La Representación Importa: The Need for More Latinos in Film, TV

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After decades of underrepresentation, whitewashing, and villainizing, a spike of positive representation of ethnic minorities, such as Latinos, has swept into Hollywood and mainstream media.

Latino pioneers like José Ferrer, Edward James Olmos, and Rita Moreno broke systemic barriers to play defining roles in an industry dominated by White actors, paving the way for future Latino actors and Latino-led projects to break from the mold.

This success has led to a new wave of notable Latino standouts and projects.

America Ferrera, a U.S.-born Latina of Honduran heritage, nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Barbie (2023). Pedro Pascal, born in Chile, delighted audiences in the titular role of The Mandalorian before taking the lead in HBO’s TV adaptation of video game series The Last of Us.

Films such as Disney’s Coco (2017) and Encanto (2021), and Flamin’ Hot (2023), which chronicles the true story of the Mexican immigrant responsible for Cheetos Flamin’ Hot, and TV shows like Jane the Virgin leapt onto the screen to celebrate Latino culture and values like the importance of family.

Several Latino-focused films have garnered worldwide recognition, like Roma (2018), which catalogues a year in the life of a family housekeeper in Mexico City during the early 1970s and went on to become one of the most Oscar-nominated foreign-language films of all time.

While Hollywood has taken notice of the Latino voice, opportunities to use it have been few and far between, and more still needs to be done to put Latinos on even footing with their White peers.

Latino Representation in Film, TV, Media

Despite making up 19.1% of the US population, Latinos hold less than 5% of high-ranking on-screen, off-screen, and executive roles in media, according to a new article from McKinsey & Company, called Latinos in Hollywood: Amplifying Voices, Expanding Horizons.

Latinos account for 4% of on-screen roles in theatrically released films, compared to 68% White, 16% Asian American, and 6% Black American.

Most theatrical film directors are White at 68% followed by 19% Asian American and 5% Latino.

Whites dominate the film world’s writer’s rooms at 71%, compared to 4% Latino and 4% Black Americans.

The representation of Latinos in film production holds the largest gap at 3%, compared to 80% White.

This trend is consistent with TV and streaming roles with Latinos making up 4 to 7% of on-screen talent and between 2 and 5% of writers’ rooms.

There are even fewer Latino showrunners.

Latinos helming broadcast TV shows sit at 1%, compared to 88% White, and 5% for streaming, compared to 81% White.

As for Hollywood executives, who call most of the shots when it comes to hiring and greenlighting projects, only 5.5% are Latino.

“From studios to talent agencies to trades, the representation of Latinos is low in virtually all decision-making positions that determine content narratives and influence hiring decisions,” according to the McKinsey & Company report.

The Benefits of Having Latino Representation in Film, TV, Media

When a movie hits theaters, Latinos are often first in line at the box office.

Latinos account for 24% of ticket sales at the box office and 24% of streaming subscribers. This amounts to viewing films 3.3 times a year, per capita, compared with 2.9 for Asian Americans and 2.3 for Whites, according to the McKinsey & Company report.

These figures double when Latinos are involved on and off screen.

Latinos aren’t just prompting ticket sales, either.

Films with Latino-led productions in general are raking in the cash. Movies featuring Latino actors, producers, directors, and writers have been shown to outperform those without by more than 58%.

That goes for TV, too.

Median ad impressions on TV shows that have Latinos working either on or behind screen outperformed those without by 60%.

“This universal appeal to audiences, regardless of their own background or heritage, reinforces a largely untapped opportunity in Latino artistry and creative endeavors,” the article’s writers wrote.

Even critics agree that Latino-led productions are worth the hype.

Over roughly the last decade, films featuring Latino talent were one-third more likely to be nominated for Academy Award or Golden Globe than those without, and more likely to take home the award.

“Once you win awards, the movie doors open,” one Latino director told McKinsey & Company. “The head of a studio asked for a movie pitch, and I pitched the same movie I had pitched six years earlier. The original feedback was ‘macabre, amateurish’; then this time it’s ‘genius, unlike anything we have ever seen before.’”

With notoriety comes credibility and creative license to tell more impactful stories aimed at touching the heart of the Latino experience.

Barriers to Latino Representation in Film, TV, Media

Breaking into the business is challenging for anyone, but it’s even harder for Latinos.

In an industry dominated by White filmmakers, actors, and executives, finding success is limited by existing ethnic representation, resulting in fewer opportunities for minorities, such as Latinos, to catch their big break.

Latinos are known to receive an average of 33% fewer film credits than their White counterparts in the first decade of their careers, according to the article.

“Our research found that for Latinos, getting one of these jobs, and thriving in it, can be especially challenging. Many of our Latino interviewees recounted stories that highlight barriers to access—for example, the network-driven way in which many jobs are filled. Similarly, low early-tenure compensation in often high-cost cities effectively excludes many people from lower-income backgrounds, including most of the US Latino population,” according to McKinsey & Company.

Latinos who rise into a position of power can leverage that power.

When a Latino is in a leadership role, they are 15 times more likely to hire other Latinos in key roles.

“The goal is to sign as many folks as I identify with,” one Latino agent told McKinsey & Company. “But the reality is there are not 20 jobs [for Latinos] out there. There may be jobs for two or three.”

However, fewer Latinos in leadership positions ensures those opportunities remain low.

Just as Latinos tend to hire other Latinos, industry executives hire people they are acquainted with, such as college alumni and family friends, resulting in fewer gateways to employment.

“There are no applications for production jobs,” one non-Latino executive told McKinsey & Company. “A studio head hires division heads, and the division heads hire other people [they] know, and this cycle perpetuates—and as a result, Latinos don’t get hired.”

A lack of Latino representation in executive roles creates a thin understanding of what it truly means to be Latino.

With a limited notion of Latino experience, the need for more Latino-led projects or representation isn’t grossly apparent.

“Right now I’m not seeing representation reflected in boardrooms and executives,” one Latino animator told McKinsey & Company. “It’s the chicken and the egg problem: because there are no hits, they don’t want to make Latino movies. And because they don’t make Latino movies, there are no hits.”

Fewer Latinos driving decision-making in Hollywood, also means fewer production resources and limited financial investment for Latino film and TV projects.

Latino directors receive 16% less for marketing and have production budgets that are 25% lower than White directors.

For Latino showrunners, productive budgets are 53% lower on average than those of White showrunners.

Latinos in the industry have detailed instances where budgets were only agreed upon the partnership with a White colleague and projects where an executive demanded the Latina lead become a sidekick to be greenlit.

“We need more executives. That’s always been the problem. Executives are the gatekeepers, the champions. Someone who can see value and find it relatable, an advocate to help a project get more time to garner interest,” several Latinos told McKinsey & Company.

Other barriers for Latinos in Hollywood include a narrow view of Latino culture, a rigid belief that all Latinos are foreigners, and being an industry dependent on financial means and requires multiple sources of income to maintain longevity.

When Latinos are known to make 30% less than their White peers, Latinos tend to be at higher risk for leaving the industry, especially in situations where their income is compromised like the recent actors and screenwriters’ strike.

Edward Dennis, a Latino who published a book about an immigrant boy from Mexico, and is working on other projects in video games and film, understands what happens when diversity is not on screen.

“Not seeing anyone dark like you and only seeing Caucasian characters in video games, cartoons, or on TV makes you think, ‘I don’t belong here,’” Dennis said. “My people always seem to be in the background [in the media]. They’re not in the frame and that’s how you start to feel in real life.”

“I definitely think not seeing yourself in the media is psychologically hurtful.”

How to Increase Latino Representation in Film, TV, Media

One of the biggest concerns Hollywood needs to address when trying to increase Latino representation is the need for more Latino executives.

To achieve this, McKinsey & Company suggests the creation of more recruiting and promotional pathways, mid-career development programs that provide more opportunities for advancement, and using performance metrics as a hiring, reward, and promotion tool.

“Through these kinds of efforts, the entertainment industry can actively promote diverse above-the-line and executive talent and foster a more inclusive environment for the Latino community,” according to the article.

To boost more opportunities for Latino talent, Hollywood needs to make a long-term investment and commitment to hiring Latinos, increase Latino-based partnerships, consciously seek diverse talent and stories, and make exceptions for non-unionized talent to gain entry to the industry.

Lastly, industry executives need to take steps to ensure Latinos are accurately represented in mainstream media.

Executives can take a more active approach to understanding diversity within the Latino community, refining a character or story beyond the “Latino” concept, and use their influence to give Latinos a chance to play roles where viewers see them in a position of power such as superheroes, lawyers, and doctors.

On top of increasing representation, rewriting harmful stereotypes, and creating opportunities for a more accurate portrayal of the Latino community, showcasing more Latinos in mainstream media could potentially bring in an additional revenue of $12 billion to $18 billion annually, according to the article.

“This, in turn, has the potential to help evolve society’s preconceived notions, reduce prejudices, and promote a more equitable and just representation of a large and growing worldwide community,” according to McKinsey & Company.

Overcoming Harmful Biases in Film, TV, Media

When Latinos are involved in stories about Latinos, the narratives tend to be more authentic and representative of Latino culture, according to the article.

Many films depicting Latinos that aren’t made by Latinos are crime-themed at 27% — a value that decreases to 13% for films backed by Latino directors, producers, or writers.

Crime-themed stories created by non-Latinos about Latinos on the big screen often lean on cultural misrepresentations that perpetuate or reinforce harmful stereotypes, forming an unconscious bias that impacts attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors toward certain individuals, according to a Race to a Cure article.

Only 8% of films that have no Latino-led involvement showcase family, compared to 28% when Latinos are the ones influencing story-making decisions.

Positive ethnic representations in mainstream media have the power to boost self-esteem, create diverse beauty standards, can help define identities, and can influence the achievement of goals that were previously out of reach, according to Race to a Cure.

Overcoming Harmful Biases in Healthcare

Positive and negative representations in media can bleed off the pages of the script and into reality.

Harmful biases perpetuated in mainstream media influences thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors toward certain groups and can be unconsciously exhibited in areas such as health care.

For instance, determining a patient can’t afford a type of treatment based on how they look and not offering it.

These are known as implicit biases and can affect someone’s access to quality, equitable health care.

Health care workers can take important steps to understanding and overcoming implicit biases by downloading the free Salud America! Action Pack “Health Care Workers and Researchers: Find If You Have Implicit Bias and What to Do Next.”

This Action Pack gives you a look into any implicit biases you may hold, so you can take corrective action, by taking an “Implicit Association Test (IAT).”

After you understand your own implicit biases, you can encourage others to take the test and work toward ending implicit biases in health care together.

“This Action Pack will help you see if you have implicit bias, learn from others who have overcome their own implicit bias, and encourage colleagues to learn about implicit bias, too,” said Dr. Amelie Ramirez, director of Salud America! and its home base, the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio.

GET THE ACTION PACK!

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