Even if Latinos remain chronically underrepresented on television, it doesn’t mean we’re entirely absent from its beginnings. The Paley Center for Media celebrated over seven decades of our involvement in the industry at their first ever gala dedicated to Hispanic Achievements in Television. With appearances from titans of comedy like George Lopez and America Ferrera; to kings of drama like Luis Guzman, Jimmy Smits, and Edward James Olmos; and queens of digital programming like Selenis Leyva, Jackie Cruz, and Laura Gomez; alongside stalwart news anchors Jose Diaz-Balart and Maria Elena Salinas; and even the emperor of variety shows, the venerable Don Francisco — the New York event was a powerhouse of Latino talent.
The Paley Center brought together yesterday’s biggest Latino stars and today’s rising talent to simultaneously exalt and preserve our televisual history. A curated selection of clips from their vast broadcast archive allowed those in attendance to the relive the triumphs of the past and remember the struggle it took to get Latinos on TV shows. It’s a necessary exercise that reminds us of the colossal power of television and of seeing a face that looks like yours on the small screen. As Orange Is the New Black star Jackie Cruz passionately declared on the red carpet, “We’re a big part of this country and we need to be represented on television. I never grew up watching many shows with us [in them]. It felt impossible and now we’re watching shows like Jane the Virgin and Orange Is the New Black. It proves that we can actually do it too.”
Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, closed off the night by receiving a special tribute to her pioneering father, the creator of the first Latino-owned production company. As a testament to his indelible legacy — when asked who the first Latino they ever saw on TV was — almost every celebrity we talked to responded: Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy. Here’s what they had to say.
“I saw a lot of people who were supposed to be Latino but who weren’t really Latinos like Jose Jimenez [character on The Steve Allen Show.] But, the first was probably Ricky Ricardo. He was the first person that really made that impact because he was doing something positive.”
“Let me tell you about my idol Freddie Prinze. When I was 13 years old, I loved Freddie Prinze. He was the first person I ever loved in my life. Freddie Prinze, God bless him. He has a star on the walk of fame because he deserved a star on the walk of fame. They didn’t want to give him one, and they gave him one… He was my idol.”
“Actors like Cesar Romero — who was the best Joker ever on Batman, no offense to Jack Nicholson — and Carmen Miranda, and Ricardo Montalbán they found their way into U.S. hearts and my mom’s living room.”
“Rita Moreno was a woman that I looked up to when I was a kid for being a Latina in Hollywood when Latinos weren’t really there yet. That’s why I give her so much credit. Her and Sonia Manzano [from Sesame Street] are figures to respect because they paved the way for us.”
Edward James Olmos
“Ricky Ricardo [Desi Arnaz] is the most distinguished one. He created not only an incredible personality on screen, but he also created the art form of the three-camera sitcom. And his studio, Desilu Productions, was one of the most prolific of the era.”
“Rita Moreno in West Side Story is definitely the woman that I idolized. I mean, she’s won every award possible. She made it seem like it could be done.”
“My parents used to watch a lot of the old Mexican movies with Vicente Fernandez [on TV], but I grew up personally watching I Love Lucy. It was one of my favorite shows growing up.”
“Desi Arnaz was the very first Latino that I saw on TV. There’s something so rose-colored, so romantic about the ’50s. And to be able to see a Latino permeating that space — I didn’t really understand the significance at first when I was younger. It’s something that I grew to understand as I got older.”