When Norman Lear receives the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s first Pioneer Award in Los Angeles on Friday evening, the organization will be thanking him for his work on the revival of “One Day at a Time,” which stars Justina Machado as Penelope Alvarez, a single mother and veteran. But the institute and its new chairman, Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Tex.), also hope to spark a larger conversation among lawmakers and industry figures about the representation of Latinos in Hollywood.
“One Day at a Time” has been a model for how advocates of greater inclusion would like the entertainment industry to work. The original series, which ran from 1975 to 1984, focused on a white family, but when discussions about reviving it began, Lear’s producing partner, Brent Miller, suggested focusing on a Latino family instead, since there were few shows aimed at Latina single mothers, and market research had tagged those women as a desirable cohort. For once, it seemed as if financial incentives were pushing the industry to do the right thing. Once the series was in the works, Netflix brought on Cuban American Gloria Calderon Kellett to run the show with Lear and Mike Royce. They backed her up when Netflix asked whether she could make the show about a Mexican American family instead, and Calderon Kellett said she couldn’t draw on her own experiences in the same way if they did. The writing staff is half female. All that, and the show is terrific, too.
Lear says he hopes “One Day at a Time” models the kind of responsibility he thinks individual showrunners and networks should feel “serve the widest possible spectrum” of Americans. He’s realistic about the likelihood of such a flowering of conscience; after all, he acknowledges, “corporate America runs the media.”
The caucus sees Lear as an ally and an example to other artists. Castro is cautiously optimistic about voluntary pledges that industry figures such as Ryan Murphy have taken to improve diversity in directorial hiring, and efforts such as ReFrame, which aim to improve the number of women directing feature films. And he sees some progress from Hollywood in recognizing that Latinos are an important market, one that has shown greater loyalty to and interest in the entertainment industry’s projects than Hollywood has shown to them.
“I hope that they are believing, more and more, that you can put Latinos on air and be profitable, that they’re giving a chance to more scripts, more actors, more directors,” Castro said. “Cristela Alonzo, who was the first Mexican American woman to have her own television show, she only had it for a season on ABC, but I saw that as a real breakthrough for Latinos in television. And I also think that probably laid a good foundation for Netflix to take on the remake of ‘One Day at a Time.’ ”
Domenika Lynch, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s president and chief executive, grew up watching Lear’s shows and learning English. The original “One Day at a Time” had a special place in her heart, because it was a reflection of her own family.
“My mother was a single mother, two girls and my mother, and so it made it okay that she was a single mom,” Lynch said. Though she didn’t always understand exactly what the characters were saying, that sentiment shone through to her.
And though Lynch thinks that immigration stories, like the Oscar-nominated “A Better Life,” about an undocumented gardener, are important, she wants the entertainment industry to tell more than one kind of story about Latinos; after all, not all Latinos are recent immigrants.
“I think the Latino experience is not monolithic,” she said, and not merely because Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican cultures, to name just a few, are distinct. “This idea that all Latinos are immigrants, and they just arrived, or they just crossed the border, that’s not true. … I certainly would love to see more shows that highlight Latina lawyers instead of Latina maids.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has historically helped place the graduates of its internship and fellowship programs in jobs across the federal government. Castro hopes to expand those efforts so the institute can do the same with other industries, including Hollywood. His plans are in the early stages; the institute just set its goals for his tenure as chair at their retreat. But he hopes it can be the pipeline he says the entertainment industry needs, providing talented people for jobs both behind the camera and in front of it.
“The success of the Latino community depends upon people being not only in politics, but also in business and industries across the country, across the economy,” Castro said. “CHCI recruits some of the top Latino talent from across the country, and there’s no reason that we should only have them in one place, which is in the federal government in Washington.”
Lear has seen discussion about Hollywood and representation ebb and flow over the years.
“I think it comes up from time to time,” he said of the debates about whether Hollywood truly represents the American populace. “But the need to express the diversity is there all the time.”