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Latinos are missing from the media workforce, despite a potential to grow viewers and improve content

Hispanics have been underrepresented in front of and behind the camera at the same rate for a decade, leaving 41% of Latino audiences without enough content that represents them.
Rita Moreno, Anthony Quinn, Raquel Welch, Benicio del Toro, Jennifer Lopez, Andy Garcia
Latino and Latina actors, including Rita Moreno, Anthony Quinn, Raquel Welch, Benicio del Toro, Jennifer Lopez and Andy Garcia, have shown their ability to draw audiences to box offices.Getty Images; Everett Collection

When there are Latinos in front of and behind the camera, streaming services can create content that's more successful at amassing a larger share of Latino and overall audiences, according to Nielsen's most recent report looking into Hispanic audiences.

"This, to me, is almost like a blueprint that media companies and folks who are greenlighting and acquiring content can look at when they’re making decisions," Stacie de Armas, senior vice president of diverse insights and intelligence at Nielsen, told NBC News on Thursday.

But a report from the Government Accountability Office released Wednesday seems to suggest that media companies may not be doing enough to foster Latino talent that could potentially help them improve content while growing their audiences.

Latinos are underrepresented in the media industry workforce across film, radio, television, newspapers and digital platforms, according to the report.

In 2019, the most recent year for which American Community Survey data is available, about 12% of all media industry workers were Latino, a rate that has remained virtually unchanged since 2010, when Latino media workers made up 11% of the industry.

Latinos are 19% of the nation's population, almost 1 in 5 Americans, and 18% of workers outside the media industry.

The largest percentage of Hispanic media industry workers were employed in service worker positions (19%) — which include food, cleaning and personal and protective services, according to the latest available reports submitted by media companies to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2014 and 2018.

In positions that can influence the content audiences consume, Latinos were far less represented: They made up only 7% of professional media industry positions such as actors, producers, directors, writers, reporters and editors.

They comprised the same number, 7%, of first- or mid-level managers and a mere 4% of all media senior and executive managers.

The Nielsen report, released last month, looked at the 530 most-streamed programs over the past year and found that 92% of them did not have Hispanic representation in key roles such as executive producer, writer, director, creator or showrunner.

Latinos seem to notice, with 41% reporting they believe there's not enough content that represents them. When Latinos did see themselves represented in content, they felt "it was inaccurate" in most cases, de Armas said.

Previous reports from the GAO, Nielsen and the University of California, Los Angeles have addressed the underrepresentation of Latinos on-screen and how it connects to marginal representation behind the camera.

According to the GAO report, obstacles keeping Latinos from entering the industry include limited access to professional networks, difficulty meeting union membership requirements and a lack of diversity among decision-makers, as well as financial and educational barriers.

Media company mergers and consolidations could potentially close more opportunities for Latinos looking to enter the media industry, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, one of several members of Congress who requested the GAO to study the issue, said Wednesday at a National Press Club event.

"You go from two open doors to one," Castro said after pointing out that Latino-led stories such as the TV show "Gordita Chronicles" and the film "Batgirl," starring Dominican American artist Leslie Grace, became collateral damage after being canceled as a result of the recent WarnerMedia and Discovery Inc. merger.

"You go from having an opportunity at two companies to having one opportunity at one company that now has a lot more leverage and power over content creators and others," Castro said.

Who's in front of and behind the camera

Castro said the lack of diversity in the media workforce "has led to those lopsided and uneven portrayals that then create a stigma for an entire community."

In "Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film," film historian Luis Reyes wrote that while the motion picture industry has created some job opportunities for many Latinos, "racism and ignorance made it difficult for them to reach stellar heights in the industry."

Rita Hayworth sits next to actor Glenn Ford on the set of Gilda
Hispanic actress Rita Hayworth, originally born Margarita Carmen Cansino, sits next to actor Glenn Ford in the set of the 1946 film "Gilda."Courtesy Running Press

The new book shows how Latinos have been involved in the film industry since its inception and puts a focus on Latinos who had a hand in creating innovative special effects for the iconic 1933 "King Kong" movie and and scenography for "Citizen Kane" in 1941.

Many actors of Hispanic descent, like others in the early era of Hollywood, changed their names to conform to film studios' wishes and access more career opportunities, "not because they were ashamed of their heritage or anything like that," Reyes told NBC News.

But Latino representation on-screen has often been a reflection of American perceptions of Latino communities — for better and for worse.

In the early Hollywood years, many actors were typecast as the bandido, Latin lover, the sultry señorita and other stereotypical characters often found in literature, Reyes said: "Movies just put a face on them."

Rita Moreno in West Side Story
Rita Moreno in "West Side Story."Herbert Dorfman / Corbis via Getty Images

Versions of these stereotypes have continued to persist in Hollywood, whether it's through the hypersexualization of Latinas or by disproportionately portraying Latino men as criminals.

Problems with accurate representation of Latinos grew in the 1940s when the U.S. government created a motion picture division to persuade American filmmakers to make movies with Latin American themes. But some filmmakers "didn't really do movies about Latin America. They did movies about Americanos, going down to Latin America," Reyes said. While the era did provide job opportunities to Latino talents, such as Carmen Miranda and Cesar Romero, it did little to promote authentic Hispanic portrayals on-screen.

A significant number of Latino stars emerged between 1945 and 1965 — such as Ricardo Montalbán, Anthony Quinn, Rita Moreno and Raquel Welch — paving the way for more recent Latino stars such as Salma Hayek, Andy Garcia, Jennifer Lopez, Zoe Saldana and Benicio del Toro.

Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia, and Isabela Merced
Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia and Isabela Merced in 2022 remake of "Father of the Bride."Warner Bros. / ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett C

"Today we see the fruits of all of the work that’s come before," Reyes said, pointing to the work of rising current Latino actors such as Ana de Armas, Oscar Isaac, Pedro Pascal and Ariana DeBose as well as Latino filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez and Patricia Cardoso, among others.

But there's still more work to do, he added.

Nielsen's report provides a window of opportunity, finding that 42% of America’s most bingeable streaming programs over the past year had Latino inclusion in front of or behind the camera, de Armas said.

The report also found that the more this kind of Latino representation persists, the more likely it is for the content produced to have cultural relevance and resonate with Hispanic viewers.

"Do we have the golden touch?" de Armas said. "We do."

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CORRECTION (Oct. 7, 2022, 4:21 p.m.): A caption on a previous version of this article misidentified a Latino actor. The photo shows Anthony Quinn, not Ricardo Montalbán.