While making up nearly half of the population of Los Angeles, Latines have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to landing jobs in Hollywood. USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative finds that Latine characters have only comprised roughly 5% of speaking roles from around one thousand films during a 12 year period,(1) despite the U.S. having a population that is almost 19% Latine
This percentage is not one to be satisfied with. It is a number that doesn’t treat Latine communities with the respect and dignity they have earned. Many of the roles given still perpetuate the stereotypes Latines have been fighting against since this country came to them, stereotypes that bleed off the screen into other aspects of American life.
So why does this number exist? And how do we make it better represent the people of the United States?
The study, “Hispanic and Latino Representation in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,300 Popular Movies” was co-authored by Ariana Case Along with her colleagues: Zoily Mercado and Karla Hernandez. They first set out in 2019 to analyze the majority of roles that Latines were playing in the modern film industry, motivated to combat the increasing discrimination within the country.
“The first one, which was released back in 2019, if you remember back to that time, was a time in our country where racist rhetoric and violent hatred towards Latinos was rampant in this country… from the top down, across the media and our political figures,” said Ms. Case. According to her findings, this environment made it easy to further dehumanize Latines, to entrench us in the characters we had been playing since the beginning of the film industry: drug traffickers, illegal immigrants, low-income jobholders, and non-English speakers.
The data of the study prove this; 37.2% of Latino characters in film did not speak English, while 40% of the top-billed Latino actors played characters who were violent criminals.
And there are still concerns about how feminine Latines are often typecast in the film industry. The study also exposes how actresses like Cameron Díaz and Jennifer Lopez have been given the most lead roles above other Latine actors, which may be influenced by their status as sex symbols. While it’s not to say that they’re being given these roles only because of their erotic image, American culture has a habit of fetishizing “foreign” women and feminine people, framing them as desirable; they are an example of how Hollywood only selects a few handpicked women and ignores the boundless talent that the greater Latine community has to offer.
If it’s so rare to see a Latine on the silver screen, it’s hard to fight against the misrepresentation. The images of Latines as “the other”, whether they be dangerous or sexy, become burned into the memories of Americans. Latines have never asked for these labels, but they persist.
There needs to be an intentional effort to put more Latines, authentic, real Latines, into the film industry. And we cannot settle with putting a Latine actor into a film and call it a day; they can’t be there to check off a diversity requirement for an executive, and we don’t want to put the weight of representing an entire family of cultures under a single person.
“Each film will have around 40 characters or so, just from what we found. There’s a lot of room to grow,” said Ariana Case. “In 2019, 43% of the films we analyzed had only one Hispanic and Latino actor.”
Even having a second Latine join the cast of a film would be instrumental in combating the stereotypes put upon the community. This is a region that comprises 20 countries and 656 million people, not to mention the countless cultural groups and the Latines who have called the U.S. home for centuries. No one should expect a single Latine to represent that large and diverse of an identity group. The community has so much to offer that Hollywood should be struggling to find room for their stories, rather than the other way around.
“It does start with people behind the scenes who want to tell those stories. By giving people opportunities to have their voice out there, it just inherently will increase representation as well,” Ms. Case said.