4 Latina Stars Weigh In On The Battles They’re Still Fighting In A Slowly Changing Industry
Back in 2016, Latina writer and producer Ligiah Villalobos created a Latina Bechdel Test, per People, that she applied to the 50 top grossing films of that year. To pass, the film had to include a Latina character who was college educated and didn’t speak with a thick accent. The only movie that made the cut was Disney’s animated Zootopia — with Gazelle, a minor character who was voiced by Shakira.
And it turns out that not much has changed in the film industry since then. Of the top 50 grossing films of 2018, only four feature Latinas in major roles: Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (with a Latina actor in a voice role), and Sicario: Day of the Soldado.
But there has been progress in TV. Today, Latina actors have more varied, relatable roles on TV than ever before. In fact, The Hollywood Reporter reported in September that despite the number of women working in television both onscreen and behind-the-scenes decreasing overall by 27-28 percent, the percentage of Latina speaking characters is at a historic high of 7 percent. Some of the most successful shows right now have Latinas at the forefront, like Jane the Virgin, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Orange Is the New Black. While Latinas are thriving on TV, however, it's still a huge issue to have film falling further behind.
For many Latina actors, the underrepresentation of Latinas on the big screen feels rooted in stereotypes and prejudices. “I’ve been working for about 15 years, and I will say that it’s definitely gotten better. But it’s tough,” says Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Melissa Fumero over the phone. “I have to fight sometimes to get seen for roles that are not labeled ethnic, because I’m like, ‘Well, why not? Why can’t I read for that?’"
Of the various reasons that have been given as to why Latina movie stars are still so rare, most are excuses, according to Fumero, Eva Longoria, Stephanie Beatriz, and Jackie Cruz, who spoke to Bustle for this piece. Here, those actors express their thoughts on those "reasons," and explain what they think can be done to increase representation across the board.
On The "Risk" Of Casting People Of Color In Movies
There's a major misconception in Hollywood that films starring people of color bring in smaller audiences than those with with white protagonists. Variety reported in 2017 that even as films starring non-white protagonists such as Get Out find massive success (more recent examples are Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and To All The Boys I Loved Before), many studios are still afraid to take a chance on these films. Casting actors of color on TV, meanwhile, is seen as less risky.
“Film is a different beast than television. It’s a lot more expensive to make,” says Fumero's Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-star Stephanie Beatriz, speaking to Bustle over the phone. “There’s a lot more riding on it."
Studios' reticence to cast lesser-known actors in leading roles contributes to this imbalance as well, according to Orange Is the New Black actor Jackie Cruz. As such, Hollywood casts the same actors of color, particularly Latinas, over and over again. "We all audition for one role, and Hollywood picks one Latin girl and gives her all the roles, because they know she's popular, and they know she'll sell," explains Cruz over the phone. "But they won't give opportunity to someone else because they don't know. They don't want to take a chance."
Eva Longoria, who became the highest-paid Latina in television when starring in Desperate Housewives in 2011, also notes that being a woman of color has its disadvantages in Hollywood. "In general, being an actor is a hard job to do and then you add that you’re a female so that leaves very few roles for women, and then you stack on top of that the you’re a person of color female and that’s like a 3rd barrier," says the actor over the phone. "I think the only way we’re going to fix representation in TV and film is by getting behind the camera, by becoming the writers and directors and creators and producers of projects."
But Longoria also points out that getting power behind the camera has also proven to be difficult. "That’s where this problem that happens in our industry is. There’s so many proven white males already in the industry who have directed many things and have worked on many projects, and so we don’t have the pipeline of talent like other people do and so getting your foot in the door, getting that experience, we have to be twice as good, twice as fast, twice as creative, just to get that one up," she says.
On The Stereotypical Latina "Look"
There were only two Latinas on Forbes' list of highest paid celebrities in 2018: Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lopez. Both are talented, no question, but they also both fit the physical stereotype for Latinas: long hair, honey-colored skin, and a fit, curvy body. As Fumero notes, studios' focus on stereotypical physical attributes rather than talent can impede many Latinas from getting major roles in films.
“I think there’s still a lot of ideas about what a Latino looks like. And depending on who is in the room, you may not fit that idea,” the actor explains. “Even though when you talk to any Latin person, that whole idea is insane, because we come in so many different shades and colors and backgrounds, and some of us are white and blonde, some of us are really dark, and some of us are black, and some of us have curly hair, and some of us have straight hair. There’s not one look that is Latina.”
Fumero points out that when it comes to Latinas in Hollywood, there has historically been a larger emphasis on their physicality and sensuality rather than their talent. “I think that there has been a tendency, especially with the women, to [be] the Latina vixen, the super sexy [woman] — that’s the cliché and the stereotype we’ve all operated under for a long time," says the actor. "And OK, now we’re telling these stories that are breaking those stereotypes, but we’re still not celebrating the essence of who these women are."
On The Overall Gender Bias
In January 2018, Variety reported that a study from USC’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative found that in the 100 top films of 2016, Latinxs made up just 3 percent of speaking parts. The struggle is especially tough on women, particularly in major, awards-worthy films. To this day, the only Latina to have won an Academy Award for acting is Rita Moreno, for West Side Story in 1962.
“I’ve always noticed that gap," says Fumero. "Growing up... I feel like I had a good amount of — not a good amount, but more than women — Latino actors to look up to. But then on the Latina side, it’s like, Rita Moreno, and that was it."
Beatriz adds that even when roles are originally written for Latinas, the characters are sometimes whitewashed. One recent example is Drive; in the James Sallis novel, the character of Irene is Latina, but she's played onscreen by the white Carey Mulligan. Yet Irene's husband, Standard, is Latino in both the book and movie (as played by Oscar Isaac).
“I read for that script and I didn’t go in for the audition, for some reason,” recalls Beatriz. “I think it’s really unfortunate that studios are so trusting that their audiences only want to see a lead character that looks a certain way. And up until this point, most of the time that way has been white skin, and that’s kind of it. And movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are changing that, but it still feels like an uphill battle to me.”
On How TV Is Leading The Way
While representation for Latinas in television is still low, it's undoubtedly better than in movies. Just take Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has more than one Latina in a starring role. Beatriz recalls how at San Diego Comic-Con, a Latina fan told the actor and her co-star Fumero how much it meant to her to see both of them sharing the screen. "She just started shaking and crying and said, ‘I’ve never seen myself on a TV show like yours before, and it’s so important to me.’ It was really moving. Melissa and I both teared up, because we remember," the actor recalls.
Fumero adds that plenty of fans have reached out to her to thank her for playing Amy. “I get tweets all the time from young Latina girls that are like, ‘I’m a bookworm,’ or ‘I love school,’ or they love rules, or ‘I’m Latin, and I’ve never seen another Latin character like me,’” she says. “My little contribution of getting the opportunity to play Amy, to just break that stereotype down even more and not be salsa-ing across the floor and wearing a ton of makeup, playing all the clichés, is huge, because we’re not just one thing."
It's rewarding for these actors to be playing rounded characters for young fans to look up to, because they were hungry for that representation when they were kids. “I can remember watching Saved by the Bell and going, ‘Well, I like Kelly. She’s got dark hair like I do. Her eyes are blue, but…,'” Fumero recalls. “You just look for the other brunettes, and you sort of just justify the rest of it."
Adds Beatriz, "There was so little rep that you were just grasping at straws for anything you could get. And now it’s different." The actor remembers watching Sesame Street until her teens because of the character Maria (Sonia Manzano), who starred in the show for 44 years, until 2015. “Maria was the only person on TV that looked like me. And I loved seeing her. I loved tuning in to Sesame Street and seeing her on my television with her brown skin and her brown hair. Sometimes she would speak, and it just felt like, ‘Ah! Oh, god, there I am,’” says Beatriz.
On Showrunners Listening To Their Latina Stars' Voices
Netflix's Orange Is The New Black was one of the first hit shows to have a large cast of Latinas of different ethnicities, and part of what makes that series' portrayal of these characters feel authentic is having a Latina writer on board. It also helps that the actors are given opportunities to make sure they’re being represented accordingly, according to Cruz.
“What's great about the show is they let you get involved," she says. "If you know that Dominicans don't have chilaquiles, you tell [the writers]."
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s set also welcomes input from its Latina cast members. Fumero loved how Amy didn't fit into the stereotypes she'd been seeing, but one of the best things about the character was that showrunners Dan Goor and Mike Shur determined her ethnicity based on the actor's. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re Cuban. We’ll just make Amy Cuban,’ like it was no big deal. And I was like, ‘It’s a big deal! This is awesome!’,” recalls Fumero.
For Beatriz, Goor’s encouragement of dialogue led to one of the show’s most touching and vital moments, when Rosa comes out as bisexual. Despite there being a fair share of queer Latinas in Hollywood including Aubrey Plaza, Michelle Rodriguez, and Sara Ramirez, there’s a serious lack of representation of queer Latinas onscreen. As such, Brooklyn's portrayal of Rosa coming out was incredibly meaningful — and was a direct result of Beatriz's own story and input.
With that kind of impact on Latina representation, it's no wonder that when the show was on the verge of permanent cancelation earlier in 2018, its stars were as worried as its audience. “I was sad for myself and for the show and all of our fans that we were losing it,” recalls Fumero. Beatriz, however, had a more optimistic view. “I think what was sort of exciting, to me at least, was that the world that we were about to enter into as — I’ll use a sports term — as 'free agents,' it’s a very different world than it was five years ago when I booked the pilot,” she explains. “Television has changed a lot in the last, I would say, 10 years, but particularly in the last chunk of that 10, the face of television has definitely started to reflect more and more what I think of as the real United States.”
Since Brooklyn Nine-Nine's debut in 2013, several other shows with Latina protagonists have emerged, including Vida and One Day at a Time, the latter in which both Fumero and Beatriz will guest star during its upcoming season.
On How Latinas Are Helping Each Other Succeed
In 2017, photos emerged of a gathering of some of Hollywood's biggest Latina names, including America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Eva Longoria, Gina Rodriguez, One Day at a Time showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett, and Fumero and Beatriz. According to Fumero, this meeting — and ones that have followed — have involved its participants discussing the lack of representation for Latinas both onscreen and off.
“The last time we were all together, we had a really incredible talk about media and how media can really change cultural policy, which is really exciting," explains Fumero. And these women are not just discussing the impact of their work, but also creating new opportunities for fellow Latinas.
“I think those social events really lend themselves to us getting to know other artists and then saying to ourselves or other people, ‘You know who would be great for this? This person who I met at this social event,'” explains Fumero. Beatriz agrees, noting that the production side of TV and movies can often feel exclusive — which these gatherings help change.
"It’s not necessarily a frat, but it is kind of that mentality. You know these people, other people that you know trust these people, that kind of thing,” explains the actor. “It’s nice to have a feeling like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have to exclude us.’ We can also form these connections with each other and connect each other to other people that are working in our same industry.”
One of the most impactful results is that these events have been the catalyst for some participants, including Fumero, to want to dip their feet into the production side. “The group has really inspired us to think about becoming producers, think about becoming directors, think about creating our own stuff,” she explains. “Why are we waiting for Hollywood to do it?... It’s like, stop waiting for the phone to ring, and try to make things happen.”
Longoria notes that with encouragement, her peers have felt empowered to reach higher. "I told Gina Rodriguez, 'You have got to direct a show, you’ve got to direct a show, you’ve got to direct a show.' She directed a show. I convinced America Ferrera she’s got to direct a show, and America started directing Superstore," she recalls. "There’s so many people that just want somebody to say that to them. Just say it. 'I think you can do it.'"
It has always been as important for Longoria to work behind the scenes as it is to be in front of the camera. She's directed episodes of Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, The Mick, and more. She also has her own production company UnbeliEVAble Entertainment, under which she'll produce upcoming ABC drama Grand Hotel.
But as a producer and director, it's vital to her to also expand opportunities for other women of color. "Now that I’m producing and directing, I make it a point to fill our director slots with women first and then add people of color first and if there’s any slots left to direct, then we look at other places," explains Longoria. "But that makes a conscious effort and decision behind people of power and because I do have that power in some instances in my projects, I’m able to do that."
Cruz decided to form her own production company, Unspoken Film, and in between working on OITNB, she has collaborated on several short films with diverse, historical stories. “I want to show the world why people from the Caribbean, or Latinos... we all look different, because we come from genocide. We come from rape, we come from slavery. I want to show the world that we were always there, just never represented,” she explains.
Getting one of the films off the ground was a challenge for Cruz. She claims that a white writer took her story and decided to make it their own. “They stole it, they changed the name, and they changed it to a white story instead of natives. That just lit a fire under my bones,” recalls the actor. “I feel like there needs to be more unity within women and the women that are getting ahold of the opportunity need to help the minority, instead of take from them.”
Cruz fought through the obstacles and funded the film with her own money, motivated by her desire to see more movies that capture different stories of Latinas.
Yet while it’s a big step to have Latinas feel motivated to create their own productions and have successful roles in television and film, in order for Hollywood to truly become more progressive, studios also have to make the effort to produce representative movies from the get-go. Audiences and actors alike clearly want more narratives that put people of color at the forefront — and it's time for Latinas to have their moment to shine beyond television.