When the newest “Star Wars” movie came out in movie theaters, Perla Nation insisted on waiting to see it with her father, after the holidays. He was by no means a fan of the saga, and neither was she. But the 27-year-old from San Diego had a feeling the movie would resonate with her father, a landscaper who immigrated to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, in the early 1980s.
As they sat in the movie theater Monday, the father and daughter watched as one of the main characters, an intelligence officer with the Alliance named Captain Cassian Andor, appeared on the screen.
Nation’s father, Pablo Perez, nudged her as soon as he heard the actor, Diego Luna, speak.
“He has a heavy accent,” Perez uttered to his daughter.
After the movie, as they walked to their car, Perez turned to his daughter and said, once more, “Did you notice that he had an accent?”
“Yeah, Dad,” Nation responded, “just like yours.”
Having watched previous interviews with Luna about his role in the movie, Nation already knew the Mexican actor would be keeping his accent in the movie, she said in an interview with The Washington Post. She thought of her father, with his Mexican accent, and what seeing Luna’s performance could mean to him.
It wasn’t just that a Mexican was on screen, or even that an actor was speaking in a Mexican accent. It was the unexpectedness of the role. There was no particular reason Cassian was Mexican, or why he shouldn’t be. He just was.
“Anybody could be that character,” Nation said. “It was just a natural part of him.”
And for Mexican viewers — and many Latino viewers in general — that made all the difference.
During a time when Hollywood films are facing intense scrutiny for lacking diversity in leading roles, the casting of Diego Luna marked a crucial step forward. It was a rare example of a time when a Latino actor has been cast in a blockbuster film not simply as a token Latino character but as a leading role with no obvious ties to Latino culture.
A study released in February from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that Latinos are among the least represented in speaking roles in film and television. Out of more than 11,000 speaking characters surveyed in film and TV, 5.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, even though Latinos make up 17.4 percent of the U.S. population.
Meanwhile, minorities — particularly Latinos — are the fastest growing movie audience and make up 44 percent of the nation’s most avid theatergoers, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Far too often, Nation said, Latinos are cast as supporting roles, villains or damsels in distress characterized as sensual or seductive. But in “Star Wars,” Luna was cast as a protagonist. This made an important statement, Nation said, particularly in light of the role immigrants have played in political rhetoric recently.
“Mexicans are often seen as drug dealers and rapists,” Nation said. “Now, you see a Mexican hero.”
When she was younger, attending a predominantly white school, Nation remembered feeling frustrated with her parents for not being able to speak English as clearly as her friends’ parents. As she grew older, Nation said, she began to appreciate the difficulty of learning a second language, and realized how wrong she was “for thinking that this difference was a detriment.” Still, her father has always been self-conscious about his accent, and insists on speaking Spanish at home, even though he is fluent in English.
As Perez watched Diego Luna unabashedly speaking in his native accent on screen, “you could just see this huge smile on his face,” Nation said.
After they had left the movie, Perez asked his daughter if the film had made a lot of money and if people liked it. She told him the movie was the second highest grossing film of 2016, even though it had only been released for 18 days of the year, and that it had received great reviews. He then asked her why Diego Luna had not changed his accent.
“I told him that Diego has openly talked about keeping his accent and how proud he is of it,” Nation said.
Her father was silent for a while, and then said, “And he was a main character.”
“He was,” Nation responded. As they drove home, Perez spoke about other Mexican actors he thought should be featured in American movies.
Moved by her father’s reaction to the movie, Nation decided to write about it on her Tumblr blog. “Representation matters,” she wrote at the end of her post.
Her story quickly spread on social media, and the following day even Diego Luna himself tweeted about her post, saying “I got emotional reading this!”
She received an outpouring of messages from fellow Latinos telling her they now planned on taking their own parents to the film.
“My mother has an accent & has been in America for 25 years,” one writer posted on her blog. “Sometimes we tease her about some of the ways she pronounces things, but this made me see she’s not alone & re-appreciate her beautiful accent. Our parents came here to give us a better life along with their culture & it’s amazing that they’re allowing it in mainstream & normalizing it bc IT IS normal.”
“For all of us who have an accent when speaking English, thanks and congratulations,” one Twitter user wrote to Diego Luna.
When Nation told her father that Diego Luna had tweeted her blog post, she recorded his reaction in a video. He said he was “extraordinarily happy.”
“I’m delighted that he maintained his Latino accent in the film,” Perez said. “And it’s apparent that he’s an extraordinary artist.”
“It’s empowering for Latinos in this moment,” Nation, who is studying peace and conflict at the University of California at Berkeley, said. “When you see people like you, that could be you on screen.”
She has even noticed a change in her father. The other day, Nation was surprised to hear her father choose to respond to her in English.
“It’s making him much more confident in the way that he speaks,” she said. “I hope other people feel the same way.”
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