Latinos on TV – Reality Check

By Bel Hernandez Castillo, Latin Heat Online

So are we seeing the glass half full or half empty?  Some say the presence of Latinos on TV is dismal and has not changed in 20 years.  I say, let’s take a closer look.

President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Janet Murgia’s recent article “A Disappointing Television Season for the Latino Community”  makes a powerful case for more Latinos on mainstream media. Citing the latest Census statistics that “There are now 52 million of us residing in the U.S.–nearly one in five Americans,” she  decries the cancellation of “…CSI: Miami, Desperate Housewives, and Rob, all of which had lead Latino characters.”   Coming from the leader of one of the largest Latino advocacy groups in the U.S. this should send a strong message to Hollywood.  But Hollywood has always been hard of hearing when it comes to Latinos.

Murgia is right “20 years later, there will be no Latino family starring on a prime-time network television this September.” Should there be more Latinos on TV? Yes! And to have a national organization like the NCLR address this discrepancy is what Hollywood needs to hear. It’s how the African-American community has made strides in Hollywood, by being vocal whether it was through the NAACP or Black Hollywood creatives speaking up.

Let’s take a look at the sole Latino themed show of last season, CBS’ sitcom Rob. It was given a chance and aired 8 episodes. But let’s be frank, it was not picked it up for a second season, not because some in the Latino community criticized it for being stereotypical, what killed it were the ratings and the writing. It just wasn’t good. The cast was great! Cheech Marin, Diana Maria Riva, Lupe OntiverosClaudia Bassols, Eugenio Derbez, all wonderful talents — they just weren’t given much to work with. A Latino show runner or story editor might have helped the show, the token Latina junior editor they hired just did not have much input.

Now let’s talk about the “Glass half full.”

In the 20 years as publisher of Latin Heat Entertainment, still the only entertainment trade to focus on Latinos in Hollywood, we have seen the strides — agreed Janet, not nearly enough, but to say that there have been no advances in twenty years would be disingenuous.

Twenty years ago, in 1992, there was one Latino themed network show, Frannie’s Turnand it was on CBS. It centered on a Cuban family and it starred two Latinos, Tomas Milan as the patriarch of the family and Taylor Negron. The rest of the Cuban family was played by non-Latinos. It lasted one month before it was cancelled. The only other show in 1992 that starred a Latino was Renegade.Lorenzo Lamas played the lead Reno Raines, a police officer. That show did last for five seasons. Lamas did not play a Latino character, and unless you knew that his father was the famous Argentine actor, Fernando Lamas, with Lorenzo’s fair skin and blond hair, he could “pass”? So in all we had three Latinos working on network TV in 1992 – three.

Fast-forward to 2012– and we have over 40 Latinos in starring or co-starring roles in the upcoming TV fall line-up, including in 5 of the new shows — and the best part? There is not one gardener, illegal immigrant or maid in the whole bunch. (To check out COOList of Latinos and their roles CLICK HERE). Names like Garcia, Rodriguez, Bratt, Sigler, Alejandro, Velez, Plaza, Rivera, Stowe, Lopez, Ramirez, Raymund, Vergara, de la Garza, Bratt, Roday, Justice, Nunez playing detectives, a handful of doctors, smart kids, gay characters, beautiful housewives and singing students… Yes, some of these actors are not playing Latino but the majority are. And yet, the glass is just barely half full.

Murgia is right, “Latinos also need to see their reality, America’s reality, reflected on a medium that unites us all — television entertainment.” But unless we get more Latinos show runners and network executives, it does not look like Hollywood will be presenting our reality any time soon — even if they could do it justice.

We can take a cue from the African-American creative community, which has increasingly been able to take control of their image. In spite of the fact that leaders in the African-American Hollywood community complain that there has been a decrease of programming centered around African-Americans since the days of The Bill Cosby Show, In Living Color, Family Matters, A Different World, and others, there are now several high profile show runners like Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Revenge); Stacy A. Littlejohn (Single Ladies); Mara Brock Akil(Girlfriends, The Game); Yvette Denise Lee Bowser (Living Single, A Different World) who write African-American multi dimensional characters. And, although Tyler Perry is criticized for promoting stereotypical characters, he nonetheless has created his own empire, has his own studio, and has built a fan base which is faithful to his TV shows and films. On the other hand, despite the fact that Latinos are the largest minority in the U.S. and make up 16% of the television audiences, we have no Latino Perry or a television showrunner with the track record of a Shonda Rhimes.

So I say let’s stop begging the network executives to greenlight our “reality.” They don’t get it anyway and don’t seem interested. If they are too dense to see that it would behoove them to cater to U.S. Latinos who make up the 15th largest consumer group in the world, then it is their loss.

I say, let’s focus on empowering our “Latino Tyler Perry”. Let’s find the Latinos with money who are tired of not seeing a true reflection of themselves on TV, to invest in the Latino image and fund a talent that can bring “our” reality to the screen. We need to claim ownership of our own image.

Let’s take a cue from ventures like Bounce TV  a new television network aimed at African Americans launched in Philadelphia in December of 2011. Bounce TV’s founders include Martin Luther King IIIAmbassador Andrew Young, Andrew “Bo” Young III, and Rob Hardy and Will Packer, co-founders of Rainforest Films, one of the top African American production companies in the world. Where are the Latino leaders who can do this for our community?

The newly touted El Rey Network, although headed by filmmaker/producer Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Machete), who is committed to making sure to get some “cool” programming by and about Latinos on the network, is still owned by non-Latinos. When will we Latinos own their own images like the African-American community is starting to? That is essential. That is where our focus should be.

Until we claim ownership of our image — of our reality, all we will ever have is a glass half empty and at best half full.