To succeed as a Latinx creator in Hollywood, it helps to be white-passing

Insider
Insider
Feb 3 · 8 min read

“Gentefied” cocreator Marvin Lemus told Insider that up until very recently Hollywood continually “whitewashed” Latinx stories.

Various characters from “Los Espookys,” “Gentefied,” and “Selena.”
Shows like “Los Espookys,” “Gentefied,” and “Selena” feature primarily Latinx casts. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO; Netflix; Kevin Estrada/Netflix; Samantha Lee/Insider

By Libby Tores

The fiery Latin wife. The sultry, sneaky housekeeper. The earnest, hardworking migrant worker.

Tropes involving Latinx or Latino people are so deeply ingrained into our collective cultural lexicon that by now it seems almost impossible to imagine a world without them.

Recently, numerous shows have sought to do away with these stereotypes in favor of more nuanced characters firmly grounded in the reality of Latinx people. These shows — which center Latinx actors and focus on the authentic experiences of their characters — have led some to say there’s a Latinx “wave” moving through Hollywood.

Latinx culture and identity are complex. But because of racism, colorism, and xenophobia, the most well-represented part of the community in Hollywood right now is probably light-skinned Spanish-speaking Latinx people, which leads to the exclusion of Afro-Latinx and Indigenous Latinx people.

And while Hollywood has started to reckon with the racism and discrimination that are so insidious in the industry, there’s still a long way to go before all Latinx creatives — in addition to Black people, Asians, and other people of color — achieve the same access, opportunities, and investment as their white peers.

Characters meeting in a circle in “Los Espookys”
“Los Espookys” is one of the few Latinx-centric shows. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Movie and TV show leads are still disproportionately non-Latinx Caucasians

A 2019 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that in 100 of the top grossing movies from 2007 to 2018, only three films featured Latinx leads or coleads. And in the same 100 movies, only 4.5% of all speaking characters were Latinx.

With TV shows, Latinx actors didn’t fare much better. UCLA’s annual Hollywood diversity report found that on broadcast scripted shows (those that air on NBC, ABC, and CBS) from 2018 to 2019, Latinx actors made up only 6.6% of the leads. The stats for cable and digital scripted shows were similarly dismal.

Read more: How the $100 billion Hollywood machine is scrambling to come back after its worst year in decades

But a spate of Latinx-focused shows and movies have made waves with more mainstream audiences, including HBO’s 2019 comedy “Los Espookys”; “Selena: The Series” and “Gentefied” on Netflix, which premiered last year; and the coming adaptation of the hit musical “In the Heights” in June.

Though some media outlets said these series were helping to galvanize a “Latinx revolution” in Hollywood, Latinx actors — including Noemi Gonzalez, who plays Suzette Quintanilla on “Selena: The Series” — told Insider there was still progress to be made.

Noemi Gonzalez in “Selena: The Series.”
Noemi Gonzalez in “Selena: The Series.”
Noemi Gonzalez in “Selena: The Series.” Photo: Netflix

“Latinos watch so much content, and it’s really baffling to me that they don’t see themselves on-screen as much,” Gonzalez said.

“A lot of what had to happen was representation for our Black brothers and sisters, and our Asian brothers and sisters, for there to finally be a moment of ‘Wait, where’s the Latinx representation?’ But I feel like that wave, we’re barely coming up on that wave.”

The filmmaker Moisés Zamora, the creator of the “Selena,” which centers late Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla’s rise to fame, also said there’s a lot of work to do.

Read more: ‘Selena’ creator Moisés Zamora says he ‘did not reach out to’ the singer’s murderer Yolanda Saldívar before filming new Netflix series

“For me, it’s highly, highly, highly a priority to be able to create opportunities for other Latinx individuals in the entertainment business — Latinxs of all races, you know,” the self-identified Mexican American gay immigrant, who recently started a Latinx-centered production company called Zone One, said.

“That includes Indigenous people and Afro Latinos, because we all come in different shapes and sizes.”

“Gentefied” stars walk in a protest together.
“Gentefied” stars walk in a protest together.
“Gentefied” features several Afro-Latinx characters. Photo: Kevin Estrada/Netflix

It’s difficult for some people to understand that the Latinx community encompasses more than just light-skinned immigrants

That those who identify as Latinx defy categorization and don’t fit neatly into a single conception of race, ethnicity, or political identity has been a revelation for some people, especially after the 2020 election.

Many were shocked that white Cuban Americans in Florida’s Miami-Dade county voted for Trump, despite that people who identify as Latinx hail from a variety of countries and are not solely white-passing immigrants from Mexico.

Following coverage of the election, the Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez gave a sharp rebuke on Twitter to those who couldn’t conceptualize Latinxs as a diverse and multiracial group.

“This misconception comes from how little u bother knowing us, how superficially u cover us & how absent we are in newsrooms,” she said.

Even the term “Latinx” — a gender-inclusive alternative to “Latino” that has divided some Spanish-speakers — is a reminder that Latin identity is rich, complex, and ever-evolving.

Unfortunately for many Latinx people, representation of Spanish speakers in Hollywood tends to skew white-passing, focusing on lighter-skinned actors from well-known South and Central American countries, notably Mexico.

And despite that indigenous and Afro-Latinx people make up an important part of the community, they’re rarely, if ever, portrayed in major TV shows or movies.

Colorism and racism seem to have prevented the creation of more nuanced and well-rounded Latinx storytelling in Hollywood. Shows like Netflix’s “Gentefied” and the coming adaptation of “In the Heights,” both of which feature Afro-Latinx characters and cast, are exceptions.

Karrie Martin and Julissa Calderon play lovers on “Gentefied.”
Karrie Martin and Julissa Calderon play lovers on “Gentefied.”
Karrie Martin and Julissa Calderon play lovers on “Gentefied.” Photo: Kevin Estrada/Netflix

‘Gentefied’ is an example of how diverse Latinx stories can be told well

The show’s cocreator, Linda Yvette Chavez, told Insider that since the beginning of her career, she’s been trying to increase representation in the Latinx community.

“I have always known that the representation of our community is predicated on white supremacy,” she said. “Like, very early on, I wanted to cast people in lead roles who were more dark-skinned or were indigenous.”

Chavez said that the racism and colorism in the Latinx community caused her to reject certain labels.

“I didn’t really associate with the term ‘Latina’ because of the way that it kind of drowns out Black and indigenous faces and voices by … grouping us all into one big group,” she said.

“In recent years I’ve readopted it just to build solidarity and community with other folks who associate culturally with each other.”

Read more: ‘Selena’ creator Moisés Zamora defends Jennifer Lopez portraying the late Tejano singer in the 1997 biopic

Chavez’s “Gentefied” cocreator, Marvin Lemus, agreed, telling Insider that he thought Hollywood continually watered down or whitewashed Latinx stories up until recently.

“The thing that we were trying to remedy with ‘Gentefied’ was the fact that anytime Hollywood came out with something that was targeted to Latinos, I would watch it and I would be, like, ‘I don’t know who this is for, but it ain’t for me,’” Lemus said.

Lemus — the child of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants who couldn’t leave the US until he was in his 20s because of his mother’s immigration status — said he didn’t identify with the shows targeted at Latin American communities.

But it was this feeling of not quite belonging to either culture that helped Lemus bond with Chavez and led them to create “Gentefied,” where immigrants and identity make up the center of the story.

“We were, like, ‘We are going to make a show that is incredibly Chicano, that is unapologetically Mexican American,’ because that’s who we are,” Lemus said.

Marvin Lemus and “Gentefied” executive producer America Ferrera.
Marvin Lemus and “Gentefied” executive producer America Ferrera.
Marvin Lemus and “Gentefied” executive producer America Ferrera. Photo: Kevin Estrada/Netflix

Latinx creators said it’s up to those in positions of power to change the industry

In FX’s “Pose,” MJ Rodriguez, an Afro-Latina, plays house mother Blanca Evangelista-Rodriguez, while her costar, Indya Moore, also of Afro-Latinx descent, plays a young model named Angel. The show doesn’t really explore the issues Afro-Latinx people face within the community, but instead focuses on the characters’ sexuality and experiences in the ballroom scene.

Of course there are other Afro-Latinxs making waves in Hollywood, including Lala Anthony, Zoe Saldana, Tessa Thompson, and Lupita Nyong’o.

While the industry has begun to feature Afro-Latinx actors, the portrayals of Latinx people on-screen still tend to focus on lighter-skinned Spanish-speaking immigrants, something Chavez said is up to those in positions of power to change.

Read more: Justina Adorno, the breakout star of ABC’s ‘Grand Hotel,’ wants the Latinx community to be more welcoming

“White and mestizo and light-skinned Latinx are always the ones who are rising to the top tier, and we have to be the ones who move the needle and have to help support the movement,” Chavez said. “We have to call for the castings to change. We have to question it as well. Like, why is it that we’re the ones making it through the gates?”

Chavez said it was up to those in power to acknowledge “privileges” and ask, “How do I create more opportunities for nonwhite Latinx people?”

Essentially, as Chavez put it, there need to be more diverse Latinx people in positions of power with the ability to make important and long-lasting decisions in the entertainment industry.

“I want more of us there, across the gamut of like our community, whether they’re Black, Asian, or Indigenous, telling the stories from our communities, whatever they may be,” she said.

For more great stories, visit Insider’s homepage.

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