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Lawmakers push to add 'Selena' to National Film Registry, boost Latino visibility in media

"Latinos have been left out of the representation of American culture," says U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, who hopes the effort will correct their depiction.
Jennifer Lopez in \"Selena.\"
Jennifer Lopez in "Selena."Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection

Mexican American filmmaker Gregory Nava's 1997 movie "Selena" has been nominated for inclusion in the National Film Registry by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as the group ramps up its efforts to eradicate "the film industry’s continued exclusion of Latinos," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, in a letter to Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden on Friday.

"Selena is an American icon and she's so celebrated within the Latino community," Castro, who is also the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told NBC News. "I think part of the affirmation of that was, not only the success of the film, but also the recent success of the television series."

The film starring Jennifer Lopez depicts the life, remarkable rise, and tragic death of Tejano music legend Selena Quintanilla. The film also touches on important themes of cultural identity and assimilation faced by Mexican American communities as they navigate their personal connections between two cultures and languages.

"Given its importance as a work of Latino cinema, we believe it is deserving of preservation at the Library of Congress," Castro's letter to Hayden reads. "We trust you will give Selena careful consideration, and hope to see it included in the titles added to the National Film Registry in 2021."

Nava, who directed the film, responded to the nomination in a statement: "For too long U.S. Latinx filmmakers’ contribution to the film industry have been overlooked and underrepresented. Our community is important and growing and our stories need to be told. I applaud the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ efforts to bring attention to this and to honor the accomplishments of Latinx filmmakers."

"Latinos have been left out of the representation of American culture by and large, and this is one effort to make sure that Latinos are represented in the telling of American culture and the retelling of American culture, and part of that includes American films," said Castro.

Even two decades after the release of "Selena," Latinos continue to be significantly underrepresented in Hollywood films. A recent study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 44 of the 100 top movies in 2019 had absolutely no Latino characters with speaking roles, a rate that did not differ much from 2018 (47 movies) or 2015 (40 movies).

Only 4.9 percent of the speaking roles in last year's top 100 movies went to Hispanic actors even though Latinos represent nearly 19 percent of the nation's population. Latinos were the only major racial and ethnic group that was underrepresented in on-screen speaking roles in 2019, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Latinos accounted for a mere 3.7 percent of film directors.

Castro said he felt a renewed sense of urgency to tackle what he considers "as a foundational issue for the Latino community" following the deadliest attack on Latinos in recent U.S. history in 2019.

After hearing that the gunman who killed 23 people at a local Walmart in El Paso, Texas, had told authorities he was targeting people of Mexican descent, Castro took an official delegation of members of Congress to Los Angeles to meet with studio executives, talent agencies, the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, and about 40 Latino and Latina actors, directors, producers.

"People have preconceived notions of you based on the group that you're part of. And those notions, in many ways, come from American media and entertainment," said Castro. "Hollywood is still the main narrative-creating and image-defining institution in the United States and in American media."

A recent Nielsen study looking into diversity and inclusion on TV found that overall representation for Latinos on television was 5.5 percent throughout 2019. “That isn't great,” Stacie de Armas, senior vice president of diverse consumer insights and initiatives for Nielsen, previously told NBC News. "Latinos were significantly underrepresented on every platform, every genre, and in total."

"And yet the entertainment industry is one that receives massive tax breaks throughout the country at different levels of government," said Castro. "You have to wonder at what point we're subsidizing our own exclusion. And so, that's where I think government comes in."

"There are very progressive individuals in Hollywood who donate to wonderful causes and incredibly progressive candidates, but the system as a whole is not progressive at all. In fact, it's fairly backward and exclusive," Castro added. "We're serious about seeing real change, for our community to be included in this industry that professes to be a very liberal industry."

During the new year, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is expected to identify more films that "feature the American Latino experience" that could be included in the National Film Registry in the future. Members of the public can also nominate films for inclusion in the 2021 National Film Registry by visiting the Library of Congress’ nomination website.

The Library of Congress has already included Latino films such as "Salt of the Earth," "I Am Joaquin," "Zoot Suit," "El Norte," "Stand and Deliver," and "Real Women Have Curves" in the National Film Registry. Last month, they included the German filmmaker Wim Wenders' documentary "Buena Vista Social Club," which follows renowned guitarist Ry Cooder and his son, Joachim, as they travel to Havana, Cuba, to reunite some of the greatest stars of Cuban pop music from the Batista-era.

While Castro's term as the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus ends this weekend, he will continue working on these issues as a member of the caucus and through his own congressional office, he said. He also hopes to expand his efforts to tackle the invisibility of the Latino community in other media industries such as publishing and news.

"It'll be an incredible day when Latino children, but also all Americans can see the full story of a community that is not only large in this country, but has contributed significantly to its prosperity and its success over the generations," said Castro.

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