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Why are Latino actors still the Oscars' weak spot?

Looking through Academy history, there have been only four Latino winners in the acting categories.
Image: Warner Bros. \"In The Heights\".
Warner Bros. "In The Heights".Macall Polay / Warner Bros.

With Hispanic Heritage Month currently underway, and this year’s awards season just clearing its throat, it’s worth examining the contributions that Latinos have made in the industry—more importantly, how those contributions have been interpreted with the Academy in its 92-year history.

While it’s easy to point out the many shortcomings (and there are many) that the Academy has made, they are only a small piece of the problems at hand. #OscarsSoWhite has been a hot-button topic since its birth following the 2014 nominations, and the Academy has been used as the scapegoat for Hollywood’s less inclusive issues. While AMPAS can own part of it, my long-held philosophy has been “they can’t vote for what’s not there.”

We bicker about the way we say words in our language, or if we even speak our language. Too many times I’ve heard “you’re not a real Puerto Rican” due to not being fluent in the native tongue. We fight about the introduction of the word “Latinx” and whether it’s a term that we should adopt when referring to one another because we have a “masculine” language. We even challenge one another about what culture had it “tougher” along the way. Dangling qualifiers are placed upon each other, and that’s before we even make it to Tinseltown.

To engage with one another, we have to educate with a basic 101-type of a lesson on who we are and what the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” mean. In the United States, the two terms are used interchangeably, which is incorrect. Hispanics refer to people who descend from Spanish-speaking populations, including Spain, a white European country. Latinos (or if preferred, Latinas or Latinxs) applies to those descended from Latin America, including Brazil. Put merely, Hispanic is tied to language while Latino is bound to geography.

“You’re splitting hairs,” you might say. In the battle for equality, it matters because of the misconceptions the terms provide to Hollywood on the progress that is being made for Latinos on screen.

In 2018, following another occurrence of #OscarsSoWhite, Brooks Barnes, a Hollywood reporter for the New York Times, published a piece titled “After #OscarsSoWhite, Hispanics Seek Their Hollywood Moment.” Barnes, a white journalist, does his best to speak up for a population that has been grossly underrepresented in the Academy. While utterly appreciated, he frames his analysis and presents the two terms interchangeably. He writes, “the last Hispanic actor to win an Oscar was Penélope Cruz, from Spain, who was honored nine years ago for her supporting role in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.'”

While he describes Cruz’s ethnic roots correctly, near the top of his piece, Barnes writes, “…the minority group that Hollywood excludes the most onscreen — Latinos — is trying to create its own bullhorn moment.”

Actors like Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are talented and should be celebrated for their wins, but they are not Latinos. As Spaniards (or los españoles), they have given a false pretense of progress in Hollywood.

The U.S. created these labels and has created and continued the confusion. Even Latinos, like myself, have been pre-wired to use them whenever we see fit. In a time where we are honoring and respecting the preferred and correct pronouns of individuals, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Hispanic, Afro-Latino, Afro-Latina, Latin@, Spanish, or any inclusive and progressive description is something that we must begin to respect.

Looking through Academy history, there have been only four Latino winners in the acting categories: José Ferrer (1950’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” in best actor), Benicio del Toro (2000’s “Traffic” in supporting actor), Rita Moreno (1961’s “West Side Story” in supporting actress) and Anthony Quinn (1952’s “Viva Zapata!” and 1956’s “Lust for Life” in supporting actor). Born Manuel Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca in Chihuahua, Mexico, Anthony Quinn is just the tip of the iceberg that shows Latinos need to “cover” or “hide” the more recognizable ethnic parts of their names to succeed in the business.

In 2006, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu was nominated for best picture and director for his film “Babel.” That year was dubbed “the most international and diverse Oscar ceremony ever.” Forest Whitaker, Will Smith, Djimon Hounsou, Eddie Murphy, Adriana Barraza, Jennifer Hudson and Rinko Kikuchi were all among the acting nominees. Eight years later, the “Babel” director returned to the Oscar ceremony but with a “marketing tweak” on his nominated and eventual best picture-winning film “Birdman.” Alejandro González Iñárritu was now “Alejandro G. Iñárritu” and has remained billed as such ever since. He won three Oscars at the 2015 ceremony, and then again the next year for “The Revenant,” only the second director in history to win back-to-back directing prizes.

Did Iñárritu’s name change make a difference in the perception of voters and audiences? Can’t say for sure, but it’s interesting to see the most Latino sounding part of his name axed in the latter part of his career, and all of a sudden, major success follows. It’s a too-often seen trend that Hispanics and Latinos make in order to “make it.” Oscar Isaac (born Hernandez) and Martin Sheen (born Ramón Gerard Antonio Estévez) have done so, but it doesn’t make them bad people, nor do we fault them for it. Does “Oscar Hernandez” get to play the pivotal role in “Inside Llewyn Davis” under that name? Does “Ramón Gerard Antonio Estévez” get to star as Josiah Bartlett in the long-running and beloved “The West Wing?”

Two disappointing moments seen this year was when Warner Bros.’ “In the Heights” and 20th Century Studios’ “West Side Story” exited the calendar year and moved to 2021. With their departures, the possibility for an abundance of Latinx representation in the Oscar races plummeted. So without Rachel Zegler, Anthony Ramos, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gregory Diaz IV, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits and more, the chance for Latinx acting nominees at the 2021 Oscars seems (at the moment) nil.

What is genuinely preventing the unity within the community is something that people are very fearful of debating. The instances of colorism and racism in the Latinx culture will be the single greatest hindrance for our acceptance if we do not tackle it head-on.

On my mother’s side, they proudly hail from Loíza, Puerto Rico, the northeastern part of the island. History shows that in the 1600s, Spain instructed slaves to be sent to the region of Loíza. If you visit the municipality today, it is home to the largest Black population on the island, better known as Afro-Latinos. If you see other areas of the island, you may hear some locals say that Loíza is “where the ‘negritos’ live.” The word “negrito” literally translates to “little Black man.” Depending on your Spanish dialect and language, some say it is not a racial slur; instead, a term “affectionately used by many Puerto Ricans to refer to their children, whether they be of light or dark complexion.”

Ask anyone who grew up in Loíza, or is darker-skinned, including my mother, when someone used the term with them, they may offer a more “contrary” definition.

It’s too reductive and oversimplified to see a Puerto Rican, or any Latinx as just from one part of the world. “It’s complicated,” says J. Don Birnam, a Mexican freelance film journalist. “People want to generalize because it’s easier. How do you try to generalize 500 million people who come from different parts of the world?”

We get to celebrate Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Iñárritu winning Oscars but at this juncture, it seems the skin tone must be “just right, in order to win the fight.” Afro-latinx is sorely missing from television and movie screens. Netflix’s teen-drama “On My Block” is one of the only current shows that represent the rainbow of colors in the Latinx society. We can only hope for more and for people to see the multiple parts of the varying countries that flow through our blood.

Unfortunately, when Latinx people rightfully speak out about the lack of representation it can be read as an “anti-Black” sentiment. Earlier this year, John Leguizamo boycotted the Emmys due to any Latinx actors receiving acting nominations. He received backlash when he tweeted, along with an LA Times article stating, “Why can’t we Latinx have a piece of the pie? We are the largest ethnic group in America and missing as if we didn’t exist!”

Critics and casual entertainment enthusiasts pounced and quickly pointed out Jharrel Jerome’s historic win the year prior for “When They See Us,” a mini-series in which Leguizamo co-starred and received an Emmy nomination himself. Jerome is Dominican and identifies as Afro-Latino, and is just the second Latinx actor to win an Emmy award in any of the lead categories (America Ferrera was the first for “Ugly Betty” in 2007).

One interesting observation in the Academy landscape is a larger tally of Latinx in categories like production design. Six winners in 18 individual nominations are a much better showing than the others previously mentioned. Which begs the question, “why are we good enough to build your sets, but not good enough to be in front of your cameras?”

The Academy’s announcement of diversity standards and representation was for all groups to benefit. We don’t make progress by just taking care of our own. We do it by taking care of each other. There are so many more voices that need to be lifted in these spaces. Let the conversation continue.

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