Latino 'erasure' at a critical time? SNL's Julián Castro omission sparks criticism

Leaving out the only Latino in the presidential race also resurfaced criticism of having then-candidate Donald Trump guest host after he called Mexicans "rapists."
Image: Larry David, Woody Harrelson, and Maya Rudolph during a sketch on Saturday Night Live on Sept. 28, 2019.
Larry David, Woody Harrelson, and Maya Rudolph during a sketch on Saturday Night Live on Sept. 28, 2019.Will Heath / NBC

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By Gwen Aviles

Back for its 45th season, NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" is receiving an onslaught of criticism for leaving the only Latino in the 2020 Democratic presidential race out of a skit in the season premiere on Saturday.

The apparent snub revived questions about what some see as the show's lack of diversity and tone-deafness when it comes to Latinos.

The episode placed nine Democratic candidates at an impeachment town hall, among them Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg and Marianne Williamson — the spiritual guru who failed to qualify for the last Democratic debate.

Yet Julián Castro, the former housing secretary and only Latino in the race who participated in the last debate, was notably missing.

His absence drew criticism from the Castro campaign as well as from a host of prominent Latino celebrities and public figures, who saw the omission as part of a larger issue.

“Interesting that @nbcsnl decided to cut one candidate out of this sketch. Could you not find a Latino actor to play @JulianCastro?” Sawyer Hackett, national press secretary for Castro’s campaign, wrote on Twitter.

The comic Cristela Alonzo wrote on Twitter: "The erasure of Julian Castro on SNL last night and the constant confusion of the twins in news shows us the true problem of representation. SNL refuses to admit brown people exist and the news media is supposed to report FACTS yet can’t make sure the correct twin is covered.”

Some, including Latino Victory, a progressive group that endorsed Castro last month, called on "SNL" to hire a Latino cast member to portray Castro.

Lack of Latino representation?

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In the show’s 44-year history, "SNL" has had three Latino cast members: The Chilean-born American actor Horatio Sanz (1998 to 2006); Fred Armisen, whose mother is Venezuelan (2002 to 2013); and Melissa Villaseñor, a Mexican American comic who joined the show in 2016.

The show, which shares NBC Universal as a parent company with NBC News, does not currently have any male Latino cast members.

“When there’s an issue of underrepresentation, you have a problem,” Felix Sanchez, the chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, told NBC News.

“Understandably any portrayal of a Latino by a non-Latino cast member is criticism the show would want to avoid,” Sanchez said. “But without a Latino cast member, the show can’t portray a critical community and by not including a representation of Castro, the show is erasing his presence in the race.”

The show has not responded to NBC News’ requests for comment.

During the skit, "SNL" also omitted several other presidential candidates, including Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, Michael Bennet and Steve Bullock.

But Isabel Molina-Guzmán, a professor in Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said it made sense that it was the omission of Castro that drew outrage and attention.

“Maybe they don’t find Castro funny or don’t consider him to be an object of satire," Molina-Guzmán said. But when it comes to Latinos, “to erase us from the public consciousness while we are being politically vilified is dangerous and destructive," she said. "The omission of Castro is compounded by the fact that it’s coming while we have a president whose policies and rhetoric have had a negative impact on Latino and Latin American communities.”

In national polls, a majority of Latinos have said they felt less secure with Trump as president and several polls have shown a majority of Latinos think Trump administration policies have been harmful to Hispanics.

The episode, Molina-Guzmán added, highlighted what she believes is “the whiteness of the show,” particularly when Latinos compose 18 percent of the U.S. population. There are about 60 million Hispanics in the country, according to the U.S. census.

A troubled history

In 2015, "SNL" invited then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to host an episode shortly after he announced his candidacy by trashing Mexicans and calling them rapists and criminals and touting his plans to build a wall that Mexico would pay for. At the time, the National Council of La Raza, now UnidosUS, called the invitation "a slap in the face."

Hundreds of people from different Latino groups protested Trump's appearance, prompting the trending social media campaign #RacismIsntFunny. Years later, it's still a sore point that resurfaced after this weekend's show.

“Having Trump host the show was a huge disservice to Latinos because it gave him a platform and normalized his hateful speech,” Sanchez told NBC News. “Omitting Castro from the "SNL" skit is also a disservice to Latinos because it casts us out of the race and makes us outliers, instead of validating that we are part of the process and system.”

The lack of Latino comics on mainstream television cannot be attributed to a lack of available talent, according to the many who took to social media to name viable candidates who could play Castro.

Among the suggestions were Arturo Castro, Michael Peña, Johnny Ortiz and John Leguizamo. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father, Luis A. Miranda Jr., reportedly told Natalie Montelongo, the national political director for Castro’s campaign, that the “Hamilton” creator would be willing to step into the role.

"The lack of Latino representation on television is glaring, and it goes all around. From paltry representation in news media to entertainment media, Latinos haven’t seen the representation they deserve," said Molina-Guzmán. "The problem doesn’t only pertain to on-camera talent. We need Latino representation in writers’ rooms and behind the camera, too."

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