Amid the intense debate over the lack of diversity at the Oscars there’s one issue that’s getting little mention: the Academy’s dismal record with Latinos. Tom Brook reports.

Not since 1951, when José Ferrer won for Cyrano De Bergerac, has a Latino performer won a best actor Oscar trophy. It’s even worse for Latinas: none have ever taken home a best actress Academy Award. It’s in supporting roles where Latino actors have earned some nominations and trophies. They’re just not getting the bigger prizes.

“I think there’s obviously something off. It means that the society and the industry looks at Latinos as supporting characters [only], that they’re not at the centre of the story,” says Columbia University’s Frances Negrón-Muntaner, who was the lead author of the 2014 report The Latino Media Gap.

It’s not just a matter of trophy counting. Colombian film-maker Ciro Guerra, whose film Embrace of the Serpent has been nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar, believes it’s culturally important that Latino actors get attention at the Academy Awards. “There’s such talent,” he explains, “and there is a particular way of telling stories that is particularly Latino – and the Latino experience in the United States is a very rich source of storytelling. So it’s important that that is recognised.”

The lack of Latino Oscar acting nominations reflects the ongoing reluctance of the film industry to cast Latinos in significant roles.

The lack of Latino Oscar acting nominations reflects the deeper problem of the ongoing reluctance of the film industry to cast Latinos in significant roles.

Felix Sanchez, Chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts,  says problematic hiring policies stretch back through time. “I just think that there was an inherent bias against Latinos,” he explains. “The industry didn’t feel any pressure to make any changes. They didn’t see any demand from the audience as a consumer to incorporate more Latinos in principal roles.”

‘Changing the conversation’

What makes this all the more perplexing is that according to the US Census Bureau Latinos represent 17% of the US population whereas African-Americans make up around 13% – yet black actors have secured more nominations and trophies over the years.

Film critic Noah Gittell thinks one reason why Latinos have a weaker track record is because they’re not such a strong political force. “There is no social movement behind them, or there isn’t one as strong as the one that exists for racial equality when it comes to African-Americans,” he explains.

Many believe it is racism that’s holding back Latinos in the film industry

Many believe it is racism that’s holding back Latinos in the film industry – in just the same way that African-Americans have faced discrimination in Hollywood.

Felix Sanchez believes for progress to be made the definition of racism needs to be widened. “We need to [change] the conversation about diversity and not limit it to the old black-white paradigm,” he says. “Our demographics are larger than the African-American community. We have a more significant problem and it’s really a broader issue that impacts Latinos, Asians and Native Americans as well.”

Another reason why Latinos specifically in the US fail to get significant roles may be because they are often perceived as immigrants.

“They’re seen as foreigners and therefore you don’t have to really listen to them,” says Frances Negrón-Muntaner.

It’s really US Latinos who bear the brunt because actors who have origins in Spain and Latin America fare much better. Often it’s because they come from more economically privileged backgrounds.

“If you are a US-born Latino you have to fight racism every step of the way to be part of the industry. If you were raised in a relatively middle class or affluent class background in your country of origin it’s a very different trajectory. You have that with the Spanish stars, European stars, like Penélope Cruz or Javier Bardem that came to Hollywood already being stars of global cinema,” says Negrón-Muntaner. 

The Latino market

The standing of US Latino actors is not improving. The Latino Media Gap reported that leading role appearances by Latino males actually declined between 2000 and 2013.

Many Latinos find it frustrating that the studios don’t give them better representation when, as a group, they’re spending so much money on Hollywood movies.

According to Noah Gittell, this may be because Latino actors have been stigmatised by America’s heated immigration debate.

Gittell says: “The plight of Latinos has become so politicised in our culture, with people on the right-wing side of the political spectrum talking so brazenly, negatively about immigrants from Mexico, for example. I wouldn’t be surprised if studio chiefs are frankly a little bit wary about putting Latino actors front and centre at the risk of offending a regressive part of the population.”

Many Latinos find it frustrating that the studios don’t give them better representation when, as a group, they’re spending so much money on Hollywood movies.

“Without Latinos the movie industry in the United States would probably go into a deep depression,” says Frances Negrón-Muntaner. “Latinos buy 25% of film tickets, they are not even 25% of the population, so they buy more tickets than their numbers suggest.”

 

But the hope is that some studio pictures, like the blockbuster Furious 7, which had a culturally diverse cast that included Latinos, will get studio executives to pay attention. The film made $1.5 billion (£1.08 billion) worldwide with Latinos being big supporters of the film.

“As they see that, they then want to duplicate that kind of success,” explains Felix Sanchez, “and they recognise that they have to cast in an appropriate way.”

But Gittell believes the solution really has to be driven by the Latino community itself. “I absolutely think it needs to come from the bottom up. Latino directors, Latino actors, need to make their own films about their experience. I don’t think white studio executives are going to do it for them, because they simply don’t have the motivation to at this point.”

Pantelion Films, the first significant Latino Hollywood studio, is adopting just that approach. They’re producing a range of Spanish, English and bilingual films targeting the Latino market. They hope their film-making could eventually lead to Latino actors being cast in Oscar-worthy roles. Pantelion Films’ Chief Operating Officer, Edward Allen, says: “It helps [actors] because it provides a platform for them, for another studio to take a chance on them. Because when they go out and we experience some level of success with one of these films, that validates I think the actor’s appeal or the actress’ appeal with a broader audience.”

 

Change is likely to be slow. But one consolation is that Latinos behind the camera are faring better. The Latino community may take heart that for the second year in a row an Oscar could go to one of their own, Mexican film-maker, Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is a strong candidate to win the best director trophy for his work on The Revenant. And fellow Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro have also achieved success in the US over the past 20 years.

Colombian film-maker Ciro Guerra says:Alejandro is a film-maker we have admired and certainly he and his generation of Mexican film-makers have opened a lot of doors for Latin American film-makers in general in this industry.”

While Iñárritu may be increasing opportunities for other Latino directors, it’s actors in front of the camera who want to see some action. They know it’s 65 years since a Latino won a best actor Oscar. For them, that’s far too long.

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