From Music to Movies to TV, Latinos Are Widely Underrepresented - And I'm Done With It

John Leguizamo
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

John Leguizamo

Following the 'Despacito' VMA snub, actor John Leguizamo pens a powerful essay on Latinos' absence from film, TV and media in general.

It was OK in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s because we’d tell ourselves, "They don’t know better,” as a justification to ease our alienation. It wasn’t fair, but it was status quo. Not knowing better is a symptom of ignorance, not evil. We assumed people over time just needed to become educated, and in turn would empower Latino equality in the arts. We were wrong... I was wrong.

We have now reached our threshold, in 2017, where we must not just symbolically make a stand. No… we must actualize our movement and create change. We cannot leave it up to those who don’t know better… we must empower, thrusting knowledge and humanity onto the ignorance of the world. We need equality. And the time is now.

“Despacito” is the name of a Spanish-language music video by Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi with a historic record-breaking 3 billion views on YouTube. The song, not the video, was a late, perfunctory inclusion as the song of the summer at the MTV Video Music Awards. We must ask ourselves, is this a blatant omission? A proactive and decisive stand against the Spanish language? With 3 billion views, this historic song and video triumphs over the likes of, with all due respect, Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, but this is only one example of exclusion.

I’ve lived my entire life justifying my position on the outside looking in. Trying to rationalize analytics that break records to executives that just “can’t see it working” for an undisclosed reason. How can we continue to be absent on so many lists, awards shows, news programs, movies, TV shows and even, more so, distorted and erased from history textbooks?

We Latin people are less than 6 percent of roles in TV, movies and all streaming platforms. Most of those Latin roles are attributed to Latin-only audiences. As if we Latins are the only people who can relate to our skin color or our accents. It’s an unconscious choice to ignore our talents and achievements and trump it up to a “limited market,” but that’s what happens.

“They don’t know better” doesn’t work in the age of the internet, where analytics and response rates are easier to source than a McDonald’s cheeseburger. So why are we still subjected to the “Latin only” corner of the room?

While this is a slap in the face to Latin artists who work so hard to hold a mirror up to humanity as a whole (and not just Latin people), it’s far more detrimental to our youth. A youth that still grapples with identity. A youth that must still learn to fill a historic void for itself — omitted from the history books and omitted from current pop culture.

From where does the Latin youth draw role models and experiences, when even the Latin artists, celebrities and athletes still stay silent? Elie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And yet here we are — silent — rationalizing our complacency with phrases like, “Just lucky that I’m the one who got the role…” Or got drafted to the team... or received that award.

Why do we feel so thankful to just be allowed to show up to the party? Why are we self-deprecating? Because that is what it is, right? A cap on our self-worth, taught through passive action. Further perpetuated by a feeling of “They just don’t know any better.”

There are almost 70 million Latinos in America, and why do we remain so absent and invisible when we are the second-largest ethnic group after whites? It’s not because we don’t have top-level talent. You see the outstanding work our artists put out: designers (Carolina Herrera, Narciso Rodriguez, Oscar de la Renta), painters (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fernando Botero, Wifredo Lam), dancers (Eddie Torres, Alicia Alonso), singers (Bruno Mars, Marc Anthony, Mariah Carey,) and actors (Benicio del Toro, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez).

Actor-director Eugenio Derbez has the fourth-highest-grossing foreign film of all time in America at nearly $45 million in the box office. Yes, and it was all in Spanish. Not good-looking enough? Sofia Vergara alone is better-looking than half the world. Not accredited enough? Rita Moreno is one of a handful of EGOT title-holders to have received every award possible for an entertainer.

What is truly telling is that Latin film directors command Hollywood! And even our directors of photography are the best, monopolizing the Academy Award year after year. We achieve greatness despite the uninformed. And we do it unapologetically. These directors —Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant, 21 Grams) — have won the biggest honors in Hollywood in the last few years, landing multiple Oscars for best film and best director.

But is it not much easier to unconsciously be prejudged by our ethnicity if we are in front of the camera? It’s demoralizing that our invisibility is due to our power being in an executive’s hands to decide our fate. Because those in power aren’t always the most forward-thinking or risk-taking. They need to be able to see themselves represented by themselves to have healthy self-esteem.

We have poets and street prophets that need to be seen and heard, but more importantly, taken at face value. What good is it that we are selling out stadiums and getting more views than comparative white groups by leaps and bounds, yet the media and Hollywood take no notice? How can these massive accomplishments be so easily erased or dismissed?

It’s not because we don’t have talent. From writers to musicians to actors and directors, we are influential artists. And when given a chance, we soar. Singer-songwriter Romeo Santos sells out Yankee Stadium two nights in a row. Lin-Manuel Miranda creates a genre-defining Broadway play with Hamilton (winning the Pulitzer Prize and eleven Tony Awards, including best musical). There are plenty of Latin actors with golden statues and Emmys. Yet we still only account for 5 percent of artists across all platforms. I try to justify these numbers, this inaction in all sorts of ways. For myself… and more importantly, for my kids. But I shall justify them no longer.

“They don’t know better” once quelled all delusion of grandeur. We quietly went back to our corner and waited for our turn in line… but not anymore. It’s time we stand up. It’s time we educated and enabled the Latin people to better the world through brilliant art. We have a lot to offer the world… and I’ve come to feel sorry for those who have yet to know it.

Tweet me at @johnleguizamo. Or better yet, use the ultimate power we have and keep buying Latin product — because green is really the only color that matters in America. Oh, and vote in the midterms in 2018. We have the right. Now let’s use the power.

John Leguizamo returns to Broadway with his new one-man show, Latin History For Morons, playing at Broadway’s Studio 54 beginning Oct. 19.

MTV Video Music Awards 2017