Where Are the Latino Film Critics and Why Do They Matter?

When we talk of diversity and representation, we tend to focus on who is in front of and behind the camera. We champion projects by America Ferrara and Eva Longoria, we cheer on Iñárritu and Chivo’s Hollywood successes, we bemoan tone-deaf cultural commentary on SNL, and feel inspired when critically acclaimed films from Colombia, Venezuela, and Chile take European festivals by storm. Yet much of that conversation is fueled by those who have little to do with the production of media. Critics and journalists after all, were the ones praising the nuanced performances of Oscar Isaac before he was “Poe Dameron,” singling out Alfonso Cuarón before he journeyed to Hogwarts, and first understood when watching Selena and Out of Sight that this Jennifer Lopez gal was going places. Especially in terms of minority filmmakers, critics can play a crucial role in spotlighting under the radar actors and underseen directors in reviews in mainstream outlets.

And so, 2016 looks to be a year where the discussions of diversity go beyond merely asking what kinds of roles Latinas get to play on screen, or why Latino-aimed shows continue to lack Latino showrunners, and examine as well, who is writing about and promoting the work we see on our screens.

This is not a new conversation, but “Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?” at The Atlantic and “The Curious Case of the Missing Women in Film Criticism” at Variety both pushed the question of diversity in film criticism to its necessary boiling point. The Atlantic piece ends by reminding us that “the absence of women film critics has been in the news recently thanks to Meryl Streep, who questioned in October how having so few women writers might affect the reception of female-centric films,” while noting that “There are no headlines recently about the representation of other races or sexual orientations, though they deserve many of their own.” Let this be an attempt to remedy that.

What is US film criticism missing out on with its lack of Latino critics?

Then again, a question as simple as “Where are the Latino film critics?” seems to not really get at the heart of the matter. After all, it reeks of the tokenism we’re supposed to deplore. More importantly, it’s perhaps easily answered by offering a smattering of names. If the internet has taught us anything it’s that you can drum up a list of pretty much anything if you know where to look. Thankfully, we need not look too far. There’s Claudia Puig, former Chief Film Critic at USA Today now working with NPR’s KPCC, Ed Gonzalez at Slant Magazine, Rene Rodriguez at the Miami Herald, Jack Rico from Showbizcafe, Nina Terrero at EW, Isaac Guzmán at Time, well-known video essayists Nelson Carvajal and Steven Santos, and many more whose names we hope get added to this necessarily provisional list.

B. Ruby Rich, the most well-regarded American critic of Latin American film.
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Thus, while there clearly is a growing number of prolific and eloquent critics of Latin American descent, the argument remains that their voices have seldom garnered the respect, or perhaps, the profile that they would need to make any sort of dent into the cultural conversation. Case in point: the most well-regarded critic of Latin American cinema stateside is American B. Ruby Rich, who may well be the face of New Queer Cinema criticism, but who was one of the few English-language critics paying attention to the changing Latin American cinema scene since the seventies. In fact, she’s often spoken about how many of her editors (including at the Village Voice) were uninterested in pieces about filmmaking in Latin America. Were there no Latinos hoping to get their voices heard about their own cultural legacy?

Boom writers like Gabriel García Márquez (who briefly attended the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and oversaw the creation of the Fundación del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano in Cuba) were having these conversations abroad – but did that mean they needn’t have taken place within Anglophone film criticism circles from those Latino writers who were finding their own bilingual voices? For the second year in a row, the media is rightfully outraged by #OscarsSoWhite but it also marks the third year in a row that a Mexican-helmed film dominates the Oscar conversation, an issue that barely merits a mention within a discussion that remains — for better and for worse — locked into seeing this in terms of black and white, sometimes at the expense of more nuanced visions of diversity.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
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And so, perhaps the larger question we should be asking is what US film criticism is missing out on with its lack of a large enough Latino contingent. Perhaps it’s that increasingly blurry umbrella term which obscures what’s missing. Unlike organizations like the NAACP, GLAAD, and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists — all of which bestow awards on Film and TV, thus fostering conversations about how, respectively, African Americans, the LGBT community, and women are represented on screen — the Latino population in the US has yet to mobilize as successfully. While the Association of Latin Entertainment Critics (ACE) has a distinguished history dating back to its inception in 1967, it has always functioned as a collective of Hispanic journalists who write for and about the Latin American scene for a mostly Spanish-speaking audience.

According to its site, ACE’s current President Fernando Campos, maintains columns in New York’s weekly newspapers El Especial and Impacto. In many ways, the ACE exemplifies a diasporic understanding of Latino immigrants in the US, one which may not reflect the newer generations of bilingual US-born Latinos who may enjoy both recent ACE award winner Cantinflas as well as Diego Luna’s 2014 film Cesar Chavez.

Hosts Eva Longoria and George Lopez speak onstage at the 2012 NCLR ALMA Awards
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In fact, that latter film won a Special Achievement in Film award from the other well-established US Latino organization: the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). The “largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States,” the NCLR has been handing out their ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) awards since 1995, back when they were called the Bravos. In case you need a refresher, the first ceremony was hosted by a then mostly unknown Jennifer Lopez alongside actor Jimmy Smits. Awards were handed out to Selena’s Dreaming Of You (Best Album), Sesame Street (Outstanding Television Program) and Gregory Nava’s My Family (Favorite Movie).

Our growing population doesn’t see itself merely as a target market, but as an audience whose opinion deserves to be in the conversation.

But the ALMAs offer us an even more telling example of why looking for and hoping to find a cohesive, wide-reaching critical voice that feels distinctly Latino is more of a struggle than one would hope. On what would have been their twentieth anniversary, the NCLR cancelled the ALMA awards last year citing the changing nature of media and entertainment.

What that leaves us with is an increasingly fractured Latino media environment, one which cannot consolidate the push towards championing exciting work from Latin America within and for Spanish-only outlets with an American Anglophone mainstream media, which only acknowledges Latino talent when filtered through Hollywood standards. Therein lies the biggest hurdle that Latino critics face right now, stuck, as is often the case, in between two groups which aren’t as mutually exclusive as we’re often led to believe.

It’s not just about getting someone to cover the Spanish-language films at the film festival or about having someone on your staff who knows who Kate del Castillo is, but about realizing that there is a growing population that doesn’t see itself merely as a target market but as an engaged audience whose opinion deserves to be in the conversation. Not just when it comes to news of Guillermo del Toro’s or Salma Hayek’s next film, but also when discussing the politics of drug cartel films like Sicario, the cultural politics of the lilywhite vision of Her’s Los Angeles, the box office clout of Instructions Not Included, and more importantly, whenever anyone wishes to anoint this (yet another) “Latino moment” as if we were some fad destined to leave as quickly as we arrived.