Modern Family with Sofia Vergara & Ed O'NeillA piece in Backstage this week strikes a hopeful note about how diverse casting makes “good business sense,” and that the TV networks are stepping up to some degree in trying to make their shows reflect the face of America.  But are Latinos truly getting the juicier parts?

‘Gangbangers and Maids’ No More

As the Hispanic population increases, so do on-screen opportunities for Latinos.
By Daniel Holloway
APRIL 13, 2011

Since Arizona enacted its harsh immigration law last year, anti-Hispanic sentiment has played prominently in our national conversation. But no amount of finger-pointing from angry white politicians and their angry white supporters can change one immutable fact: The United States is becoming browner.

As the dust settles from the 2010 census, the extraordinary growth of the Hispanic population has come into focus. The census counted 50.5 million Hispanics in the United States in 2010—up from 35.3 million in 2000—representing 16.3 percent of the total population. The Hispanic boom was responsible for most of the nation’s 56 percent population growth in the last decade.

When Hispanics look to American film and television, they have traditionally found themselves underrepresented on screen. But Kathryn Galan, executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, is among those who believe that that is changing. “We think that the recent advances in Latino casting”—particularly in the latter part of the 2010-11 television season, Galan added—”is a direct result of our having identified the fact that the 2009 season was terrible for Latinos,” she said. “That coupled with the 2010 census has encouraged much more Latino casting.”

NALIP will kick off its weekend-long annual conference, the New Now, Friday at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, Calif. The conference will feature a TV-actors roundtable, presented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and a screening of the film “America,” presented by the Screen Actors Guild. On Thursday, NALIP will host a special pre-conference Latino edition of Back Stage’s Actorfest.

“Our organization was created to increase the quality and content of images by and about Latinos,” Galan said. “Where we have images about Latinos, we need Latino performers to perform them.”

‘Modern’ Marvel

One of the most prominent Hispanic performers on television is Sofia Vergara of ABC’s “Modern Family.” Vergara will receive NALIP’s Outstanding Achievement Award at the conference, and Galan points to the actor—and to the complexity of the character she portrays—as an example of the strides being made by Hispanics on screen, noting that it represents a far cry from the ’90s, when “the media only showed Latinos as gangbangers and maids.”

Consuelo Flores is the equal employment opportunity director for AFTRA’s Los Angeles local and will moderate the union’s NALIP panel. She agrees that Vergara’s “Modern Family” role, in which the actor plays an intelligent and outspoken woman who marries into a Caucasian family, is a significant landmark. Flores stressed the importance of seeing Hispanic actors represented in series that are racially diverse. In the NBC series “The Event,” for example, Lisa Vidal plays the first lady opposite Blair Underwood, who is African-American, as the president. “It’s not ever mentioned that she’s Latina, but it doesn’t have to be,” Flores said. “The fact that she is Latina and playing the first lady is the point.”

Flores’ colleague Ray Bradford, AFTRA’s national director for equal employment opportunity, reiterated the importance of making sure that actors of color are given the opportunity to play such “nonethnic-specific” roles. “It’s very obvious that if you’re trying to cast a Latino character, your first outreach would be to Latino performers,” Bradford said. “But we all know that the vast majority of roles and characters that are written are what we call ‘nondescript’—the judge, the jury, the grocery store clerk. Those are the roles where the vast amount of employment opportunities lie. According to our contracts, we encourage casting directors, talent agents, and employers to really be broad in their outreach for nondescript roles, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

Though the television networks have yet to set their fall schedules, Bradford, Flores, and Galan spoke of the current pilot season in hopeful terms. This year’s crop of pilots features several roles for Hispanic actors, including an untitled NBC show, starring Jimmy Smits as the mayor of Los Angeles, that is expected to have several Hispanic characters.

Market Watch

Adam Moore, SAG’s associate national director for affirmative action and diversity, said that as the media landscape broadens, more Hispanic content creators are finding platforms, leading to more jobs for Hispanic performers. “There are purely more outlets for entertainment now, between really quality programming on cable, new-media opportunities, independent filmmakers getting the opportunity to get content out there in a variety of ways,” Moore said. “There are just more opportunities out there for underrepresented communities to tell their own stories.”

But Galan looks at the increase in opportunities and sees good business sense at work. With the Hispanic market growing faster than any other, media companies must figure out how to appeal to Latinos. She noted that though the full results of the census were not released until last month, the television networks began receiving briefings on it as early as December and January.

“They were reminded that this market is larger and, more important, has grown much faster across the nation,” Galan said. “It really is a broad-based consumer and media market.”

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