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A congressman from the Mexican American south of Texas might sound like an unlikely champion for inclusion in Hollywood, the glittery industry half a country away.
Yet over the last few years, Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio has emerged as a dogged voice for increasing diversity in U.S. media. Castro, the twin to 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate Julián Castro, threw a major salvo on the issue last year as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, calling out Hollywood executives in Variety with an essay provocatively titled "Latinos Love Hollywood, but Hollywood Hates Latinos."
By then Castro had made the issue a passion project. He and others sought meetings with studio and talent agency executives as well as leaders in publishing and the news media, including The Times. With co-signing lawmakers in October, Castro asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to examine hiring practices in key entertainment sectors and book publishing, for any possible violations of federal labor codes related to discrimination.
The Times had an extended conversation with Castro about his advocacy for the issue, edited here for space and clarity.
You often mention the film industry is de-facto subsidized in some form in many states. Is that a place where the government can step in and apply a different kind of pressure?
I don't think any industry is off-limits. We’ve seen attempts to reconsider tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, reconsider tax breaks for the tech industry and regulation for the tech industry. Why would you exempt Hollywood and American media from that microscope? We've had extensive conversations now with state legislators about our concern about the systemic exclusion of Latinos and others from this industry. I ask the question, and I know that significant tax breaks are offered in some states and not others. Right?
You take Georgia, for example, New Mexico, California. Let me just take the issue with directors. 2018, I think, was a banner year for women directors in major films. They directed 10% of the projects. Well, in Georgia, I think over half the population is female. If I'm looking at those numbers as a policymaker, and thinking about which industries I'm going to offer a tax break to, or tax incentive to — why in the world would I have a population of taxpayers, who is over 50% female, and subsidize an industry where women only get 10% of the directorial roles?
Or let's take New Mexico. My good friend, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who proceeded me as chair of the Hispanic Caucus, is the governor there. I expressed my concern on this issue to her. New Mexico is about 43% Latino. Well again, you're talking about an industry getting tax breaks from a state where 43% percent of the taxpayers are Latino. Yet that group of people only has access to 3 or 4% of the work, in front of and behind the camera.
I just think at some point, as policymakers, you've got to ask yourself, how does it make sense to make all these people subsidize their own exclusion? We cannot subsidize our own exclusion.
I do think part of the answer is a diversity inclusion rider. In fact, I think the diversity inclusion riders are essential and necessary in any kind of tax credit or tax incentive program for the industry. Because the industry has not demonstrated that it's going to be a good actor on its own. I think more lawmakers are waking up to this reality.
It's been repeated so many times that Latinos over-index at the box office. (In 2020, Latinos and Hispanics, who represent 19% of the population in the U.S. and Canada, bought 29% of the tickets sold according to the latest report from the Motion Picture Assn.) There’s a cynical argument there, saying that maybe Latinos just will go and see whatever, and maybe aren’t so hungry for these stories that show themselves more.
But that's how it's always been. This community has always been excluded. It's been conditioned to accept exclusion. Then executives will use the fact that you still buy their product as an excuse to continue to exclude you, and justify your exclusion.
We just don't know, or we just haven't seen the kind of scenario that would allow us to wake up to the fact that we don't even see ourselves as much. But there are some bright spots, right? Some production houses and companies have started to build up a lot of Latino projects in terms of film. But very pop culture stuff, or geared toward Spanish-dominant or immigrant audiences. Right?
My impression is that sometimes the way that Hollywood has dealt with this issue is they think that anything they do in the Latin American market, or in Spanish, "Well that covers the American Latino community." As you know, we have many people whose primary language is Spanish. But the majority of folks are mostly English-speaking. It's a combination for a lot of people. They speak both languages. They're English-dominant, but they also speak Spanish. I don't think the industry understands the cultural contours of the Latino community well enough right now.
That gets to other questions. This is a group that is much more difficult to serve, and I guess understand cohesively. Just because it is so diverse, and ranges between white, Black, mestizo, Indigenous, everything in between. Doesn't the richness of the Latino community pose challenges to address this?
I certainly think that it takes more effort to be inclusive of the different Latino subgroups. But it's also very possible. So far from the industry, we've barely seen a commitment to include anybody. Much less get down to the question of which of the different subgroups of Latinos they're going to showcase.
What are some of the next big concrete moves that you would like to point to as a victory down the road? Or as improvement? Is it just a question of numbers and percentages?
The industry is comprised of many different elements. You've got the talent, you've got the guild, you've got the studios, you've got the financiers. It took us a while to finally figure out, “OK, well, what are we asking of each of these groups?” But the basic outline is that we want transparency, first. Then we want these groups to develop goals for significant improvement, and a timeline for achieving those goals.
As you can imagine, we've gotten different responses. Some companies and groups are more eager to improve than others. We've got to get to a baseline of transparency where everybody understands where we are, so we know where we're starting, and now we know where we want to go.
I've told folks in the industry, "Look. We know the numbers are bad. If the numbers were great, I wouldn't even be taking this up as an issue." If the portrayals were spot-on, if the characters were true to life, Latinos and Latinas in the true fullness of their characters and their lives, I would have never gotten involved.
Obviously, that's not a snap of the fingers where everything is going to change overnight. But if people are transparent, if they're setting aggressive goals and they're doing what they need to do to achieve them, then I think at least for now, then we have done our job. I do think that some organizations over the past year, and as you know, after the murder of George Floyd, are working a lot faster to achieve these things. But why did it take the murder of a Black man, that the country witnessed collectively on camera, for Hollywood to finally realize that there are talented African Americans, and other people of color, who have something to lend to the industry?
Let me ask you how your meeting went with the L.A. Times in the fall. What was your impression of the leadership?
On the record, or off the record?
On the record, if you want.
Let me see. Yeah, I'll go on the record. I thought that it was a professional, productive meeting. I think the Los Angeles Times still has a long way to go to truly reflect the face of Los Angeles and the people it serves. It's at a crucial moment now, in terms of leadership change. I was glad to see that the Latino Caucus has been very animated in its work within the newspaper, to change things. But we're going to continue to put pressure on the L.A. Times, the New York Times and other media outlets to truly reflect Latinos in American society. Both in terms of who they hire and their coverage, how they treat this community.
Do you think people are just ... scared of us? Of not knowing?
That's what I'm saying. I don't think they know where the f— you fit into the country. Really, they don't know who the f— you are, or how the f— you fit in.
Right. They literally just do not know.
It's foundational. It's even deeper than this. I mean yes, it's film and television. It's American media. But to some extent, American media is also a product of larger American society, where you have been made invisible in many ways.
And it is the greatest source of soft power that the United States has, really.
Yeah. Absolutely. [There is] a Mexican American guy from the west side of San Antonio. He grew up not too far from where I grew up. He's a diplomat. When he's gone to overseas posts, they ask him, "You're American, but what are you?" "Oh, I'm Mexican American." And they mention “Narcos” to him.
So yes, there is incredible power that this platform has, in shaping the image of a group of people. I'm not saying that you're never going to have another Latino drug dealer on television. But, Jesus Christ, balance it out with some reality here.
Yeah. Insane. Well, congressman, thank you so much for speaking with me.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.