September 4, 2019
Frederick Luis Aldama and Christopher González‘ new book, Reel Latinxs, dives into Latinx representation in film and television in the twenty-first century. Latinx representation in the popular imagination has infuriated and befuddled the Latinx community for decades. These misrepresentations and stereotypes soon became as American as apple pie. Not seeing real Latinxs on TV and film reels as kids inspired the authors to dig into the world of mainstream television and film to uncover examples of representation, good and bad. The result: a riveting ride through televisual and celluloid reels that make up mainstream culture.
Today, Frederick Aldama and Christopher González share with us some of the inspiration and thought that helped craft Reel Latinxs.
Frederick Luis Aldama: We both spend a bunch of time thinking, writing, and teaching all varieties of Latinx pop culture, film, and TV. I often get asked, “What shows or films do you recommend watching that get Latinx representation right?”. My reflex answer for recent brown televisual reconstructions: check out the representations of Latinas in Golden Globe awardee, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the playful panoply of Latino-ness represented in East WillyB, and those awesome Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D webisodes that feature Cisco Ramone or Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez. My reflex answer for recent brownings of the silver-screen: Robert Rodriguez’ Alita, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s Coco, and, of course, Bob Persichetti’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I add to this, that it’s not just the representation that matters, it’s the shaping of the representation, too. That is, we can have Latinxs in front of the camera, but we also need Latinx writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, and showrunners.
Christopher González: Those are all great examples, and we may as well confront the specific difficulty when it comes to representation of the Latinx community. Representation is not merely about casting a Latinx actor in a given role. We know that characters— their function within the narrative, their reliance on or avoidance of recognizable tropes or even stereotypes, and their capability of signifying a given community— all highlight why the kind of representation we encounter in film and television is so powerful. And you are correct in pointing to why it’s so crucial to examine the other major contributors to a given instance of representation such as writers, producers, and so forth. The shaping that you are referring to, however, is also something with which audiences must contend. What do you feel are the challenges audiences of these Latinx representations face with these emerging televisual narratives?
Frederick Luis Aldama: Subtlety. Nuance. Knowing the difference between an abuelitas throwing a spoon at us— that would never happen— and a chancla— always happens. If Lalo hadn’t been brought in to consult Disney in the making of Coco, it would have been a big wooden spoon that Mamá Coco would’ve launched at Miguelito. We would have noticed, and likely exhaled our inner Latinx-sigh of disappointment. But subtlety and nuance in other ways. How many times have you seen an East Coast Puerto Rican Latinx family preparing tamales or mole— and not, say, mofongo or lechon asado? A show like Ugly Betty did this in spades. It also cast non-Nuyorican actors to play Nuyoricans, including LA-born, Honduran ancestral Latinx America Ferrera and Cuban Latinx Tony Plana as the papa.
Christopher González: So, a kind of insider knowledge is helpful, then— someone who knows the nuances and subtleties you mention. But we also have to contend with what we might call unconventional Latinx representation. For instance, let’s take the example of the new version of Magnum P.I. (2018-present). Thomas Magnum is an iconic 80’s character that was a career-defining role for Tom Selleck, who is of English ancestry. This new reboot stars Jay Hernandez as Magnum. Thanks to his Hispanic surname and mestizo looks, most reasonable viewers will instantly recognize Jay as Latinx. The writers of the show, however, are much more reserved in expressions of Latinx identity for the character. The question as to whether or not Thomas Magnum, the character, is Latinx is made ambiguous for most of the first season. Hernandez is now playing a role that was conceived of originally as a white man, and it is nothing more than his physical presence in the visual medium of television that signals the possibility that this new version of Thomas Magnum is Latinx. More complicated still is Hernandez’ turn as the voice of Bonnie’s dad in Toy Story 4 (2019). Though he performs the role with no hint of a Spanish accent, Bonnie’s entire family is rendered as olive-skinned, dark-haired, people. I left the theater wondering, along with my family, if Bonnie’s family was Latinx. It was possible, but not confirmable. What I’m suggesting here is that Latinx representation is much more complex of late than it has been for most of the history of television and film.
Frederick Luis Aldama: We could say the same of a lot of Demi Lovato’s roles for Disney, right? As Mitchie Torres in Camp Rock (2008) do we read her last name and the fact that her mom’s a cook (aren’t all our mamas preternaturally good with food?) as Latinx? Gosh, I remember doing that way back when I was a kid. Starved of Latinxs on TV I wish-fulfilled the Addams family as Latinx. I guess what I’m saying, Chris, is that we haven’t arrived yet. We’re still so few and far between on TV and silver screens that I think we need clear, affirming Latinx identifiers. So, yeah, today’s Magnum should be loud-and-proud Latinx.
This brings up another important issue. Do we fault the Latinx actors for playing roles that whitewash a given character’s Latinidad? Do we fault an actor like Zoe Saldana for taking roles that either portray her as African American or Outerworld Alien, and not for roles, say, that would affirm a complex Afrolatinidad? I raise this because of late one of my brilliant PhD students had an Instagram exchange with Saldana. My student wrote this super insightful piece about how the industry itself is at fault for essentializing and simplifying— even alien-afying Saldana. I don’t know if you caught the piece, “Race and Alien Face“? Saldana read it as somehow a critique of her choice of roles played. My student, of course, wrote a heartfelt further explanation: that it was the industry at fault, not Saldana. My point here is that, well, in the end Latinx actors have to play the roles that pay the bills.
I have noticed that as Michael Peña, one of my favorite actors long with Saldana, has become more famous, he’s been either more choosy about his roles, or playing less-than-straight stereotypical Latinx roles. As far as I know, he’s the first Latinx actor to be the protagonist in a mainstream sci-fi flick. I’m thinking of Extinction. And, let’s face it, he steals the show from Paul Rudd in the Ant-Man franchise. And, when he’s playing a Latinx gangbanger, there’s always a wink to the Latinx audience. He knows he’s playing a stereotype, subverting it from within.
Christopher González: I am always very quick to point out that actors (Latinx or otherwise) are professionals who are pursuing their careers to the best of their abilities. We should not fault non-white actors for making business decisions in an industry that has often been inhospitable to them. In one of my current book projects, I uncover how the film industry has deep-rooted insecurities about how Latinx actors could and should appear in speculative films in genres such as Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, and more. Raquel Welch made a business decision to take on her white husband’s surname rather than use her own (Tejada) because she knew that doing so would limit the kinds of roles she would be offered. In the mid-1960s she had to whitewash her own Latinx identity in order to play characters such as Loana the Fair One in One Million Years B.C. and Cora in Fantastic Voyage. Now, over fifty years later, Zoe Saldana has to confront many of the same issues Welch faced. That Saldana took exception to your PhD student’s take reveals to me that Saldana is keenly aware that the roles she plays do matter, and that she perhaps feels frustration over how she is able to express her Latinx identity. But it should stagger us to consider that Saldana has starred in three of the five all-time grossing films at the box office (#1 Avengers: Endgame, #2 Avatar, #5 Avengers: Infinity War), and she still does not have the clout to make more forceful demands concerning the roles she takes. On the other hand, her Marvel co-star, Scarlett Johansson, is the highest-paid female actor in Hollywood, and she has taken roles that effectively whitewash characters. She came under fire recently for saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that as an actor she should be able to play any conceivable role. She later clarified that she was aware of how non-white, non-majority don’t have the same sort of access to roles of their white, cisgendered counterparts. In all of these cases, it is easy to get wrapped up with the actors and their decisions to take certain roles. What we should continue to critique is the system itself that allows these discrepancies in representation to occur. And, of course, we should take note of the opportunities some actors take to discretely subvert the stereotypical material they have been given.
Frederick Luis Aldama: Checking one’s privilege, now there’s a topic— and an urgent need, everywhere. We’ve seen a lot of push from historically underrepresented audiences for folks to check their privilege. We’re seeing the rearing of our collective ugly heads. We’ve had enough. I’m not only thinking of the #HollywoodSoWhite #OscarsSoWhite movements that have led to a lot of studios and television production units to create pipelines for young folks of color to become writers, directors, showrunners, and actors. I also think of the power of the internet as a platform to air our consumption needs and wants. Netflix canned the Latinx reboot of One Day At a Time. And, now after a hailstorm of internet mobilization, it’s back. We still need those boots-on-the-ground watchdogs like the National Hispanic Media Coalition and research centers like USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change, of course. However, with social media it seems like the power is really with the people.
Christopher González: Fede, our TV’s and silver-screens have shrunk. Elsewhere you talk about carrying these around in your back pocket, now. Sometimes I think this has emancipated #brownTV and also diminished our presence, representationally and physically.
Frederick Luis Aldama: The two-edged paradox: social media platforms like YouTube as well as spaces like VIMEO offering distribution channels to us Latinxs without deep Hollywood pockets yet the seeming continuation of stereotypical representation. I just watched a good friend, Ernesto Martínez’s short film, La Serenata, on VIMEO. It’s a masterpiece of short filmmaking, telling the much needed story of a Latinx niño telling his parents about his love for another boy. Queer Latinx Roberta Colindrez as the queer Latinx character, Devon, grabs the limelight in I Love Dick— a show made possible with funding from Amazon Prime. And, well, the way that Netflix’s One Day At a Time weaves into its one-familia storyworld the great variety of linguistic, religious, cultural, sexual, gender, class, regional resplendent variations that make up Latinidad is breathtaking. And, I have to say I love how Gabriel Iglesias uses humor to decolonize minds in Mr. Iglesias— an informal reboot of Welcome Back Carter from back in the day. Network TV could do these shows, but it doesn’t and it hasn’t. But then on the flipside, we have an abundance of us as “bad hombres”, not only in the super abundant narco Netflix offerings, but also in platforms like Discovery’s Border Live, where you can literally see ICE officers shake down innocents in real time.
Christopher González: Yes, distribution and availability are certainly enhanced. We can now watch these shows and films on the go, seemingly anywhere. That is the inevitable cost of the miniaturization of the screens we watch. The examples you just listed have benefitted from the almost grassroots efforts of audiences and creators to take more control of what they consume and what they make, even of the behemoth studios of Hollywood are still stuck in cement and antiquated ways of imagining the possibilities of visual storytelling. My sense is that there are many things that make this confluence of time, media, technology, and activism a great opportunity to see such change in how Latinxs are imagined within televisual spaces. There is no magic wand for instantly changing how things have been and where they are now. It takes hard work, bold choices, and the courage to be dogged enough to blaze a new trail. Our book, Reel Latinxs takes inventory of this shifting landscape and reveals what’s at stake for all of us, but particularly Latinxs like you and me who are old enough to see the progress that has been made and take stock of what work remains.
Frederick Luis Aldama: As we wrap this up, I wanted to mention that I’m super optimistic. At Stanford’s Great Books Program this summer, I got to spend time with a young, up-and-coming amazing Latinx actor, Emilio Garcia-Sanchez. He’s not bitter about having to step into the non-Latinx identified jock character, Jason, in Netflix’s The Society. He’s super comfortable with the fact that he brings his Latinidad with him, everywhere. Organically super-savvy about how he plays roles, he’s like a new gen Peña/ Saldana all rolled into one, and without effort. Like so many new gen Latinxs, he’s comfortable in his own skin— his self— as Latinx, y por vida.