A version of this feature about Latinx TV first appeared in the Drama/Comedy/Actors issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
In our last Emmy issue, Stolen by My Mother star Niecy Nash commented, “The world is bigger than just Black and white people, you know what I mean? There is a whole group of people who are being underrepresented.”
The Latin and Hispanic experience has certainly been underrepresented on American television and at the Emmys over the years. Yes, Puerto Rican actor Jose Ferrer was nominated at the third Emmys in 1950, and “I Love Lucy,” executive produced by Cuban-born Desi Arnaz, won in 1952 and ’53. But overall, the embrace was so half-hearted that Rita Moreno was the first Latinx nominee in five different categories.
Moreno, who at age 88 is still in the Emmy conversation thanks to her role in Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time” reboot, is one of the performers and creators we’ve talked to for this special section, which comes as Pedro Pascal and Diego Luna head up two different Star Wars spinoffs on Disney+, “The Mandalorian” and the upcoming “Rogue One” prequel series. That might be a sign of real progress in diversity — but as “One Day at a Time” star Justina Machado said, “We in Hollywood cannot say that we believe in all of those things and then not show it on screen.”
Harvey Guillén, “What We Do in the Shadows”
Harvey Guillén’s character in the first season of “What We Do In the Shadows” had him aspiring to be the next Antonio Banderas in “Interview With a Vampire.” But in a surprisingly bloody, action-heavy finale to the FX comedy’s second season, Guillén’s Guillermo De La Cruz morphs into an action hero and assassinates a room full of vampires, boldly stating his name and announcing that he’s his own force to be reckoned with.
Guillén has gone through a similar transformation, segueing from a supporting player to quite literally the human heart and soul on a show about clueless, out-of-touch vampires. And by taking a step forward as a vampire hunter — and a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing, no less — suddenly he’s not just a diverse member of the cast but a plus-size, Latinx superhero you would’ve never expected to be represented in a show based on a Taika Waititi satire.
“I think it’s about time to get a character on television who is the character we didn’t know we needed to be the superhero, and I think it’s inspirational,” Guillén said. “The way the writers have made that storyline just slowly slip on you and then, whoa! I didn’t know that was going to happen, but I’m glad it happened and I want more. Yes! More of this!”
Audiences, too, have taken notice of Guillén’s sudden arrival as a surprise superhero. After he tweeted a video of a rehearsal of his fight sequence from the season 2 finale, Lin-Manuel Miranda called Guillen’s stunt work “f—ing masterful.”
Guillén said he worked out four times a week with a personal trainer, building muscle and shedding fat, and he was surprised by how quickly the show embraced Guillermo’s new direction. And because his character has taken a big step forward, he’s been able to explore the emotions, regret, sadness and complexity that his undead co-stars don’t necessarily share.
“In many ways, Guillermo’s journey is on the same path (of) ideas and goals that me, Harvey, has put for himself,” he said. “The character started off in my head where I thought (he) was and who I think he is, but that was just the acorn to start with. And now he’s blossomed into this badass.”
Guillén said that even a few years ago, the idea of a non-svelte Latino character appearing on screen, let alone as a heroic lead, would’ve been a fantasy. But now he’s even got his hopes set on what it would mean should he become the second Latinx Emmy nominee in the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series category (after 2014 nominee Fred Armisen, who has a Venezuelan mother).
“It’s a great moment for people to see that sometimes someone you don’t expect can change people’s lives and be a hero,” Guillén said. “I think it would mean the world and it would be history-making.”
Diego Luna, “Narcos: Mexico”
“We’re asking so many people to be patient when we shouldn’t–they’ve been patient for decades,” “Narcos: Mexico” star Diego Luna said of television’s slow pace in increasing diversity. “But stories are getting more specific, which is great news. More and more, we’re caring about where the story comes from and about the reality we’re trying to portray. I think the beauty of what’s happening these days is that audiences are having a voice that before they didn’t, and the industry is having to react to that voice, which is a great thing in terms of representation. Because a world where our stories are not told makes no sense.”
But Luna wasn’t sure if the story of “Narcos: Mexico” was one he originally wanted to tell. When he was approached about playing 1980s drug kingpin Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, the actor who’d been making indie films since “Y tu mamá también” in 2001 was wary of how the issue of drug trafficking would be portrayed. “I just wanted to make sure that we were telling the story for the right reasons,” he said from his home in Mexico City. “The project is important and relevant these days when we’re experiencing so much violence on this side of the border for an issue that doesn’t just belong to the States and Mexico, but to the whole world. Characters like Félix Gallardo are really important to understand why El Chapo exists today, but I wanted to make sure we didn’t glorify the characters and we could go into the gray areas that we normally miss. It’s not good people and bad people — the corruption has reached everywhere, and this show reminds of us that.”
In Season 2 of the show, Luna said the biggest challenge was finding new sides to Gallardo — something that the 10-plus hours of a television series helped him accomplish. Still, playing the role took a toll: “Spending all your day with this material, having to deal with these emotions, with this dialogue, with these images — he was hardcore, man,” he said. “And he was exhausting. I didn’t realize how heavy the weight was on my shoulders until I finished and said, ‘Holy s—. Now I can I feel my upper back again.”
Luna is now playing the lead in a “Rogue One” prequel series for Disney+, but the work he’s doing closer to home is giving him hope for increased Latinx representation in Hollywood. “My company is producing a show and looking for a studio, and there’s not a single studio available to shoot in Mexico City (in the near future),” he said. “So much is happening here.”
Justina Machado, “One Day at a Time”
When “One Day at a Time” premiered in 2017, it was hailed by fans and critics for giving viewers a much-needed portrayal of an everyday Latinx family. Aside from their general likability and practically superhuman ability to talk through complex problems with patience and understanding, the Alvarezes didn’t really have anything exceptional about them. But in an era starved for meaningful depictions of diverse life on TV, the show felt new and refreshing and surprisingly urgent. Which is why it was so surprising when Netflix canceled the show after three seasons, saying viewership wasn’t enough to justify the cost.
“That happens a lot with our shows,” star Justina Machado said. “People say all the time, ‘I didn’t even know about that show.’ You know how many times I heard that about ‘One Day at a Time’?”
Machado pointed to Disney+’s “Diary of a Future President” and Netflix’s “On My Block” as two other ongoing shows that provide a positive, realistic Latinx perspective. Starz’s “Vida” just recently finished its run after 22 episodes, while ABC’s low-rated “The Baker and the Beauty” now finds itself in the same position that “One Day at a Time” did last year, seeking a home after being canceled by its original network.
“It’s not enough to make those pilots and put them on the air,” Machado said. “It’s not enough to let the show go four, five, 10 episodes and then say, ‘Sorry, we’re going to cancel it.’ We in Hollywood cannot say that we believe in all of those things and then not show it on screen. We have to back it up.”
“One Day at a Time premiered” its fourth season on Pop TV earlier this year, with at least five more episodes still to come, global pandemic permitting. “We in the industry can continue to say representation matters, but at some point the consumers have to get involved too,” Machado said. “We see the shows that we love and concentrate on those, but there has to be more. People out there who want to see themselves need to support those shows. And they need to say something when a show that they love isn’t there anymore.”
Thanks in no small part to the vocal online fan base that lobbied for the show, Machado remains optimistic about her show and the world it depicts. “I know how overwhelming and chaotic and crazy things are right now,” she said. “But one thing is for sure: Things need to change. It’s not a moment; it’s a movement. And I truly, truly believe that we’re headed in the right direction.”
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, “Hunters”
The Amazon Prime series “Hunters” is about a group of Nazis who have been living in the United States for decades, plotting the rise of the Fourth Reich, and about a shadowy gang of Jewish avengers who make it a point to track down and kill the Nazis. It’s set in 1970s Manhattan but it also flashes back to World War II Germany, and to the concentration camps where Jews were killed by the millions.
But for Mexican-American director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, this story also seemed like a personal one. “I really identified with Jonah’s journey as an outsider,” he said of the Jewish teen played by Logan Lerman. “And I identified with the bigger theme of people who are marginalized searching for justice or a voice in the world, fighting for their existence. It’s a topic I think about all the time, and for anyone who feels that way, the story taps into emotions that are universal.
“And the show is set in two different eras, the ’40s and ’70s — but politically and culturally, it deals with the pervasive and long-lasting impact of prejudice. I think we’re at a political crossroads right now, and we can’t forget that.”
For Gomez-Rejon, whose career has included the 2015 indie hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and the TV series “American Horror Story” and “Glee,” the trickiest part about the 90-minute pilot to “Hunters” was the range it had to encompass. “It was dangling between two worlds,” he said. “The world of 1970s New York, which could be out of a Sidney Lumet movie, and the world of the hunters, which could have come from a graphic novel. We were trying to do something incredibly challenging tonally, which was create a world where the emotions feel real, but also allow for pulpy violence, and then also flash back to the Holocaust.”
Raised in the border town of Laredo, Texas, by Mexican parents, Gomez-Rejon said that families on the border had “a multitude of different experiences. You could be raised Mexican or Chicano or Texan, and you could spend half your time on one side of the border and half on the other. Technically I was Mexican American, but I didn’t know that until I had to check a box on the PSAT test. I thought I was Mexican.”
When he left Laredo for New York to become a filmmaker, he said, he was venturing into “unheard-of” territory. “Once I got to New York, I realized I had to work extra-hard to have my voice heard. And I think the goal is variety — to not perpetuate stereotypes, but to try and see my own background represented on film and television. You want to create worlds where you are represented, and also worlds where people think and act like you even if they don’t look like you.
“Inclusivity isn’t just about diversifying the people who work in Hollywood, but the stories that come out of it,” he added. “That’s my focus. And as I begin to produce and create more television, to be the first at the party instead of the last one in, I aim to nurture Latinx voices in front of and behind the camera and make attainable the access that I had to fight for.”
Rita Moreno, “One Day at a Time”
Rita Moreno has a lot of firsts under her belt. She famously was the first Latina to take home an Oscar with a win for “West Side Story” in 1962. She was the first Latinx person to join the exclusive EGOT club after picking up a 1977 Emmy for “The Muppet Show” to go with her Grammy, Oscar and Tony. She’s was the first Latinx actress to be nominated in five different categories at the Emmys. And as recently as last year, she became the first Latinx recipient of the Peabody Career Achievement Honor.
But for all that trailblazing, does Moreno think Hollywood has lived up to the promise of her success in terms of opportunities for other Latinx actors? “Oh, hell no, my God,” she said. “There’s this odd, odd resistance to our progress in terms of film and TV. There’s so little variety when it comes to our community. And honestly, I’m confused. We certainly see more Hispanic people across all media, but we just don’t see enough. I’m waiting for some wonderful drama. Where is our ‘Moonlight’?” she said, referencing the 2016 indie about a young Black man that won the Oscar for Best Picture. “Why have we not gotten that far? Truly, I am mystified.”
Playing Anita in “West Side Story” was a career-making moment for Moreno, and the recognition was supposed to be a turning point, a chance to move past the heavily accented and overly sexualized Latina characters she had been offered to that point. “I thought for sure that wonderful things would happen now that I had the Oscar, which was unhappily very naive of me,” she said. “It was back to the same damn struggle. It was astonishing, and it broke my heart. I couldn’t be picky. You got offered something and you went for it because that’s all there was.”
With “One Day at a Time,” however, things are finally different. While Moreno’s character, Lydia, may be accented and at times aggressively sexual, she’s also compassionate, funny, judgmental, a caring mother and a doting grandmother. She’s also surrounded by a predominantly Latinx cast of characters and shaped by a predominantly Latinx writing staff.
“Just because I can’t have a baby anymore doesn’t mean everything went dead down there,” Moreno said with a laugh. “And that’s one of the reasons I love doing Lydia. She’s not only sexual, she’s shameless. I love that she has the tenacity and the temerity to flirt with her daughter’s boyfriends, for God’s sake.”
Moreno will also appear in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” later this year, overseeing a new generation of Latinx talent including Ariana Debose, who plays Anita. “She’s such a fierce dancer,” Moreno said. “Way better than I ever was — ever.”
And does she think things will be different for her young “One Day at a Time” co-stars, and for DeBose? “I like to think that I feel optimistic, but it’s just been such a hard road for me,” Moreno said. “Let me just say this: I hope so.”