As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to an end Friday, prominent Latino creators and lawmakers are reminding Americans of what's at stake when a community of 62.1 million people are not meaningfully represented in media.
"The lack of visibility and inclusion — inclusion in our narratives, in our stories and our contributions — becomes a deficiency that if it continues as it has in our communities for decades and decades, it can become toxic," Tanya Saracho, a showrunner best known for creating the acclaimed STARZ series "Vida," said during a virtual panel Thursday hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagements and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The event took place after a Government Accountability Office report released in late September detailed the underrepresentation of Latinos in the media industry — including in film, television, news and publishing.
High profile Latinos in the music industry, such as music producer Emilio Estefan and musician René Pérez Joglar, known as Residente, also participated in the panel to discuss the challenges they face in the industry, particularly as it recovers from the pandemic.
The panel focused on Latinos in TV and film, industries in which Latinos account for only about 5 percent to 6 percent of main cast members, even though they make up nearly 19 percent of the nation's population, said Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón, director of research and civic engagement at UCLA's division of social science, during the discussion. She has been collecting data on diversity in Hollywood for a decade.
Only 3 percent of directors and writers, respectively, who worked in top box office and streaming films in 2020 were Latino, Ramón said, adding that the Writers Guild of America has reported that 8.7 percent of TV writers are Latino.
“And yet the entertainment industry is one that receives massive tax breaks throughout the country at different levels of government,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who has been leading efforts in Congress to curb Latino underrepresentation and misrepresentation in media, previously told NBC News. “You have to wonder at what point we’re subsidizing our own exclusion. And so, that’s where I think government comes in.”
Earlier this year, Castro also said he felt a renewed sense of urgency to tackle the issue following the 2019 killing of 23 people in El Paso, Texas, by a gunman who told authorities he was targeting people of Mexican descent. The shooting was the deadliest attack on Latinos in recent U.S. history.
“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,” he said. “Hollywood is still the main narrative-creating and image-defining institution in the United States and in American media.”
“Culture is very powerful. It affects perception and eventually policy. That is why we have to be included, not just cosmetically or just superficially but with real access and real empowerment because for so long, others have handled our narratives in Hollywood. The dominant culture has told us who we are,” she said. "When we are consuming their version of us, it becomes like us consuming a Monsanto vegetable, except not genetically modified but culturally modified to their limited stereotype version of us.”
"Toxic invisibility, toxic misrepresentation, and that toxicity will develop into misconceptions and inaccurate stereotype perceptions of us, and eventually that will affect policy," Saracho added.
Pete Corona, the director of drama development at Netflix, said the biggest challenge the streaming company has with recruiting and retaining Latino talent "is the fact that our community is so far behind in terms of the numbers."
"It's such a pull to have to keep growing, and that's up to people like myself and others to hire, mentor and create these pipeline programs and to make sure that the gap between the program and their first job is bridged," Corona said during the panel.
"We're trying to crack that code, and we could do better much, like many other people and colleagues in the industry," he added.
In February, Netflix commissioned the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to conduct its first comprehensive study of diversity and inclusion in its film and series programming. Researchers found that a mere 4.5 percent of main cast and crew members in Netflix U.S. series and films in 2018 and 2019 were Latino.
For Steven Canals, a showrunner best known for creating FX’s acclaimed series “Pose,” the first time he ever saw himself represented in media "in my totally" was Jennie Livingstone's documentary "Paris Is Burning," which chronicles New York City's ball culture, as well as the African American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it during the 1980s.
"That was the impetus for wanting to create a television show like 'Pose,'" which centers on LGBTQ Afro-Latinos and Black individuals "who are not just surviving but thriving."
"When we think specifically about young Latinx, LGBTQ folks," Canals said, "it felt important to let those individuals know that your voice matters, your life matters. You deserve to take up space unapologetically."