One of the joys of attending the NALIP Media Summit is hearing firsthand about the many roads that have gotten Latinos to the higher rungs of Hollywood. No two stories are ever alike, but they help offer maps for those wanting to carve a space of their own. These shared stories are particularly necessary to hear when they involve intersectional identities. That’s why this year, the Writers Guild of America West presented “Triple Threat: Latino, Gay, and A Writer!” a panel on and about what it means to be an LGBTQ Latino writer in this day and age.
Befitting its fabulous title, the conversation brought together four out-and-proud members of the LGBTQ Latino community who are breaking ground and going places. Moderated by radio journalist and actor-producer Marcos Najera, the discussion included The Blacklist: Redemption writer Jorge Ramirez-Martinez; One Day at a Time writer Michelle Badillo; and up and comer Steven Canals, who’ll be co-writing Ryan Murphy’s show Pose.
Najera kicked off the hour-long panel asking each of his guests to, in true writerly fashion, describe themselves in 140 characters or less. That not only set the tone for a lively and casual discussion ahead, but gave way to some of the biggest laughs of the panel, especially when Badillo pointed out that her goal in life is to knock off a Venezuelan reporter who shares her name from the #1 Google spot. The wide-ranging talk that followed touched on everything from 90210 and Thalía novelas to the reasons why it’s important to champion LGBTQ storylines in today’s TV landscape. Check out some highlights of their chat below.
On the First Brown Story They Ever Heard
Jorge: Thalía novelas.
Michelle: I had a little bit of knowledge that like, George Lopez had a show, but the first one I remember is, when I was a kid, there was a show called Taína. She was a Puerto Rican girl who went to an Arts school in Manhattan. She wanted to be an actress and a singer, and I remember being like “That’s me!” I was like, “I am this person. I can do that.” That’s the first time I felt like and I must have been like 7 or 8.
Steven: My mom’s story. She was born in Ponce. I was always fascinated by the fact that she wasn’t born in the U.S. My grandparents moved to New York in the 1950s from Puerto Rico.
On the Thrill Of Seeing Yourself On Screen
“This is a story about people who look like me. Who sound like me.”
Steven: For me it was in college. I was studying cinema. I was taking a theory class. We had this professor who was in their mid-20s. And she was like, “Let me show you this documentary it’s gonna blow your mind.” And she put on Paris is Burning. You know, I grew up in New York in the 80s, born in the projects. Having my life directly impacted by both the crack and the HIV/AIDS epidemics, I did not know this story. This is a story about people who look like me. Who sound like me. Who had to learn how to survive on the streets of New York. That was really powerful. My parents grew up in Harlem. This was happening just a couple of blocks away from where they lived. The fact that I knew nothing about it was heartbreaking.
On Seeing Films as More Than Entertainment
Steven: Ava was a high school student in the South Bronx. We were classmates. This was around 1994. I was teased in school so I had to work really hard to not get any attention. Ava was one of those people who was proud. She was flamboyant. She had a voice and knew how to use it. I always admired her so much. Because I wanted to be her. We collaborated on a documentary short when I was a sophomore in my school. And it was about turfs. At that time there was a lot of gang violence in the Bronx. You never knew what block you couldn’t walk down through or what color you couldn’t wear. You had to have a map to go anywhere. So we wanted to highlight this experience. That came off on the heels of one of our teachers in high school. It was about having that conversation, building a discourse around it. We worked on it for an entire year, and about 8 months of work into it — like a week from finishing the edit and having this premiere party that HBO was organizing for us — Ava was shot and found in the park. Where we had first been highlighting the experience, I was now was having this experience. So that was the first time that I realized the power of stories. That it wasn’t just about entertainment. That they could educate. Whether we’re queer or not, we all live in intersections. We’re all a set of identities. My having grown up poor in New York — I go back to my community, I go back to the Bronx and I see the people who are still living in the projects, who are still struggling. And now with gentrification, who are being pushed out of their homes. I have a hard time negotiating getting out, why I am the one who was fortunate enough to make it out. And despite the fact that people will say “you are queer, you are person of color,” I still have a lot of privilege. I own privilege as a cisgender male, you know? But having a platform and having the opportunity I think it’s my calling, it’s my duty to use my voice to highlight the experience of other people who are marginalized.
On Seeing the Bright Side of Not Being Hired by Ava DuVernay
Jorge: Last summer I was talking to a friend I went to school with when the show I was working on got cancelled. And she said, “I can put you up for a research assistant job at A Wrinkle in Time.” And I went in and I handed in my resume to Ava DuVernay. She looked at it and said, “Oh, you’re a writer.” And she said, “You should be writing.” Of course, then and there I knew I wasn’t gonna get the job. So I was like okay. I kept thinking, how do I turn this conversation around to a better place, because she’d basically said, “I’m not hiring you.” So I said that I didn’t have anything ready to write, and so I went back to pilot script and changed it a bit, fixed the storyline and when NBC reached out to me out of the blue and see if I had a sample because they wanted to staff me in The Blacklist: Redemption, I sent that. If it weren’t for Ava turning me down, I wouldn’t have re-written my pilot.
On How We Look to TV to Find Acceptance
Michelle: My mom was in her twenties and [the original] 90210 was one of the last soapy things she was watching. And I remember she’d always watch it while I was napping, but I was pretending to be asleep — I’d open my eyes and watch. And then it became one of the only things we actually watched together: my mom has terrible taste in TV. What we had in common is, American Idol, and [now] the show I write for, since I work for it. And then there was the reboot, the new 90210. When I was a senior in high school when I was realizing I was gay, and it was a sweeps week episode when one of the characters had this like three-episode gay arc. I tried to get my mom to watch it with me to gauge her reaction to that storyline. So, if she reacts positively to this then I’ll tell her, and if she doesn’t, I’ll wait on it. I remember when we saw the two girls kiss she was like “Oh, who needs to see that? That’s gross.” She didn’t know, of course, that I was gay. She’s very supportive now. That pushed me back. I didn’t tell her until college.
On What You Can Learn from Minority Report
Steven: I talk about this a lot with my therapist. Sidebar: I think there’s a lot of shame in communities of color around mental health and going to therapy. I was one of those people, and then my partner was like “I’m gonna be a therapist.” I used to use this analogy with my students, it’s like putting puzzle pieces together. The secret to living is that you’re never going to finish that puzzle. It’s always going to be a mess. But I will say this, it was less of a mess when I said, “You know, I really want to be a writer. I’m gonna move to LA. I’m gonna apply for programs.” It was like Minority Report. It was like suddenly the timeline was making sense. The pieces just felt together in a way that they hadn’t before.
On Not Letting Yourself Be the Only Person On the Boat
“Television and media is so much being served white straight mediocrity as aspirational.”
Michelle: I feel like television and media is so much being served white straight mediocrity as aspirational. I feel like even white people are so bored that they are dying for us to come and be interesting, to feel again. We’ve seen the genius doctor — we’ve seen all that. We’re all so bored. They’re dying for you to come and be yourself. It’s always going to be tougher for people who are other, but I think audiences are craving it, and executives are so bored that they’re craving it. We just need to do whatever we need to do to get in those rooms and projects.
Steven: I had lunch yesterday with a friend who was telling me a story about — I should not say the person’s name, but you’ll probably know her show — who made a comment about being a white woman in Hollywood. And her experience with that. Like Hollywood is a boat with a bunch of straight white men. And so once you’re on the boat, you’re not wanting to reach down and help others into the boat, because you’re the only one there. So you’ll talk about wanting to make the landscape better for other but not necessarily enough to bring them up to the boat with you. What’s so important is that we need to do the reacharound: 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. Like, do not be the only person on the boat.
The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) seeks to inspire, promote, and advocate for Latino content creators in media. As a non-profit organization, NALIP advances the development of Latino content creation through its programs focusing on narrative, documentary, TV, and digital formats. For more information, visit NALIP.org