “We need more stories like this!” or “The change starts with us!” But guess what happens? They never green light the project.

I’ve been pitching and speaking to other Latinx creators for 40 years who know how impossible it was to get anything into the development pipeline and that’s the secret ingredient – having scripts in development until they’re great. Because storytelling is king. But I have to leave it to the studio heads and entertainment managers. They’re never without excuses that range from the narrow-minded (“Latin movies don’t work well”) to the ridiculous (“Latin people don’t want to see Latinos in movies”) to completely bogus (“Latinos don’t go in feel-good movies” and “Latins like white people movies!”

All of these excuses boil down to the simple fact that the big decision makers don’t care. You will benefit either way, so why change the system? The fact is, Latinx audiences support Latinx content. In 2021, Latinx ticketbuyers accounted for 57% of opening weekend sales for Encanto and 40% of sales for In the Heights. We perform! And not just to the theatre. We also stream in large numbers. Last year, Latinxs featured diverse content in the genres of family, animation, horror, and fantasy. And because we’re young, we’re building a huge audience for tween and YA content. So where are our coming-of-age stories?

If you walk anywhere in Los Angeles (other than those gated communities) you’ll see Latinos everywhere. That’s because the city is approaching a 50% Latino population. But where are we on the screen? This is cultural apartheid. The Latino population is larger than the white population in California, and yet we are underrepresented. This is cultural apartheid. In New York, the Latino population is equal to the white population, but you would never know if you watch local TV or read our newspapers and magazines. The metrics are on our side, but the system is not.

If the system is dictated by the ideas, preferences or opinions of leaders, we will be excluded. But when we are allowed to connect with our audience without a middleman, we win! That’s why Latino musicians kill it. Everything boils down to listening. The numbers never lie, and leaders have no choice but to follow what’s popular. That’s why Bad Bunny is the #1 star in the world. And we have top 10 talents in Cardi B (Dominican), Camila Cabello (Cuban), J Balvin (Colombian), Becky G (Mexican), Karol G (Colombian), and Kali Uchis (Colombian). We drop in baseball on statistics, and we drop in politics on votes.

When I started, I couldn’t take the lead because Hollywood didn’t want to cast me as a hero, lawyer, department head, or male love interest. If whites make up 59% of America’s population, why do they seem to get 120% of the casting, crew and executive team? According to the Latinos in Media Report by the nonprofit Latino Donor Collaborative, we account for just 2.9% of leads in TV, film, streaming, and stage productions.

There’s a solution for that: Cast more Latinos! We’re almost 20% of the population, so for every 10 characters there should be two Latinos. For every 10 executives there should be two Latinos. For every 10 crew members, there should be two Latinos. Out of 10 films, two should be about Latinos.

You may think that Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bad Bunny, J Lo, Benicio del Toro and I are the only ones, but you are wrong. There are millions of Latinos, and we were just among the few that got through. In the future we all need to be counted, represented and valued. John Leguizamo on Hollywood’s Latino representation problem

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