Latinos star in more Hollywood fantasy movies than real stories
My late mother didn’t have much of a chance to fully assimilate into American life. She moved to the United States from Mexico as a 9-year-old in the early 1960s and went to work almost immediately — first in garlic and strawberry fields, then as a packer in the old Hunt-Wesson cannery in Fullerton. Although she learned English, Mami spoke almost exclusively Spanish for most of her life.
That didn’t stop her from enjoying almost everything Hollywood had to offer.
Her tastes over the decades largely mirrored those of mainstream America. She enjoyed the scrubs of Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Benny Hill. She swooned over Omar Sharif in “Doctor Zhivago” and Burt Reynolds in the “Smokey and the Bandit” films. She thought Steve Martin was a brilliant actor and loved game shows like ‘Family Feud’ and ‘The Chase’.
Mami didn’t care about ultra-violence or nudity on screen. But she saved a special kind of fervor for a franchise I never expected her to hate: “Star Wars.”
I could never convince her to sit down with me to watch the original trilogy on VHS. I got into humor when my best friend and I stood in line for hours to see the second series in the late 1990s. Mami wouldn’t even buy my arguments that Star Wars was secretly Mexican because R2-D2 sounded like “Arturito” (“Little Arthur” in Spanish) and we knew a lot of guys nicknamed Chuy.
Her main problem with the intergalactic saga was that she found it implausible. For someone who loved Disney movies involving Flubber and talking lions, the idea of humans battling it out in space was just silly. “What is it?she always said – what is it that About?
It wasn’t until this Thanksgiving holiday, watching the newest Star Wars TV drama, “Andor” on Disney+, that I finally figured out what bothered Mami so much about the world of the Jedi and Sith.
She grew up in an era where Mexican actors like Anthony Quinn and Ricardo Montalban were cinematic royalty, while ranchera icons like Antonio Aguilar and Lola Beltran regularly graced LA venues like the Hollywood Bowl and the Million Dollar Theater. The Latinos weren’t all over the industry, but we were there.
The original “Star Wars” franchise, on the other hand, was whiter than chalk — you know your stock numbers are bad when the only brown-skinned characters are Wookies and Jabba the Hut.
Representation was important to Mami, although she never said so outright. That’s why I think she would become a fan of “Andor”.
The series follows Cassian Andor, a former child refugee who becomes a revolutionary when the Galactic Empire overruns his adopted planet. He is played by Diego Luna, who speaks with an unadulterated Mexican accent rather than the fake British one of many of the other main characters.
Luna’s dreamy face alone—resembling Paul McCartney in his “Let it Be” days—would have hooked Mami. The plot – ordinary people rising up against tyranny – is the story of Latin America over the last 200 years. But she also wanted to see “Andor” to support something historic: a series of Latinos in positive, prominent acting roles.
Chilean-American Pedro Pascal plays a bounty hunter with a heart of gold in the other major “Star Wars” show, “The Mandalorian.” Mexican-born Tenoch Huerta just wowed audiences as the Mayan antagonist Namor in the Black Panther sequel, “Wakanda Forever.” Rosario Dawson will lead in her own “Star Wars” series next year.
Latino actors play crucial roles in films ranging from Ant-Man to Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Xolo Maridueña, the 21-year-old breakout star of “The Karate Kid” spinoff “Cobra Kai,” will play the DC Comics character Blue Beetle in a film of the same name. The series “Wednesday”, which imagines the creepy Addams family as Mexicans, just broke streaming records for Netflix.
After more than a century of film and television portrayals of Latinos as sex-pots and criminals, it’s downright historic to see us playing so many heroes.
It’s also bittersweet for me, and not just because I can’t share these shows and movies with Mami, who died three and a half years ago from ovarian cancer. While “Andor” and “The Mandalorian” and their fantasy counterparts find fame, real-world Latino-themed shows are being canceled.
This year alone saw the end of “The Gordita Chronicles”, “Los Espookys”, “Gentefied”, “The Casagrandes” and “Promised Land”. Two years earlier, the reboots of “One Day at a Time” and “Vida” — which deal with the lives of Latinas in Echo Park and Boyle Heights, respectively — got the ax despite being critical favorites.
It’s as if Hollywood—which, remember, is based in a region that’s almost 50% Latino—can accept us in the worlds of Grogu and Thanos, but not in everyday life.
A Government Accountability Office report this year found that while Latinos make up 19% of the U.S. population, they make up just 12% of the media, and they’re mostly in blue-collar roles. While Latinos make up only 7% of writers and 11% of producers and editors, they make up 19% of service workers and 12% of artisans.
A UCLA study, meanwhile, found that Latinos make up just 5.3% of all roles on streaming platforms, which executives have long hailed as a great equalizer for representation. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” the UCLA researchers concluded caustically.
Not even threats by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) to probe the federal government at Tinseltown via congressional hearings and investigations for possible labor violations have scared studios into doing much to put more Latinos in front of and behind the camera and give them more than just a symbolic chance.
Having Latinos in a world of mainstream make-believe is important. An entire generation of American children grew up with Dora the Explorer and Handy Manny. Two films about Día de los Muertos, “Coco” and “Book of Life,” have helped push the holiday into the mainstream and teach non-Mexicans a new way to remember the dead. Non-Latinos swaying to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” in the Disney animation “Encanto” show that Latino culture is becoming American culture more than ever before.
That’s why networks and studios and streamers also need to showcase the stories of real Latinos. It’s not even that hard. My childhood and teenage years in the 1980s and 1990s were a golden age for Latinos in film, with modest hits like “Stand and Deliver,” “Born in East LA,” “Selena,” “My Family” and “Blood In Blood” . Out” which went on to become cult classics – in part because little else followed. The actors and actresses in these films – Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, Benjamin Bratt and Jennifer Lopez, among the most famous – were able to be cast in more than just “Latino” roles afterward as a result.
The Joneses should know that the Arellanos are just like them. Movies and TV shows must portray Latinos with middle-class dreams and college crushes, living in discomfort but also in paradise. Which is mean and goofy and all the other emotions that Hollywood apparently allows everyone to have – except us.