Covering disabled representation in cinema usually involves a fair amount of frustration and compromising. The majority of disability narratives are “inspiration porn,” reliant on overly sentimental and saintly characters whose supposed inner strength serves to galvanize the non-disabled audience watching to appreciate life. Movie studios and TV networks always have the audience in mind, but no time more specifically when it comes to representing disability, and this often leaves the narratives stale and one-note.
It’s also important to point out that the genre of disabled features still remains mired in whitewashed stereotypes that tend to focus on one specific demographic. These flicks are commonly focused on white males who become disabled late in life as a means of catering to, what is perceived to be, a young male audience, and women who still want to swoon over the lead. If you start searching for disabled characters of any other ethnic group, you’ll come up painfully short. Unfortunately, the studios and networks still see the disabled, and those willing to plunk down money to see them, as upwardly mobile and white.
Despite studios showing that Latinos make up 23% of frequent moviegoers, and spend more on tickets than other ethnic groups, they still get less than 6% of film and television roles. Those numbers are even bleaker if you factor in disability. 19 to 20 million people in the United States have some disability, yet the percentage of disabled characters in cinema and television “hovers at around 1%” and there are no statistics on disability that factor in ethnicity. In the interest of opening up the discussion on depictions of disability, particularly with regards to race and ethnicity, we’ve presented the seven disabled Latino characters we could find after searching far and wide.
Please note, it sometimes happens that a role is played by a Latino actor, yet the character’s ethnicity isn’t explicitly discussed. On the other hand, sometimes non-Latino actors play Latinx characters. We decided to focus purely on US productions that feature Latinx characters, regardless if the actors portraying them identify as Latino. This way we can see an accurate picture of how Latinos who have physical disabilities are represented in media.
Frida Kahlo in 'Frida' (2002)
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s disability is a well-discussed subject for those who have studied her, but nearly unknown to most casual fans (including myself). Kahlo had polio from the age of six, leaving her in bed for several months. It’s never been definitively proven but it’s assumed the artist had spina bifida, resulting in leg and spinal deformities that left her in excruciating pain and in a wheelchair for large parts of her life. She channeled her pain into her work – with paintings like 1938’s What I Saw in the Water argued by scholars as illustrating Kahlo’s spina bifida – and the mangled body was a key element in her paintings. Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic of the cultural icon doesn’t overtly discuss her disability, though film scholars have argued it alludes to it. As Frida, actress Salma Hayek spends time in a wheelchair throughout the movie Frida.
Gabriel Reyes in Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D' (2013-)
Making his debut in the fourth season of the ABC series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is Gabriel Reyes (Lorenzo James Henrie) who is paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair after a car accident. Paralysis is a common trope in disabled narratives, so Reyes is conforming to stereotype.
Jonathan Pangborn in 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
Marvel really seems interested in paraplegics, though where Gabriel Reyes has foundations in the comic book world, Benjamin Bratt’s Jonathan Pangborn was newly invented for the adaptation of Doctor Strange. Pangborn is a factory worker who ends up in a wheelchair after an accident and is tasked with being a protector of Earth. However he uses his newfound powers to “fix” himself and gain the ability to walk.
Grandpa Valentin Avellan in 'Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over' (2003)
Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids franchise closes out with a family reunion, introducing patriarch Gregorio Cortez’s (Antonio Banderas) father-in-law, played by Ricardo Montalbán. As the grandfather of the family, Montalbán must help save the day to stop a villainous video game designer known as the Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone). He’s the same guy who caused the accident that led Grandpa to need a wheelchair in the first place. His assistive device has an added benefit, it can fly.
Nicky in 'Musical Chairs' (2011)
Susan Seidelman’s sweetly underseen Musical Chairs follows a group of outcasts who share a mutual love for ballroom dance. Musical Chairs not only features a Latina character by the name of Nicky, but she’s played an actress who is in a wheelchair in real life, Auti Angel. Make no mistake, it’s extremely rare to see disabled actors playing disabled characters, so the fact that Musical Chairs makes an effort towards true disabled representation should be applauded. Angel also appears as herself in the Sundance Channel reality show Push Girls.
Hector Salamanca in 'Breaking Bad' (2008-2013)
A minor antagonist throughout three seasons of the AMC series Breaking Bad, and now popping up in the prequel series Better Call Saul, Don Hector “Tio” Salamanca (played by Mark Margolis) is a member of the Juarez Cartel. Though in a wheelchair as a result of ALS or a stroke (it’s never quite clear), that doesn’t prevent Salamanca from spewing a reign of terror against the DEA and his family.
Lalin in 'Carlito's Way' (1993)
Viggo Mortensen‘s Lalin in Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way is a Puerto Rican former gangster now living in New York City. A paraplegic as a result of his lifestyle, Lalin spends the film’s runtime trying to stay out of prison.