This year’s Academy Awards were always going to feel like a let down for Latinos after years when projects from Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro had all but dominated the major categories. Add in the fact that Jennifer Lopez’s critically acclaimed turn as Ramona in Hustlers couldn’t find traction among Oscar members and that no Latin American films made the Best International Feature shortlist and you’d be forgiven for thinking the 2020 Oscars were going to be utterly Latino-less. Thankfully, there was at least one win worth celebrating among a ceremony that crowned Parasite as the Best Feature Film of 2019, making it the first film not in the English language to win the award one year after Roma failed to jump over that same historical hurdle. And given that Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean thriller dominated the night, it truly felt like history was being made.
The show began with a performance by Janelle Monae that celebrated iconic costumes from snubbed films from African American filmmakers like Us and Dolemite is my Name. Later, Freestyle Love Supreme member (and Lin-Manuel Miranda buddy) Utkarsh Ambudkar rapped not only about how In the Heights will come in for the win next year but how there’s “enough light here for us all to shine.”
That was the theme of the night. Taika Waititi, who won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Jojo Rabbit), said his win was “for all the indigenous kids of the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers and we can make it here, as well” while, in his acceptance speech for Best Animated Short (for Hair Love), director Matthew A. Cherry talked about how “Representation matters deeply” to him. It’s a line that felt all the more resonant given he’s credited Coco and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as inspirations for his short film about black girls’ hair. Similarly, Salma Hayek made a quip about finally being able to say she’s held an Oscar on the stage: in reality, she was holding a bearded Oscar Isaac’s hand who, without missing a beat quipped back, “Congratulations, Oscars not so white now.”
Elsewhere, audiences got a glimpse of the charisma Anthony Ramos will be bringing to the role of Usnavi in In the Heights. The Hamilton actor got the chance to introduce his “hermano” Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, in turn, introduced a montage about the power of songs in movies that included a blink and you’ll miss it scene from La Bamba. Also, much to the surprise of everyone in attendance Eminem took the stage to perform his Oscar-winning 8 Mile song “Lose Yourself” which he co-wrote with Luis Resto. Moreover, speeches from everyone from Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) to Renée Zellwegger (Judy) included shoutouts to Latinos; the Judy actress, for example, called out Dolores Huerta and Selena as she listed off a number of heroes whom she pointed out had always brought people of all stripes together.
But about that historic win: Jonas Rivera, the Mexican American producer behind some of Pixar’s most beloved pictures (Inside Out, Up) won his second Oscar for producing Toy Story 4. With that win he’s become one of the most celebrated US Latinos in Oscar history, and considering his work at the Emeryville company is going strong, he may yet add a couple more golden men in the years to come. Thankfully, next year looks a lot more promising what with West Side Story and In the Heights on the horizon, so there’s hope we’ll have better news on this front come 2021.