There Are More Latinos on TV, But Is That Really Progress?

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

During her unsurprisingly hilarious appearance on Vogue’s “73 Questions With” video, Jane the Virgin actress Gina Rodriguez made sure to balance her lighthearted responses with one sobering stat. When asked what fact she’d recently learned that blew her mind, you could see her seethe with frustration at the numbers she was about to repeat: “In 2016, only 5.8 percent of speaking roles were said by a Latino in film and television.” The oft-cited statistic, from the latest report from the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, remains staggering considering, as Rodriguez elaborated, there are 55 million Latinos in the U.S. The discrepancy at work in Hollywood’s casting choices couldn’t be more glaring.

Rodriguez’s appearance in the ever-popular Vogue web series (her episode has close to a million views) and her decision to spotlight the struggle for Latino representation on screen show just how mainstream this conversation has become. The fact that English-language media remains at best indifferent to and at worst hostile to Latino talent and stories is not new. It remains Hollywood’s worst-kept secret, both an offshoot and a symptom of the industry’s more widely-reported aversion to minority storytelling that dominated the news cycle following the Academy’s two-year string of #OscarSoWhite controversies. And, as Paste’s Matt Brennan outlined last year in an in-depth look at Latinx representation on television (aptly titled “The (Un)Changing Face of Latinos on TV”) the prospects on the small screen, while better than in film, merely reflect a history of false-starts and only modest gains.

By the end of 2017, audiences could cheer on the success of Latino-centered shows like Jane the Virgin (going strong in season 4), Queen of the South (recently renewed for a third season with its newly appointed Latina showrunner), Narcos (moving to Mexico for its upcoming fourth season), Elena of Avalor (airing season two), and One Day at a Time (returning for its sophomore season later this month). But the fact that none of these is on one of the Big Four broadcast networks (Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC) belies a reluctance to embrace Latinidad when it comes to greenlighting projects at these networks. Sure, you can catch Jennifer Lopez in her cop procedural Shades of Blue and America Ferrera in the ensemble comedy Superstore (both on NBC), and find plenty of Latino talent littered throughout shows like Fox’s comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the Lee Daniels musical drama Star, ABC’s trusty TGIT staple How To Get Away With Murder and its freshman sitcom Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, as well as on HBO’s Insecure and the CW sudsy dramas Riverdale and Dynasty. And this is, no doubt, a kind of progress. Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, after all, turned Archie’s beloved Veronica into a Latina and cast Mark Consuelos as her shady dad. And Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara is still the highest-paid actress on television. But with the cancellation of Hulu’s remarkably timely East Los High and TV Land’s Lopez sitcom, it is clear that TV shows about the wide variety of the Latino experience are more the exception than the rule. And when it comes to representation of Afro-Latinos, indigenous, or LGBTQ Latinx on TV, you’d have to look long and hard to find even a couple appearances.

For the most part, Latino actors are still relegated to bit parts with few chances to break out. While that may seem to be slowly changing (see above), Brennan’s conclusion was tempered by the very history he’d just outlined. The subject of small-screen Latino representation “is too often a topic of conversation, rather than a catalyst for real change,” he wrote. “Whether the present is the leading edge of a looming revolution or simply another incremental step forward, however, it’s clear that the time for dialogue without action has passed.”

Andrea Navedo and Gina Rodriguez in ‘Jane the Virgin.’ Courtesy of CW
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Or, as Tanya Saracho told Remezcla in a recent chat about this very issue, “It seems like things are moving forward. But at what pace? The pace is what I can’t tell.” Saracho, who’d worked on Looking and How To Get Away With Murder before moving on to develop (and just recently wrap shooting on) her own series, Vida, has noticed that there’s always been stuff in various stages of development. There’s always something on the horizon to be excited about, possibilities that would turn that dialogue Brennan identified in his talks with the likes of Orange is the New Black’s Diane Guerrero and Dascha Polanco, and American Crime’s Benito Martinez, into tangible action once it made it to the screen.

Every year there are whispers of exciting shows coming down the line with stellar Latino talent both in front and behind the camera, usually met with some breathless anticipation that television will finally (again!) make moves to better reflect the current American population. Remember in 2016, when Vanity Fair announced that “Modern Immigration Stories Might Be TV’s Next Vital Trend” and Mic was hopeful enough to write that “Latino Representation on TV Is Finally Starting to Reflect Reality”? Or back in 2015, when The Guardian reminded its readers that “Latino viewers [were] the most important for networks”? The assumption in all of these cases was that executives would and should finally be increasing the production of Latino stories on the small screen. With that in mind, and having heard it all before, Saracho is wary but hopeful. “Please make it through the last steps so we can watch it on a device or television!” she coos at these as-yet greenlit series.

Sadly, a quick look at the most recent development season suggests any optimism we may harbor should still be laced with familiar skepticism. When compiling this list of 10 TV pilots we hoped would be picked up a few months ago, we were excited about the prospect of having more Latinx shows on the small screen than we could count in one hand. Having gotten to the pilot stage, meaning they’d been cast and produced, the chances these shows would be ordered to series seemed plausible even if networks continue to be very selective in what they spend their money on. Since, though, Fox passed on the Eva Longoria-starring comedy Type-A, ABC chose not to order the Miami-set cop drama Las Reinas; TBS opted not to pursue Aubrey Plaza’s odd-but-cool-sounding Nightmare Time; CBS nixed plans to move forward with the Diane Guerrero-starrer culture-clashing sitcom Distefano and pushed the Untitled Paul Attanasio/Leonard Goldberg drama pilot about a Latino cop family for casting reasons. And that doesn’t even account for shows like Guerrero’s own In the Country We Love based on her own memoir, John Leguizamo’s ABC drama Salamander, both of which seem stuck in development limbo, or Mayans MC, the Sons of Anarchy spinoff starring Edward James Olmos, that is apparently being retooled and recast. Add to this the fact that networks are producing close to 500 scripted a series a year and the dearth of Latino projects becomes even more maddening.

‘One Day at a Time.’ Photo by Michael Yarish. Courtesy of Netflix
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As always, though, there is plenty to look forward to. If anyone can make an ABC sitcom order happen, it may just be the magic touch of one Mike Schur (of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place fame), who’s partnered with New York Times bestselling author Shea Serrano to develop a pilot based on the Houston native’s own family. None other than Jonás Cuarón is working to turn Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s book Undocumented America into a TV series while Laura Esquivel’s best-selling 1989 novel Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) is being adapted into an English-language show by Endemol Shine Studios. And hot on the heels of her success at Netflix with One Day At A Time, former How I Met Your Mother writer Gloria Calderon Kellett is cementing herself as a talent to be reckoned with as she preps another multicultural sitcom for CBS called History Of Them. Elsewhere, Aguirre-Sacasa will continue expanding his budding Archie empire with a dark take on everyone’s favorite teenage witch, Sabrina, for Netflix, while Longoria is still moving forward with several projects at Fox, including the Peter Murrieta-penned sitcom Bell Heights. There may yet be a shakeup when it comes to Latino shows on American TV but we’ll have to wait until they become actual television shows rather than mere ideas on the page before we begin celebrating.

Saracho did share something that suggests we’re moving past dialogue and into more fruitful actions. Conversations at development meetings, she told us, have been getting more sophisticated in the past five years she’s been in the business. “It’s not like ‘We just want a Latinx show.’ They want to tell the story right, they’re not trying to tell this ‘Universal’ story. Getting specific is the key. It’s not about ‘let’s get that audience!’” That may explain why she was recently able to kickstart the development process on another intriguing-sounding show called Brujas which is all about, you guessed it, Afro-Latinas in Chicago who find a kinship among themselves thanks to their identification with the bruja movement. Knowing that her experience may not be the norm, she also praised the collaborative environment she’s encountered at Starz, where the Latina-led Vida will premiere later this year. The network didn’t bristle when she asked to build an all-Latinx writers room, for example, nor did they ask her to curb the queerness that’s central to the show’s premise (where two estranged sisters are brought together after her mother’s death when they find out she’d been married to a woman). This she attributes to the fact that her covering executive at Starz has a “z” at the end of her last name—that’d be Senior Vice President of Original Programming, Marta Fernandez.

The importance of having those who trust your vision and trust that these stories matter beyond filling in some sort of demo quota is crucial. For Rafael Agustín, who’s currently developing a show based on his own life—a series he pitched as an edgy, Latino Wonder Years that would introduce America to the first undocumented family sitcom—that person was none other than Jane the Virgin herself, Gina Rodriguez. When shopping around his project he was approached by a production company that was interested in the story but who made it clear they couldn’t entrust the property to someone with so little experience in television. Rodriguez had no such qualms. “This is your story,” she told him. “You should write this! We should make you a showrunner!” She went ahead and fought to sell it to her network and later to get him staffed on her show Jane. “It’s so wonderful to work with someone who’s truly working to lift everyone around her,” he told Remezcla.

‘Insecure’ still courtesy of HBO
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Agustin’s move into a staff writer position—not to mention the wariness of production companies to let creators control their own properties speaks to an unacknowledged fact of the television industry. Viewers (and studies like those at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism) focus on talent in front of the camera. We look at which actors and actresses are making waves and getting their own shows (looking at you Gina Torres, who’ll headline the Suits spinoff over at USA!) and landing roles in high profile projects (like One Day at a Time’s Ariela Barer nabbing a part in Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways.) But seldom do we look behind the camera and examine which Latino writers and producers are striving to make a difference where it matters: in the rooms where casting decision are made, where series are greenlit, and development deals are brokered.

Part of that means getting writers through the ranks and into producer roles. At last year’s NALIP Media Summit, writer Steven Canals (who’s working on the upcoming Ryan Murphy show Pose) talked about precisely this, reminding those in attendance that “what’s so important is that” those who are being staffed and getting in the door and onto the boat that is Hollywood (which, as he put it, is filled with straight white men), “need to do the reach around: really, genuinely say, ‘Oh, who’s behind me, who’s beside and looks and sounds like me and wants these opportunities?’ and bring them onto the boat with you.” The goal is simple: “do not be the only person on the boat.”

Latinos are fed up of having this same dialogue year after year. Thankfully enough actors, producers, and writers are finally in positions where they can lift each other up. Whether that’s by setting up their own production companies (see: Longoria’s UnbeliEVAble), moving behind the camera (Rodriguez is directing an episode of Jane later this season), funding projects outside of the system (see Marvin Lemus’ Gente-fied and Ricardo Gamboa’s Brujos, for example), or finally scoring the kind of partnerships that producers dream of (see: Calderon Kellett’s Sony deal), we may very well be on the verge of the change we’ve long been promised.

But yes, too many of us are tired of waiting. Perhaps Saracho sums it up best: “Just put us on TV, man!”