The Latest Latinx Cultural Firestorms Show What Hollywood Still Needs to Learn

The unspoken rules regarding Latino identity shift depending on the context

Last Updated: March 2, 2020 @ 2:52 PM

The last few weeks have shown that navigating Latino identity is a minefield that can set off an explosion at any moment in American culture. Such as: Is Antonio Banderas Latino or not?

This and other hot-button debates — including the unalloyed joy at Shakira and JLo performing at the Super Bowl — expose the complexity of what it means to be Latinx. These heated discussions drive home why Hollywood desperately needs gatekeepers who understand what these cultural firestorms are really about.

That’s because the unspoken rules regarding Latino identity shift depending on the context. (We can’t even agree on what to call ourselves, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Let me break down the firestorms of the past month as a way to unpack the lessons embedded within.

1. Antonio Banderas: Colonist or Hollywood trailblazer for Latinos?

Exactly on queue, on the morning Oscar nominations were announced last month, outrage among Latinxers erupted on social media. Aside from widespread frustration with JLo’s nomination snub, despite her head-turning role in “Hustlers,” debate raged over Banderas’ nomination for his leading role in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory.”

The rub? For some, Banderas, who was born in Spain, does not represent diversity in Hollywood. The outrage at the suggestion that his nomination was a small win for all Latinos was so strong, one would think Banderas makes it a habit of waking up in the morning and dressing in Spanish conquistador armor before heading to Hollywood meetings. Others within the Latinx community dismissed the debate as divisive — a win for someone with Spanish-speaking roots should be a win for all.

Perhaps a more constructive conversation would be examining how Hollywood’s executive elite perceives Banderas. Have studio heads historically seen him as one of their own, a slam dunk for quintessential Hollywood roles? Or has Banderas, in his 30+ years in Hollywood, too been perceived as an “other” in those closed-door, career-defining conversations by gatekeepers?

The response to Banderas’ nomination among the Latinx community should have come as no surprise: The entertainment industry would do well in trying to understand the nuances of representation.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón last year captured the ongoing struggle about the lack of representation of U.S. born Latinos in an interview with media company Remezcla.

“There is so much talk about diversity, and I mean some progress has been made, but definitely the Hispanic Americans — and specifically Chicanos — are really, really badly represented still,” Cuarón said after winning an Oscar for the feature film “Roma.” “It’s amazing, you know? It’s a huge percentage of the population.”

2. Why Hollywood darling “American Dirt” turned to ash

Before copies even hit the bookshelves, the Mexican migrant novel by Jeanine Cummins unleashed the wrath of many Mexican Americans and other Latinos for what has been described as the book’s unsophisticated narrative — a tale laced with stereotypes, clichés and a hollow understanding of the journey to cross the border.

Imperative Entertainment, the production company behind Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” acquired the rights to the novel after a publishing bidding war resulted in a seven-figure sum for Cummins. In the author’s note, Cummins now famously says she wished “someone slightly browner than me” had written the novel, before conceding she had the “capacity” to be some sort of a cultural bridge, presumably because her husband was an undocumented immigrant (from Ireland, it was later known) and her grandmother is Puerto Rican.

Jeanine Cummins

Barnes & Noble

Did Hollywood jump before doing its due diligence? How we tell the important stories of our time is just as important as deciding what stories to tell.

The “American Dirt” controversy reminds me of a time early in my career when I was tapped by newsroom editors as a lead writer to chronicle California’s changing demographics. I was being dispatched to the border to tell the story of the explosive population growth among Latinos, which for the first time was more a result of births than of immigration.

Barely out of college from my hometown of Miami — where Latinos dominate every layer of business, politics and culture — I felt the assignment was all wrong. So I mustered up the courage to ask for a meeting with editors to discuss the direction of the story.

Journalists, as with entertainment execs, are fans of storytelling extremes — when, in fact, most of our daily lives are lived within the gritty, ambiguous in-between. My twenty-something self sat in a chair inside a small office, flanked by three veteran journalists, all white men. I proceeded to explain what I saw as flaws of the story idea.

Latinos, it seemed from our conversation, were something to observe through a fishbowl. “Why do Latinos have so many babies? Let’s go see them in the wild,” it felt as though they were asking.

When I pushed back, one of the journalists who was standing inside of the cramped office asked if I felt as though I was “too close to the story” and couldn’t be impartial.

Would it be better, he asked, “if a Bavarian wrote it?” He was the said Bavarian.

I’m not exactly sure how I managed to pick up my metaphorical mouth from the floor and continue my pitch, but it remains a moment of pride that I walked out of that office with a completely different assignment of my own choosing. I would spend several months reporting and writing — alone, without the Bavarian.

It helped that I came to the meeting prepared, having spent hours analyzing census and private polling data. I found that if you look deeper at the trends over time, Latinos across generations very much begin to resemble white America when it comes to birth rates.

So I set out and found the perfect family (who hadn’t settled on the poverty-stricken border) from which to tell a generational story that begins at the Rio Grande, migrates to California’s crop-picking fields and finishes (or begins again) on college campuses.

It’s too late to change the immigrant tale at the center of “American Dirt,” though its publisher, Flatiron Books, backpedaled on its marketing push and book tour after the fervent backlash:

“We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the immigrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland…” the statement read. “We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.”

Does it come as a surprise that Latinos made up just 3 percent of the publishing workforce in 2018, according to a 2019 Publisher’s Weekly study?

No, not really.

Jennifer Lopez Shakira Super Bowl LIV

3. How Shakira and JLo’s performance united Latinos

I’ve often wondered why Latinos, particularly considering our share of the population, have struggled to make the same headway in Hollywood as African Americans and Asian Americans.

Then I think about some of the complicated conversations with my friends. For context: I’m the daughter of Cuban immigrants; my husband is second-generation California Mexican American; our friends are a mix of children and grandchildren of Mexican, Peruvian, Argentinian and European immigrants; and several also proudly represent Boyle Heights and East L.A.

On a recent night, we went from debating the Banderas nomination to discussing the Latino director of some obscure film. The assumption was that he was of Mexican heritage. Then we Googled his name.

“Oh, he’s Puerto Rican,” my friend, a self-described Chicana, said.

“You sound disappointed,” I responded, as her shoulders slumped slightly.

“I thought he was Mexican.”

In that disappointment lies the crux of why what Shakira and JLo did Sunday night felt so significant. For 12 minutes, these power women brought pan-ethnic Latinos together, forcing us to forget our differences and instead focus on our shared culture, experience and love of Spanglish.

We were one. And when JLo draped herself in a feathered Puerto Rican flag, Latinos collectively cheered, regardless of what country our parents or grandparents immigrated from; whether or not we speak Spanish; and no matter if we identify as Latinx or not.

Because in the context of making entertainment history on the most significant of stages, Latino identity transcended divisions.

So, yes, Latinos can gripe about whether a Banderas Oscar nomination counts toward Latino representation — and still see ourselves in “Pain and Glory.” We can tear apart the immigrant story central to “American Dirt” — and still demand more stories about the struggles south of the border. We can wear our different nationalities as badges of honor — and still come together as one when our culture is center stage.

Rather than see us as too difficult to understand, Hollywood should value us for being complicated and dynamic and flawed — a true American story.