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Opinion In Hollywood, Latinos are still waiting for their close-up

Guillermo del Toro, center, at the 34th Annual Producers Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 25. (John Salangsang/Invision for The Producers Guild of America/AP)
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Carolyn Curiel served as a U.S. ambassador and White House senior speechwriter in the Clinton administration.

Latinos will be an integral part of the Academy Awards on Sunday. You likely won’t notice them, though. They’ll be parking celebs’ cars. Or working security, or serving food for the stars. They’ll be at the after parties — cleaning up the mess.

Could Hollywood, of all places, be unconcerned by appearances? Apparently, yes.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign, launched eight years ago, helped to secure the beginning of diversity where it counts, among the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And this year, Black and Asian artists are major contenders for top awards, including in the best picture and acting categories, though more progress is certainly needed for both groups.

But Latinos, the largest among ethnic or racial minority groups, remain mostly sidelined. A 2021 study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII) at the University of Southern California reported that just 5 percent of speaking roles in 1,300 popular films between 2007 and 2019 were Latino. Only 3.5 percent were leading roles.

Latinos also were least likely among racial and ethnic groups to be hired for anything but low-skilled service jobs in the film industry, a study last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found. They also were least considered for jobs before and behind the camera, or for those steering content, such as casting and writing. Even fewer were hired on the business side, and they were rarely promoted to management, where they might help change a culture of exclusion.

It can’t be that Hollywood hasn’t noticed that nearly 1 in every 5 people in America is Latino, most of them U.S.-born and English speaking. Because, in the cinema capital’s backyard, Los Angeles County, Latinos are nearly one-half the population, most of Mexican heritage. As Chris Rock noted about the industry’s dismal hiring nine years ago in the Hollywood Reporter, “You’re in L.A.,” he wrote, “you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”

It can seem that way. The AII’s latest Oscars report found that in 94 years of awards, and more than 13,000 nominations, Latinos won just 57 Oscars.

Ten of those went to three men: Mexican-born directors Alfonso Cuarón (four), Alejandro Iñárritu (four) and Guillermo del Toro (two). Cuarón and del Toro are again nominated this year. This year’s nominees also include Cuban-born Ana de Armas for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in “Blonde.” These accomplished artists have something in common. They conquered Hollywood only after building careers elsewhere: the three directors in Mexico (like former Oscar nominee Salma Hayek), and de Armas in Cuba and Spain.

The exclusion is homegrown, part of Hollywood’s skewed ways to determine bankability — that subjective something that a talent or topic possesses to draw wide audiences. Such decision-making favors the familiar. And it ignores the fact that Latinos buy movie tickets in disproportionately high numbers, according to the Motion Picture Association.

There’s also a chicken-and-egg problem contributing to exclusion. Stories about Latin heroes at home and in wars, artists and even sports stars (look up Joe Kapp, Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett and Tony Romo, for starters), all film fodder material, are not widely told. The GAO study found that two other major storytelling entities, news media and publishing, also have failed to include Latinos as subjects and as part of their businesses. As Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), head of the commission prompting the report noted, Hispanics are missing from the national narrative.

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The familiar story of America bypasses a foundational fact. Present-day Latinos are largely but not exclusively descendants of natives and the first European settlers, who were from Spain, not England. That’s a lot of history — dating to 1565, with the founding of St. Augustine in what is now Florida — that hasn’t gotten its due.

In Hollywood history, the earliest filmmakers embraced Latin lead actors such as Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, Ricardo Montalban, Cesar Romero and Jose Ferrer (the first Hispanic Oscar winner). Jerry Velasco, an actor-producer who led Nosotros, the advocacy group founded by Montalban, said Hollywood forgets how important Latinos were to the bottom line. “Things changed,” he said, “beginning in the 1950s” — a decade of rising anti-Mexican sentiment, and mass deportations of Mexicans, even those here legally.

In an uncertain time, Hollywood could have stood by its talents and helped to destigmatize. But for not the only time in its history, it failed to step up. With some exceptions, it still hasn’t.

Stereotypes and bit roles as street criminals, maids and poor immigrants were normalized, and Latinos even lost to Whites the few leading roles written about Latinos. Natalie Wood played a Puerto Rican Maria in “West Side Story,” while Rita Moreno, who is Boricua, won an Oscar as Anita in a supporting role; Marlon Brando was Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in “Viva Zapata!,” and Mexican-born Anthony Quinn, in the film’s supporting role, won his first of two Oscars. Jeffrey Hunter played Guy Gabaldon, a Mexican American war hero raised by Japanese American foster parents, in “Hell to Eternity.” More recently, Ben Affleck played CIA operative Tony Mendez in Oscar-winning “Argo,” and Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar for portraying Alicia Nash, a Salvadoran American physicist, in “A Beautiful Mind.”

Of course, by the nature of their profession, actors are not who they portray. But if that standard were evenly and widely applied, Latinos on and off screen would have a fair chance to take White roles. Why shouldn’t they? And cinema might look more like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” a rich and real reflection of America. Now, that was bankable.

When it comes to Latino representation, Hollywood has more than an appearance problem. It has a bad business model.

A short documentary from the Washington Post that uncovers the hidden dangers of movie and TV production. (Video: Lindsey Sitz, Ross Godwin/The Washington Post)