Written by Gabriela Fresquez
Written By Gabriela Fresquez
In this new Golden Age of TV, viewers have come to expect a lot from their television binge-watching sessions in all aspects of storytelling. What makes today’s television experience distinct is the move towards more originality, cultural nuance, and diversity, a term so often used to define support of cultural inclusion that some now write it oﬀ as an empty buzzword.
Just as representation in the workplace is about more than filling an obligatory diversity-hire on Starbucks’ regional board, representation in television and film is more multi-layered than who we see onscreen in our favorite ABC sitcom.
And in a town like Hollywood, historically quick to pat itself on the back when a colorful list of nominees is released during award-show season, it is easy to lose sight of the type of representation that is truly necessary for authentic Latinx stories to exist: Latinx people behind the lens.
As Manuel Betancourt, editor and writer at Remezcla, explains, “[S]eldom do we look behind the camera and examine which Latino writers and producers are striving to make a difference where it matters: in the rooms where casting decision are made, where series are greenlit, and development deals are brokered.”
Some progress has been made in bringing more Latinx creatives into writing, directing and television showrunning positions, but a 2016 report from the Writers Guild of America found that nearly 86% of the people working as television writers were white. This demonstrates that we are only skimming the surface when it comes to creating content featuring Latinx stories by Latinx writers.
Another finding from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative shows that “women of color are most aﬀected by exclusionary hiring practices” given that across the 1,100 studio films examined between 2007-2017, only four Black/African American women, three Asian women, and one Latina were directors .
Enter Gloria Calderon-Kellet, writer and showrunner of One Day at a Time on Netflix, and Tanya Saracho, writer and showrunner of Vida on Starz.
Calderon-Kellet has managed to successfully reboot Norman Lear’s family sitcom of the 1970s, not only bringing it to modern times, but centering it around a multi-generational Cuban family that humorously and empathically depicts everyday life for a Latinx family living in Los Angeles. Now entering its third season, the depiction could not be more timely given the harmful stereotypes that politicians in 2019 continue to perpetuate around Latinx communities. The show carefully addresses issues like immigration, racism, colorism, and LGBTQ issues.
In one of its more poignant episodes, One Day at a Time delves into the complications of PTSD, as Cuban mother of two, Penelope, brilliantly portrayed by Justina Machado, is an Iraq war veteran. The show’s success is no doubt due to the nuance, authenticity and humor with which these topics are addressed. It manages to speak directly to the Latinx community, while simultaneously demonstrating the value that resides in content revolving around a mostly Latinx cast with a tour-de-force Latinx showrunner at the helm.
Similarly, Saracho created a show with all Latinx-writers and cast, now in its second season on Starz. In Vida, Saracho delves into the the experiences of Latinx gender non-conforming communities, as well as intra-community classism—the type of stuﬀ Latinx audiences have never seen on television before in the general market. The show revolves around two sisters, Emma and Lyn, moving back to their childhood home in Boyle Heights to deal with the sudden loss of their mother, the disintegration of the family business, and the realization—postmortem—that their Ama (mother) was gay and married to her partner. Non-normative gender identities in the Latinx community have long been a cultural taboo, and Saracho’s storylines fearlessly confront the diﬀering generational attitudes around sex and non-hetero relationships in a way that brings the Latinx LGBTQ community out of the periphery and into 2019.
These timely stories told in this way—replacing tokenism with things like empathy, familiarity and universality—are vital because they enable the kind of depth and thoughtfulness that a Latinx audience craving authentic representation can actually connect to.
And isn’t genuine connection with specific target audiences the driving force behind any commercial success? The buying power of the Latinx community—all $1.7 trillion of it—alone should be more than enough of a motivating factor to create authentic, original content that speaks directly to them.
Ultimately, the Latinx audience, diverse and varied as it is, doesn’t necessarily need an all- Latinx television show in order to feel connected. We just want to exist authentically throughout the various worlds onscreen where we currently do not or do so exclusively in a marginalized way—the cop, the thug, the maid, the vixen, or the heavily-accented foreigner punchline.
And the “how-to” in terms of connecting with and reflecting the thriving, multi-dimensional existence of the Latinx community, can and will be answered by innovative content creators like Calerdon-Kellett, Saracho, and others who understand the necessity of having Latinx storytellers behind the lens and at the helm.
Gabriela Fresquez is a Mexican-American actor, host, writer and creator of the online series, The LatinXpert, a comedic, info-tainment web series that aims to show what it means to be a Latinx person navigating the political & cultural climate in the U.S. today. Previously, she has hosted LATV’s Latin Nation, docu-series Inspira and has appeared in multiple network television series including Jane the Virgin and Pretty Little Liars.