At the end of February while most of the United States was gripped in a frustrating pattern of freezing temperatures, a group of Latino media and entertainment professionals were embarking on a visit to the sunny site of a burgeoning film and television landscape. This group was not travelling to the familiar terrain of Hollywood, but instead finding their way through Tel Aviv, Israel.
This traveling cohort from “Latinowood” included actors, producers and entertainment executives from companies like Warner Brothers, Nuyorican Productions and Fox Broadcasting Company. They were participating in a seminar sponsored by Project Interchange, an education institute within the American Jewish Committee (AJC) that “brings opinion leaders and policy makers to Israel.” This is the first trip to focus exclusively on Hispanics in the entertainment industry.
The idea for a specifically Hollywood-focused trip came from Project Interchange alumnae Felix Sanchez. As the co-founder and current chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, Sanchez recognized the possibility of devoting an entire seminar based around the entertainment industry. Sanchez accompanied the pioneering delegation, along with Dina Siegel Vann, the Director of the AJC’s Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.
The group’s week in Israel was filled with talks, presentations and networking events designed to forge ties with the two communities. The Hispanic media professionals met with Israeli cultural leaders including the writer Etgar Keret, playwright Shira Geffen, show creator Hagai Levi (In Treatment, The Affair) and Dorit Inbar, the General Manager of the Israeli New Foundation for Cinema and Television.
For Sanchez, the motivation behind the trip stemmed from developing a “mutual understanding and creative partnership” between these two groups. As Hispanics continue to struggle both on and off-screen in Hollywood, it was poignant to look towards a community in Israel that has endured hardship, discrimination and many other obstacles. Siegel Vann acknowledged how the groups came together and “identified” many common themes. Both of these groups, she noted face the challenge “in telling their story and facing coverage characterized by stereotyping.”
The history of Israel was also on display as participants had the opportunity to visit the Western Wall, Masada, the Dead Sea and other significant places throughout the country. The group also witnessed firsthand the tensions that endure between Israelis and Palestinians. During the week participants traveled to the Umm El-Fahem Art Gallery, a home for Arab art and artists, and they also heard from Ibtisam Mara’ana Menuhin, an Arab film director and producer.
Seeing multiple perspectives in Israel was particularly relevant to Ligiah Villalobos, a writer and producer originally from Mexico. For Villalobos, the trip “[reinforced] my belief that stories, experiences and points of view of minorities/people of color in a society need to be heard in order to be understood.” Villalobos was one of several members of the trip that has navigated the tricky politics of Hollywood as a Latina. “And it is through the telling of theirs and our stories that a country as a whole can have a greater understanding of us,” she said.
Project Interchange and the AJC have a strong history within the Latino community. Hundreds of Hispanic professionals, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, have travelled to Israel through their invitation. Siegel Vann witnessed the unique aftermath of taking a group of Latinos solely from the entertainment industry. “Besides exposing participants to the complexity and vibrancy of Israeli society and helping them understand its challenges and accomplishments, we facilitated a conversation.”
Even though now that the group is back in Los Angeles, that “conversation” has just begun. Sanchez and Siegel Vann are beginning the groundwork for the most immediate by-product of the trip, the first Latino-Jewish Entertainment Summit, which they would like to produce annually. Sanchez hopes this sets in a motion a new era of “multicultural programming,” where attendees can “develop artistic partnerships to jump start original and authentic U.S. Latino content.”
Ruth Livier, an actress on the popular web series Ylse, came back from her trip to Israel invigorated. With her background in online programming, Livier has witnessed firsthand how a global audience can respond to genuine and well-written Latino characters. “Meeting with our counterparts in Israel was inspiring because it confirmed that we have much more in common than not and it relit my enthusiasm for seeking out transnational digital media partnerships.”