In this Golden Age of Television, viewers have come to expect a lot from their TV binge-watching sessions in all aspects of storytelling: originality, cultural nuance, diversity—the last of which has become a term so oft-repeated to define support of cultural inclusion, some now write it off as an empty buzzword.
Representation in television and film, as in any workplace, is far more multi-layered than who we see onscreen in our favorite ABC sitcom or filling an obligatory diversity-hire on a regional executive board for Starbucks.
And in a town like Hollywood, historically quick to pat itself on the back when a colorful list of nominees in acting categories during award-show season is released, it’s easy to lose sight of the type of representation that is truly necessary for authentic Latinx stories to exist: Latinx people behind the lens.
“But seldom do we look behind the camera and examine which Latino writers and producers are striving to make a difference where it matters: in the rooms where casting decision are made, where series are greenlit, and development deals are brokered,” writes Manuel Betancourt, editor and writer at Remezcla.
Some progress has been made in bringing more Latinx creatives into writing, directing and television show-running positions, but a 2016 report from the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) found that nearly 86% of the people working as TV writers were white—demonstrating that we are only skimming the surface in terms of creating content featuring Latinx stories by Latinx writers.
Another finding from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative shows that “women of color are most affected by exclusionary hiring practices” given that only four Black/African American women, three Asian women, and one Latina directed across the 1,100 studio films examined between 2007-2017.
Enter Gloria Calderon-Kellet, writer and show-runner of One Day at a Time on Netflix and Tanya Saracho, writer and showrunner of Vida on Starz. Calderon-Kellet has managed to successfully reboot Norman Lear’s family sitcom of the 1970s, not only bringing it to modern times, but centering it around a multi-generational Cuban family that humorously and empathically depicts every-day life for a Latinx family living in Los Angeles.
Now entering its third season, the depiction could not be more timely given the harmful stereotypes that politicians in 2019 continue to perpetuate around Latinx communities. The show carefully addresses issues like immigration, racism, colorism, and LGBTQ issues. And in one of its more poignant episodes, the show delves into the complications of PTSD, as Cuban mother of two, Penelope, brilliantly portrayed by Justina Machado, is an Iraq war veteran. The show’s success is no doubt due to the nuance, authenticity and humor with which these topics are addressed. It manages to speak directly to the Latinx community, while simultanetously demonstrating the value that resides in content revolving around a mostly Latinx cast with a tour-de-force Latinx show-runner at the helm.
Similarly, Saracho created a show with an all Latinx-writers room and cast, now in its second season on Starz. Saracho delves into the the experiences of Latinx gender non-conforming communities as well as intra-community classism—the type of stuff Latinx audiences have never seen on television before in the general market. The show revolves around two sisters, Emma and Lyn, moving back to their childhood home in Boyle Heights to deal with the sudden loss of their mother, the disintegration of the family business and the realization—postmortem—that their ‘Ama (mother) was gay and gay married. Non-normative gender identities in the Latinx community have long been a cultural taboo, and Saracho’s storylines fearlessly confront the differing generational attitudes around sex and non-hetero relationships in a way that brings the Latinx LGBTQ community out of the periphery and in to 2019.
The reason these timely stories told in this way are so vital is because they enable the kind of depth and thoughtfulness that a Latinx audience craving authentic representation—the kind that replaces tokenism with things like empathy, familiarity and universality—can actually connect to.
And isn’t genuine connection with specific target audiences the driving force behind any commercial success? The buying power of the Latinx community—all $1.7 trillion of it—alone should be more than enough of a motivating factor to create authentic, original content that speaks directly to them.
Ultimately, the Latinx audience, diverse and varied as it is, doesn’t necessarily need an all-Latinx TV show in order to feel connected. We just want to exist authentically throughout all of the various worlds onscreen where we currently do not or do so exclusively in a marginalized way—the cop, the thug, the maid, the vixen, or the heavily-accented foreigner punchline.
And the “how-to” in terms of connecting with and reflecting the thriving, multi-dimensional existence of the Latinx community, will in large part be answered by innovative content-creators like Calerdon-Kellett, Saracho and others who understand the necessity of having Latinx storytellers behind the lens and at the helm.