September 29, 2014
By Bentley Curtis
Latinos in today’s society comprise 17 percent of the total United States population, according to a Columbia University study, but does that number reflect the presence Latinos have on television today?
Shows like “Cristela” and “George Lopez” are examples of programs that reflect an all-Latino cast. However, shows of this nature do not come around very often.
To gain deeper insight into this issue, Bonnie Zane, who worked in casting for the “George Lopez” show, spoke to me about this gap. When asked about her thoughts regarding Latinos being underrepresented in television, she said that it is the result of a few different issues.
She spoke about the bottleneck in this matter being the “higher ups” as she called it, referring to the networks and studios who make the final decisions. “All I can do is cast color blind and bring a cross section of everyone to the audition,” said Zane.
Her personal opinion on the matter is that the number of Latino actors available to pull from is significantly smaller in comparison to the larger non-Latino population. Hence, the number of roles people are cast into will reflect the size of the overall acting population available. When asked about the quality of the roles that many Latinos are chosen for and the danger of feeding into stereotypes she said, “There’s always going to be backlash about casting diversity… I cast the best actor who gives an accurate depiction of what the role is.”
One initiative inputting diversity and highlighting talent of color are showcases by each network. The intention of these showcases are to give opportunities to performers of color and create more equality across the industry. “It’s never going to be the same as majority population”, Zane said, “but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”
After interviewing Zane, I spoke with Sandi Logan, the casting director for Latino based program “Cristela.” She attested that the lack of experience Latinos have in a wider variety of roles is a main attributing factor that prevents greater presence on television.
“In casting ‘Cristela’, there were not a lot of Latinos to choose from who do comedy. Many of the roles that Latinos are given and do well are limited to things like detective based programs such as ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’,” Logan said, “It’s not to say that Latinos don’t have the talent to do broader roles, it’s just that they don’t have the experience to do many of those other roles. Also, from a casting standpoint it’s more about what’s available to us in the world of television in terms of programming.”
When asked about her thoughts regarding casting people of color in the future, specifically Latinos in larger roles, she explained that in order for Latinos to attain those lead roles, they have to put themselves in a position to gain a wider variety of experience. Once the experience is attained, there will be a greater probability of larger or even lead roles for Latinos in the future.
“There is definitely a push and a need for diversity, with the percentages of monitories increasing in America, people want to watch themselves on TV,” said Logan.
In an attempt to gain a more concrete understanding, I spoke with Dr. Mary Beltrán, an associate professor of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas, Austin whose area of expertise is in the construction of race, class and gender in U.S. television. More specifically, she works with Latino representation and participation as it pertains to Hollywood film and American narrative television. “Latinos are still among the most underrepresented ethnic group within the entertainment world, despite the strides made in the past few years,” said Beltrán.
When asked about her thoughts pertaining to the lack of Latino representation in television, she attributed it to the lack of writers, producers, and executives that are of Latino origin or descent. She also believes that if Latinos put forth more effort to support other Latinos, such as writing letters to the networks about the show’s importance or spreading awareness throughout the community to gain viewership, it would create demand for more programming.
When I addressed Logan’s point about Latinos lacking a variety of experience and the way that it negatively impacts the opportunities made available, Beltrán disagreed stating that the lack of visibility is due to the characters not being well developed or richly based for Latinos.
“Scripts are written from a fairly white perspective, if it was by a Latino writer the setting might be different expanding beyond typical workplace scenarios,” Beltrán said. “The stories would be broadened to give the characters more depth. It wouldn’t just be your typical police procedural…Latinos wouldn’t be cast as mere side characters, they would be able to play the lead.”
Lastly, she discussed the misconception that Latinos only want to watch Spanish-speaking programs when that could not be further from the truth. Dr. Beltrán discussed various studies and statistics that supported this point saying, “The networks just are not listening.”
Beltrán concluded our conversation saying, “While many shows have touted about having a greater amount of diversity in their casts, it is still rare to see a Latino actor or actress in an ensemble cast or a Hispanic take the lead role.”
After our interview she referred me to a few scholarly works, one in particular stood out from Columbia University entitled "The Latino Media Gap." In the analysis, the study defines the concept of "The Latino Media Gap" as a conundrum, because of the contradictory fact that as Latino consumer power grows, relative Latino media presence shrinks. It also addresses the point that Latinos are mindful of their image and when anti-Latino content is presented, the ratings will reflect the group’s sentiment. Even though issues surrounding Latinos in television are starting to be addressed more frequently, many changes still have to be made in order to make an impact, and relatively quickly.
According to new census data, Caucasian babies have fallen into the minority category for the under five years of age group, where as the number for Latinos have risen. In a report by U.S. News, the reasons for this rapid increase in growth is contributed to high birth rates and immigration among the Latino population and other ethnic minorities. It is said that by the year 2043 “white majority will be gone” so these issues will have to be dealt with if not sooner than later.
Source: Neon Tommy