It’s too easy to dismiss Hollywood’s chronic lack of diversity in front and behind the camera as a game of numbers. Yes, we know representation matters. But it’s one thing to know it and a wholly different matter to actually understand it.
Meaningful change, the kind required by a country whose rapidly shifting demographics have been a battle cry of mass shootings, will only come when the gatekeepers who greenlight projects make business decisions that value nuance as much as they do numbers.
What does storytelling that resonates with an ambicultural audience look like? And why does it really matter?
I’ve recently shared several tangible moments with my children, who proudly consider themselves “Mexi-Cuban Americans,” a term coined in my household that reflects my husband’s Mexican-American roots and my heritage as the daughter of Cuban immigrants.
When Hollywood gets it right, as it has with this week’s release of “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” or Netflix’s “On My Block,” the growing generations of hyphenated Americans like my children can see a slice of themselves on screen. With that comes a sense of loyalty and trust that, if properly tended, can translate into real dollars that boost the bottom line.
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“Dora and the Lost City of Gold”
Having raised my own “Dora” and “Diego” on the iconic Nickelodeon cartoon, I expected Paramount’s live-animation adaptation of “Dora the Explorer,” starring Eunegio Derbez (“How to be a Latin Lover”), Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”) and Isabela Moner (“Transformers: The Last Knight” ) to check off Hollywood’s requisite quota box.
But thanks to Derbez, who also co-produced the film, the movie goes beyond numbers to capture multiculturalism without treating it as a foreign object.
In the film, Dora’s parents transition effortlessly between English and Spanish while also knowing the inner-workings of a rave party, as any respectable American Gen Xer would. Dora, meanwhile, is a multilinguist who also speaks Quechua, an indigenous language still found in Peru. She and Diego, a cousin who feels more like a brother, must learn to navigate typical teen life at a Los Angeles high school.
Research shows Latinx millennials find it very relatable when storytelling on screens include characters who are bilingual or bicultural. Almost three in five wish there were more TV shows and films that feature bilingual or multicultural characters, according to “FOCUS Latino: The Media Landscape 2019” report published this summer by Horowitz Research.
As second-generation Latinos, my children are growing up in a world where English dominates but Spanish is sprinkled in, especially when Abuelo and Abuela are around. Their cousins are as close as siblings. And the complexion of their skin can fall anywhere on the color spectrum.
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I’ll never forget the teacher at my son’s preschool who asked if he was “the cute boy with the great tan.”
“He’s cute,” I agreed, and, “That’s just his natural skin color.” My younger daughter still elicits questions about her “exotic” appearance.
When I first enrolled my son in kindergarten in South Florida, paperwork required us to identify his ethnicity and language spoken at home. I checked “Latino” and “English,” which prompted the woman at the school’s front office to scratch out my check mark on the “Latino” box and instead checked “White.” When I asked what she was doing, she explained that if I checked the “Latino” box, my son would be subject to ESL (English as Second Language) testing.
“Latinos can speak English as their native language,” I said, completely dumbfounded by the fact that I was saying those words out loud in 2010.
“It’s just easier this way,” she explained. “It’ll save everyone time.”
At that moment, I was torn: I didn’t want my son, who is now 14 years old and entering high school, to start his academic career at a deficit, real or perceived. So I left, drove home and talked to my husband. Within 15 minutes, we were back at the school demanding that our son be categorized as “Latino” and ensuring that there would be no English-language screening.
The world, it seems, can’t quite fit my children into a box. It’s in that nebulous space where Hollywood can make a real difference.
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“Mr. Iglesias” Picks Up Where “George Lopez” Left Off
My husband and I always felt ABC’s “George Lopez” show (2002-2007) stole our life story — a California Chicano marries a Cuban-American whose immigrant father with a thick accent is an intelligent staunch anti-communist. Even the show’s theme song, “Lowrider” (performed by War), played prominently at our wedding in 2001, so much so that my husband still jokingly tells friends it was our wedding song. Sorry, that honor goes to John Denver (“Annie’s Song”) and Sade (“By Your Side”).
The new Netflix comedy series “Mr. Iglesias,” like “George Lopez,” stars a Latino comic, Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias. The storyline is best described as a new take on ABC’s 1980s TV show “Head of the Class” (1986-1991), with Iglesias playing a lovable public high school history teacher at the helm of a class of gifted student misfits who happen to represent an inclusive mix of race and cultural backgrounds.
If “George Lopez” was groundbreaking for its portrayal of middle-class Latinos, “Mr. Iglesias” succeeds in carefully crafted storylines that blend a sophisticated understanding of Latino culture into an otherwise mainstream multicamera sitcom.
Since the show’s debut in late June, my husband repeatedly suggested that we watch the series together, but I wasn’t convinced it was worth my time. So my husband got started without me. Then on a recent Saturday afternoon — while folding laundry within an earshot of the TV — I heard dialogue about Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, who played a bloody role in the Cuban Revolution that forced countless Cubans like my parents to flee their homeland beginning in the 1960s.
“Che Guevara may look good on a protest sign or a hippie’s T-shirt, but as a Cuban-American, I promise you, he was as misguided as you are,” Carlos, an assistant principal of Cuban descent played by Oscar Nuñez (“The Office”), tells one of the show’s Mexican-American high school students protesting a new school policy.
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At that point, I stopped folding laundry and joined my husband on the couch. My father spent months jailed in Cuba’s famed prison La Cabaña for taking part in a peaceful protest. Today, at 84 years old, he is still overcome with emotion when he recalls hearing fellow prisoners assassinated by the nightly staccato shots of the firing squad, Guevara’s henchmen.
The “Mr. Iglesias” episode, about a clear backpack policy that assistant principal Carlos himself instituted, concludes with Iglesias showing Carlos the error of his ways by drawing parallels to the curbing of civil rights in communist Cuba.
It was storytelling that reflected a sophisticated understanding of the differences among Latinos, who have long been treated by Hollywood as a monolithic group.
While the show can sometimes fall back on cheap laughs, “Mr. Iglesias” intelligently tackles relevant topics, from the adoption of the word “Latinx” to alcoholism.
Because of the student protest episode, Guevara’s massacre of thousands of innocent Cubans was the unlikely subject around my dinner table that night. It also opened the door for my husband and I to continue watching “Mr. Iglesias” together with our kids, a rare treat in a world where OTT and personal devices often encourage us to retreat to our own corners.
Studies have shown the lack of representation on screen is particularly acute among Latinos, despite having the highest movie-going rate among ethnic groups in the U.S., according to a recent report by the Motion Picture Association of America.
As Hollywood looks to improve those numbers, executives would be wise to remember that authenticity matters when building a loyal audience.
Coming of Age “On My Block”
The summer before entering ninth grade is a special rite of passage, which is where Season 1 of Netflix’s coming-of-age comedy “On My Block” begins. My husband, whose epic stories of becoming a cholo the summer entering ninth grade are well-known among our family and friends, decided last month that we should re-watch the show with our son as he enjoys his final weeks before the start of high school.
The differences between my son’s everyday reality and those of the main characters are stark: The show’s South Central street-savvy bunch can matter-of-factly identify the caliber of guns fired nearby. My son’s biggest worry is picking up our beagle’s poop on his daily walks through our neighborhood.
But that didn’t stop the show from quickly becoming one of my son’s favorites. The universal struggles of navigating friendships and first crushes transcend socioeconomic differences. That the show also presents a multicultural backdrop only makes for a deeper connection.
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During the Season 2 opener, a New Year’s Eve celebration at Ruby’s (Jason Genao) house, includes a scene where his Abuelita (Peggy Blow) makes collard greens and blackeyed peas for prosperity and good fortune in the new year. At that moment, my son leaned over to me on the couch and whispered, “Like your 12 grapes, Mom,” he said of our family’s longstanding New Year’s Eve ritual of eating a dozen grapes, one for each month of the new year, a common tradition in Cuba and parts of Latin America.
The best kind of storytelling helps viewers connect the dots to foster a deeper understanding of the world in which we live.
Meet “The Casagrandes”
Even small sparks of seemingly innocuous recognition can signal when a show gets it right. On a recent Saturday night, I watched those sparks fly when my 9-year-old daughter met award-winning cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, a consulting producer on the new Nickelodeon animated series “The Casagrandes.”
A #TheCasagrandes super fan who has seen the Loud House Presents #TheCasagrandes episodes on @Nickelodeon and can’t wait for our big debut in October! pic.twitter.com/a3twMat0Bp
— Lalo Alcaraz (@laloalcaraz) July 28, 2019
Alcaraz was selling prints of his politically charged original works, but it was a stack of promotional pamphlets for “The Casagrandes” that caught my daughter’s eye. Apparently, she became a fan while catching up on cable network shows this summer. A limited number of crossover episodes introducing “The Casagrandes” aired as part of Nickelodeon’s Emmy Award-winning series “The Loud House.”
When I explained to my daughter that Alcaraz worked on the show, her face lit up like the Fourth of July. Here was a Mexican-American artist, a man who speaks and dresses like her father, who had a hand in creating a series she loves about a precocious 11-year-old girl who lives with her large Latino extended family, the Casagrandes, in the big city.
In that moment, “The Casagrandes” made a fan for life.