About four out of every 100 speaking roles in Hollywood’s top grossing films between 2007 and 2018 went to Latinx people. Because almost one in five Americans are Latinx, this number is jarringly unrepresentative. Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg. This appears much worse when considering that a quarter of all Latinx speaking roles are criminals.
It is only fair to look at this issue as political. Ignoring the political side of the entertainment industry is being willfully ignorant. Policy surrounding immigration through the Southern border of the United States has a storied history and has come to a head in the last half decade. When President Donald Trump began his presidential bid five long years ago, he was quick to make his anti-immigration stance heard. He claimed that Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals and that he would build a wall along the Mexican-American border. These claims might have seemed true if Hollywood and cable TV were the only sources of information. For this reason, the representation of Latinx people in the media is extremely important. Their portrayal in the media shapes the public consciousness, and by extension the US’ political climate surrounding immigration.
Nearly 20 percent of the US population is Latinx, and this number is only growing. This is not at all apparent when scrolling through Netflix. In fact, if the Netflix homepage was your only data point, you would come to the conclusion that the vast majority of Americans are white, a conclusion that may serve to support current right-wing views on immigration. Tucker Carlson, a host on FOX News, has attacked all forms of immigration while complaining about the shifting demographics in the US. Carlson went as far as to claim that white Americans faced trauma after finding out that their home town was now majority Latinx. Calling attention to change can be very effective in inciting fear and xenophobia. In How Facism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Jason Stanley writes, “In the rhetoric of extreme nationalists, such glorious past has been lost by humiliation brought on by globalism, liberal cosmopolitanism, and respect for ‘universal values’ such as equality.” Stanley calls this memory of greatness a mythic past an embellished and fictional telling of the good old days. President Trump has tapped into the power of the mythic past with the “Make America Great Again” slogan. Film and TV creators probably aren’t actively trying to boost nationalism or push these ideas onto viewers. The issue is, mainstream television and film display a portrayal of the US that may serve to support nationalist ideas. There must be sufficient representation in the media before all can be treated fairly.
When Latinx characters do make it into Hollywood or cable, they are often made to be little beyond a caricature. Instead of representing full-fledged people, Latinx actors have been limited to mere stereotypes. One stereotype is the portrayal of Latinx actors as thugs or criminals, in shows ranging from West Side Story to Orange is the New Black. If this is 25 percent of all Latinx representation, then there is a serious problem. This becomes even worse when it can have an effect on the politics that determine important aspects of the lives of actual Latinx people. The unfair portrayal of Latinx Americans by the media is downright vicious. It is a one-sided narrative that has no place in a country pursuing equality.
These stereotypes are only reinforced by current politics. President Trump’s views on immigration do not exactly fall in line with Republican policy from the last couple of decades. Ronald Reagan spoke of seeking a mutual understanding with Mexico, while George Bush declared that children should not grow up outside the law or uneducated. President Trump and his Republican contemporaries represent a fervent anti-immigrant shift. This was a defining element of his campaign. After being elected, an advertisement posted to President Trump’s Twitter showed Louis Barcamontes, a man convicted of shooting two police officers — who is also an undocumented immigrant — spliced with clips of immigrants fleeing persecution in Central America. The insinuation was that the people seeking refuge in the US were going to be murderers. The advertisement also implied that Democrats were complicit in this alleged harm caused by undocumented immigrants. Aside from being a very divisive narrative, this point of view creates a culture of fear, and subsequently anger, against Latinx Americans and undocumented people. Latinx representation, or lack thereof, played a part in this divide.
A productive conversation to resolve an issue cannot happen until everyone agrees on the facts: if Latinx Americans are represented inaccurately and even maliciously in the media, we will not be able to solve this crisis as a nation. To move forward and create real change in our communities, there must be a change in the portrayal of Latinx Americans.