t’s been 13 years since the National Latino Media Council famously declared a “BROWNOUT” on the networks of NBC, CBS, FOX and ABC. The release of the 1999 fall schedule revealed that no Latino would be cast in a primary or secondary role across any of the 26 new shows on any of the four networks. The “BROWNOUT” had immediate and long-term implications for the perception of Latinos in Hollywood. It also reminded Hollywood execs that somebody was watching.
Yet, as recent as May of 2012, NCLR President Janet Murguía lamented, “there will be no Latino family starring on prime-time network television this September.” Of all the shows picked up by the networks none, says Murguía, will even feature “a lead or secondary Hispanic character.” Murguía, like the NLMC before her, was citing the release of the four networks’ upcoming fall schedule. Leaders like Murguía are quick to highlight the data — more than 52 million Latinos in the U.S., more than $1 trillion in purchasing power. For many Latinos, the knowledge of being the largest minority group in the United States has little solace when they are among the least represented in Hollywood. The would-be tidal wave of power has remained a trickle even in an industry known for its liberalism.
“I think in every aspect…across the board people of color are always going to have to work twice as hard to get twice as much,” said Jason Nieves, a Latino writer based in Los Angeles. A Brooklyn-bred comedian and satirist, Nieves knows first-hand the difficulties of breaking into Hollywood writing rooms. Diversity, he says, means one chair out of 10 goes to a person of color or a woman. “That’s not diversity. That’s humanity,” he said.
Nieves’ observations are rooted in the realities of the data: As of 2007, Latinos made up an estimated 2 percent of television writers despite Latinos accounting for nearly 16 percent of the U.S. population, and that gap appears to be widening.
Surrounding the argument is the perception of Latinos, not just in Hollywood but the perception and the broadcasted ‘reality’ of Latinos as nothing more than servants, criminals or uneducated.
More than that, Nieves says, is the idea that Hollywood believes Latinos can only write Latino-themed work.
“I think the reason they think that is because they don’t have to live in our world,” he said. “If you’re a Latino in America, you basically have your Latino side, and you have your American side. If you’re a white American guy, you only have a white American side.”
Nieves says people of color should be valued differently. Instead of 50 percent of a writer, he argues it should be 200 percent — 100 percent humanity plus 100 percent or their diverse background. “We understand that we are different, but at the same time, we share a lot more in common than you might think. You have to make it relatable not just to your people but every people.”
Despite the paltry numbers, Latinos, especially those raising to decision-making positions, are working to ensure that Latino-written pieces do get adequate attention, and that diverse writers are cultivated and afforded the same level of support as non-Latinos.
Sitting at the table are people like Joey Chavez, a USC grad who entered Hollywood through several internships and writing programs. Currently, Chavez is the Vice President of Drama Development at NBC. That means Chavez is intimately involved in the development process, from the pitch to the pilot. He works with writers to “flesh out” stories and prepare them for development. Of the 50 to 60 projects they purchase, only eight to 10 actually get shot as pilots.
As a Latino exec, Chavez is among a growing class of Latino decision makers. He acknowledges the difficulties and the lack of representation at some of the highest levels, but he also sees the potential for growth in numbers and relevance.
“In my opinion, it is less that it is two times as hard for a minority writer to make it in Hollywood and more about the fact that we just have less examples of said success which make it harder for people to trust in that equation,” Chavez said.
“Whether we like it or not, this is a business, and new business models can be scary to people. What I strive for as part and parcel to my job, is to help remind that embracing diversity is actually a benefit to the business because we are a large section of the market, ever growing in fact, and because at the end of the day, representing all types of people is merely a realistic reflection on the world.”
That means Latinos playing more than the stereotypes dictate, actor Marco Rodriguez said. The recent successes of Latinos on primetime television — “The George Lopez Show” and Sofia Vergara on “Modern Family” and Eva Longoria on “Desperate Housewives” — have contributed to an elevated perception of Latinos, he said.
“We are moving slowly into a place where we are being seen more as the regular folks, not just the maid or the gardener or the cholo or the gangbanger, particularly in television.” The “irony” of that progress, Nieves said, is that while the roles are improving, Latinos aren’t entrusted to write for other Latinos, let alone their costars. Because of this, the writing can be a “little one note,” he said. “While I am happy to see more Latinos in front of the camera, it’s (ironic) that we can be on a show, but we’re not good enough to write for the people on that show.”
Nieves recounted a story describing this irony. Once during staffing season, he went on a show with five ‘people of color’ who were part of the main cast and two regulars.
Even with seven people of color — something he called “pretty impressive” — Nieves said that the writing room had one writer of color. Executives like Chavez acknowledge this trend, yet also acknowledge the role that representation, specifically agents, plays in the presentation of diverse talent and their work.
“It’s also important for agencies and studios to begin recognizing the need and value of diverse and Latino talent specifically because at a network, we are the last stop. We only receive the writers agents represent, the directors studios want to work with, the talent that casting agencies take on etc., and if there aren’t diverse choices there, it’s tough for us to pull them out of a hat. We absolutely demand and encourage that it be considered and we often remind our counterparts how important it is for us, so you hope that that message is heard, but it’s sort of the ‘It takes a Village’ mentality that needs to be in full effect to get the needle moving.”
For Rodriguez, that also means taking on roles that may not break the stereotypes, but that will allow an actor’s body of work to increase and subsequently their profile. One must be an actor before he or she can become an advocate he says.
“When you’re starting out and trying to break into this business, it’s very hard to have an agenda,” he said. “You have to break in. You really have to understand the hierarchy. This is show business. You can’t really get too militant about certain things. You have to break in before you can make astatement, before you can decide that you don’t want to play something.”
Rodriguez is that multi-threat type of entertainer. He is an actor, a writer and a director. Such is the norm in Hollywood, where those looking to get their projects funded or even pay the rent take a role for more basic reasons. Ideology is a workingman’s luxury, and Marco says that life dictates more basic choices most of the time. The starving actor working at the local diner is not just a nice idea for a film.
From the writer’s perspective, Nieves is equally as adamant that this is a business first, and that if the story is not relatable or marketable, it doesn’t matter how personally attached he might get to it.
“If you want to write for the sake of writing, God bless you,” he said. “I do that, too. But what I do is I try to make the idea that I want and put it into commercial form. I am not selling out or watering down. I am finding a way to make it relatable to everyone and also at the same time, understand that what I am writing is to be sold.”
Such was the case when Nieves launched “Latino 101,” a pop-culture comedy show that he writes for. The program, which runs on NuvoTV, creatively explores the Latino culture through comedy. In this case, Nieves created his own opportunity where there might not have been one. Nieves is a beneficiary of the advocacy of groups like the National Media Hispanic Coalition. Since 1986, the group has worked to both speak out on behalf of Latino talent but also to provide opportunities for it. Nieves, for example, was part of their competitive writing program, which opened doors for him at major networks.
Each year, the NMHC sends out report cards detailing the strides or setbacks that networks have made with regards to both the number of Latinos working as well as the image that is being portrayed through their shows. They were involved in the 1999 “BROWNOUT” across networks and since have worked with diversity departments to ensure Latinos are being considered for onscreen and executive positions. Chavez says that this is inline with current network thinking, and that programs designed to increase diversity are still relatively new and the results of which are still being compiled.
“I think the precedent of there not being as many Latino writers is the daunting and discouraging fact, but if you look at the more recent years, you will find more and more Latino talent working its way up, and I absolutely do as best I can to help shore such success stories up and fight to give them chances,” he said. “Knowing firsthand how few diverse and female voices have succeeded as high-level television writers, it is absolutely a priority for me. We have a tremendous diversity department and programs here at NBC … which give writers, directors, and talent that first foot in the door, and I try to work with that department as much as possible along with my normal executive duties since I do have such a vested interest.”
Like Nieves, Rodriguez enjoys the security of knowing that groups like NHMC exists. He acknowledges their success in placing writers in jobs after completing their writing program. While he acknowledges they can be, at times, a bit militant, he thinks that they made a significant impact for the Latino perception in media and have done so “without closing doors or scaring away the gringos.”
“They are making a platform for us…to give a voice to these Latino writers who are out there,” he said. “It’s not just about la causa. If you’re just hollering, it’s not really happening.”
The numbers suggest one reality, but Nieves, Chavez and Rodriguez share the common vision that diversity needs to improve, but that this is not 1999, and another “BROWNOUT” isn’t imminent.
“I absolutely strive to find that Latino talent out there that I admire and want to help foster, and I have been fortunate enough to meet and/or work with many whom I really appreciate,” Chavez said. “I do consider it more of a responsibility, but I also just think it’s important to have, as I said, one of us in the room to help represent us in our best light. I was so inspired to have seen a show like Ugly Betty come out when it did and do well, and I think we could find more examples of broad, relatable talent that celebrates us as a people and shows that Latinos come in all personalities, looks, sizes, sexual orientations, colors, everything. And most importantly, that we are also really good entertainers.”