A television screen is not a mirror
The number of Latino television writers is at an all-time high, says a new report from the Writers Guild of America, West. But, even Hollywood Latino insiders aren’t gloating yet. The numbers are still in no way proportionally representative of the Latino population in the nation.
Latino writers in televisionland have grown from 1.1 percent of staff writers during the 1999-2000 season to 4 percent during the 2011-2012 season. The latter figure represents about 66 writers out of a total of 1,722 for 190 TV and cable shows.
That’s low when you consider that the almost 50.7 million Latinos comprise 16.7 percent of all Americans, and their numbers are increasing faster than other segment of the U.S. population.
Los Angeles area film industry writers warn that more Latinos creating more Latino characters doesn’t mean that these roles are going to reflect the authentic Latino experience. Latinos in Hollywood continue to be stereotyped, they add.
“I think the issue with being a Latino writer is when we are asked to play into the stereotypes of Latino characters,” says Shawna Baca, a writer and filmmaker. “I have seen many times where Latino characters are asked to have heavy accents or to play the gardener, gangster or maid. I thought we would have evolved from those stereotypes and, yet, you still see them.”
One example of what Baca talks about is Lifetime’s June premiere of a new drama, Devious Maids, whose executive producer is Eva Longoria. The ensemble cast includes Ana Ortiz (Ugly Betty), Dania Ramirez (Entourage), Roselyn Sanchez (Without a Trace) and Judy Reyes (Scrubs). These veteran actresses portray five maids with ambition and dreams of their own while working for the rich and famous (guess what ethnicity?) in Beverly Hills.
On the other hand, Latino portrayals of mainstream characters has increased: detective Christian Arroyo in Golden Boy, doctor Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy, and Santana Lopez of Glee.
Jesus Salvador Treviño is a writer/director whose TV credits include Law and Order, ER and many other mainstream shows. He also was co-executive producer on Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd., which portrayed a Latino family in East Los Angeles, a heavily Latino area in which Treviño himself resides. This Hollywood writer and director began his career as a student activist documenting the 1960’s Chicano civil rights movement with a Super-8 camera. He also has created a website, Latinotopia.com, to which he uploads the short films he has made of Latino leaders in all fields.
“I am a Chicano and I am a director and I am a writer and, above all, I am a storyteller,” he says. “And, all of these are not contradictory qualities but rather complimentary qualities that inform each other and make me better at what I do.”
Treviño says one obstacle that has not been erased in his more than 30 years in the industry is that minorities continue to be under-represented as executive producers. The majority of producers are still clueless about Latinos, he adds.
He remembers meeting with a studio executive who asked whether fellow directors, Luis Valdez and Gregory Nava, came from Mexico. “I informed him that both Luis and Greg had been born in the United States.”
One reason there are more Latino writers today is because of pressures put on the TV networks by Latino advocacy groups, such as the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which created “report card” ratings of Latino writers employed on network shows.
The industry is also economics driven, both writers say, and TV executives are forced to take notice of a population that has a $1 trillion buying power and are the largest consumers of entertainment.
“I agree that we need minority-specific family shows like (the now defunct series) Resurrection Blvd., American Family, The Brothers Garcia, and The George Lopez Show,” Treviño says, “but this is not enough. No, we need to see Latinos as a thorough and integrated part of all American television.”