Guerrero: Stop erasing Latinos from the screen. We were finally seeing progress

·5 min read

She’s the kind of heroine Latinas need today: 12-year-old Cucu Castelli, played on HBO’s “Gordita Chronicles” by Olivia Goncalves, knows how to stand up to bullies and bigots.

She’s proudly brown and chubby. (Her nickname, “Gordita,” refers lovingly to her thicker self.) When a white teacher tells her to stop speaking Spanish, the Dominican immigrant girl in 1980s Miami at first renounces her native language, as I did in 1990s San Diego. But when her teacher uses the French “déjà vu,” Cucu calls out the double standard, boldly crying “bull––!”

Unfortunately she has a nemesis out here in the real world that she might be unable to beat: the media industry, which sees Latinos as disposable if it sees them at all.

On July 29, a month after the premiere of the comedy series based on creator Claudia Forestieri’s life, it became the latest Latinx show to be canceled despite critical acclaim and general popularity.

Executive producer and showrunner Brigitte Muñoz-Liebowitz told me: “It’s sort of like, you do everything they tell you, you get an ‘A’ on the assignment, and then you still get expelled.”

Sound familiar? It certainly would to generations of immigrants in this country.

There aren’t many books, movies or TV shows that focus on Latinos, and those that do are mostly dehumanizing. Although Latinos make up 19% of the country, a UCLA diversity in TV report last year found they appear in only about 6% of roles (across digital, cable and broadcast shows). The rates are similar in film; most Latino are cast as criminal or poor. Truly, Hollywood set the stage for the Trump era’s lethal Latinophobia.

There have been moments when the trend seemed to be turning — celebrated shows like “One Day at a Time,” “Gentefied,” “Vida,” “Diary of a Future President” — but those steps to counter chronic underrepresentation were all reversed. Canceled despite their success. Muñoz-Liebowitz says it’s like a staircase, where “instead of a top floor it’s a trap door.”

Many blame the lack of Latinx inclusion in high-level industry positions. While HBO Max attributed the “Gordita Chronicles” decision to a shift away from live-action programming for kids and families, executive producer Eva Longoria told me: “That screams you don’t want to be in the Latinx space.” Latinos are more likely than most other groups to live in multigenerational homes, watching family content together.

This month, Warner Bros. Discovery also killed the $90-million “Batgirl,” starring “In the Heights” actress Leslie Grace, poised to become one of the few Latina superheroes. Having wrapped production months ago, it was planned for release on HBO Max, but Warner Bros. is now focusing on theatrical releases instead and doesn’t plan to release “Batgirl” in theaters.

While such erasure is endemic to the industry, Latino civil rights and business groups see a pattern since Discovery began its $63-billion acquisition of WarnerMedia, HBO’s parent company, which had previously made progress for Latinos.

The merged Warner Bros. Discovery failed to include a single Latino on the board, and most of CEO David Zaslav’s direct reports are white men.

In a statement, the company said it’s “deeply committed” to diversity and inclusion at all levels, “something we know is critical to our long-term success.” It cited its July appointment of Asif Sadiq, a new executive to focus on diversity.

But does diversity include Latinos? Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he thinks the company’s praise of diversity in meetings with Latino civil rights groups was meant “to shut us up, to make us go away.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and a lead advocate for Latino representation, worried that Latinos could be hurt by the merger. In December, he and more than 30 other lawmakers voiced concern about diversity regression feeding into “harmful stereotypes,” which could fuel “aggression toward Latinos.” They asked the Department of Justice to scrutinize the deal for antitrust violations, but the department didn’t challenge it.

Warner Bros. Discovery depicts its cancellations, which include non-Latinx content, as strategic cost-saving decisions. And to be fair, the company has elevated some Latinos in key positions. For example, in June, Luis Silberwasser was hired away from Univision to serve as global head of sports.

Henry R. Muñoz III, a philanthropist who owns Funny or Die, told me he’s hopeful about the company: “The jury is still out.”

Excluding Latinx content is bad for the media industry, because Latinos watch more movies than anyone else. “Father of the Bride,” a romantic comedy about a Cuban American family, was one of HBO’s most-watched 2022 originals. As Longoria told me: “Be smart with your business and invest in what the future of this country will look like.” It pays to bet on Latinos.

Gloria Calderón Kellett, co-creator of the repeatedly canceled “One Day at a Time,” says industry failures are tied to cluelessness at the highest levels and an overreliance on algorithms. “‘Seinfeld’ wasn’t popular until the third season,” she told me, “but somebody at NBC thought it was funny.”

The blind spot for Latinos exists across the media ecosystem. Calderón Kellett and co-creator Mike Royce said they couldn’t get “One Day at a Time” featured on major talk shows the first three seasons — even though it starred Rita Moreno.

Given how much is at stake for this nation’s culture, the mostly white men who helm these enormous media companies must engage Latinos with greater urgency and determination. They must invest in creating and promoting Latinx shows. And Democrats mustn’t give Hollywood a pass on antitrust scrutiny.

Media companies’ decisions to erase or denigrate Latinos contributed to the sickness we’ve seen in U.S. politics. Those same companies can begin to make amends — simply by representing Latinos proportionately and fairly.

@jeanguerre

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.