Latino students work to change the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry
Edwin R. Ruiz is walking around the set of the film “The Wonderful.” He is on the studio balcony overlooking the top of two film sets. The one farthest away from him, which is designed to be a café, is from “The Wonderful.” The café looks like your typical hometown coffee shop, but half of it consists of a bar, which gives off a Western feel with its many decorative props of a vintage cash register, and “wanted” posters plastered on the dark, wooded walls.
Ruiz, a cinema production graduate student at DePaul University, is producing “The Wonderful” for his fellow classmate Patrick Montalvo, a third-year MFA directing student at DePaul.
“The Wonderful” is about a young man’s last day at work, and he is having trouble winning a girl. The protagonist is so nervous and people get to see his point of view of different situations that he faces trying to get the girl. These situations happen to be dreamlike scenarios where he could either be a regular guy taking an order of food or where he is dressed in garb from an old Western.
Montalvo is the director and the screenplay writer of “The Wonderful.” His good friend Roberto Larios also worked on the screenplay. The inspiration for his film comes from “El Mariachi,” which was written and directed by Latino filmmaker Roberto Rodriguez. Rodriguez is someone Montalvo really looks up to.
“After a few beers and a couple of talks with friends, I got the idea for this script in 2014*,” Montalvo said.
There are a lot of genres in his short film and after going over the budget he decided to go ahead with his thesis. Throughout this process he was able to convince his friend Larios to head to DePaul** to work on the film with him.
Montalvo, a Mexican-American student, has been watching movies since he was a kid. The memories that he happily recalls are of his mother and him watching film, while she explained to him the premise of the stories, the characters and conflicts.
One of the most important things for him to do is inspire people though story-telling. One film that made a huge impression on him was “The Wizard of Oz,” which to him is storytelling on a grand scale. He understands that some films get huge funding more than others, but he sees small budgets as an opportunity to be extra creative. This is what he loves to do most, even if sometimes it’s difficult.
Ruiz and Montalvo are both Latino graduate students at DePaul University’s school of Cinematic Arts. Both students have a great love for film. Ruiz is mostly interested in producing, while Montalvo is more interested in directing. They are two of many Latinos who yearn to be among the many talented people who make a living working in the entertainment industry. Yet, for many Latinos, getting there is not always that likely.
Latino participation in film and television is very low. Although Latino participation has somewhat increased since the ’40s, it is largely the same, if not worse. During the ’50s, although Latinos made up 2.8 percent of the U.S. populations, they made up 1.5 percent of lead roles for the top 10 shows, and in the top 10 films, Latinos made up 1.7 percent of lead roles, according to Columbia University’s “The Latino Media Gap” report.
According to the same study, in 2013, even though Latinos made up 17 percent of the U.S. population, they did not make up any percentage of the lead actors in the top 10 films and TV shows. For this reason, Latinos in the entertainment industry are in search of stories to represent themselves.
“Being Latino is important in finding stories that represent us, because there is an entire gamut in who Latinos are and can be. The story of a Caribbean person is different than a story of a Mexican person or different than a story of Chilean,” Ruiz said. “I’m always interested in finding what makes stories that each culture has special.”
When Ruiz was little, he noticed there were not a lot of Latinos on television. Maybe a Latino would be “sprinkled in” here and there for comic relief, he said. Until a little show called “House of Buggin’” with John Leguizamo and Luis Guzman was aired on Fox in 1995.
“It was a whole team of Latinos coming up with all sorts of crazy stuff, and it was hilarious. They would poke fun of the perception of Latinos, which was huge,” Ruiz said. “To me that was a linchpin moment of, we can be in T.V., we’re just not. And if content isn’t created for Latinos, Latinos don’t envision themselves as actors.”
Jose Soto, associate professor at DePaul University, said that shows that try to be more diverse usually fall into creating stereotypical characters.
According to Soto, actresses like Sofia Vergara on “Modern Family” (ABC), Eva Longoria in “Telenovela” (NBC) and America Ferrera on “Super Store” (NBC) or “Ugly Betty” (ABC) have all played Latino stereotypes.
“We haven’t had a figure that helps us be mainstream,” Soto said. “The representations of Latinos that are mainstream are still stereotypical.”
Soto, who today is a consultant for Univision and CBS, also thinks that the producers, directors and executives should be pushed to make changes, but that actors and actresses shouldn’t just get hired for looking Latino, because in the end, talent is still what counts the most.
“I don’t think we’ve reached a point where we’re fairly represented,” Soto said. “Big companies will defend themselves by saying, ‘Well, we’re 60 percent more diverse or 30 percent more diverse,’ just by hiring whoever comes in with a different shade of skin, and that’s not the point.”
The lack of diversity is not so different outside television. From 2006 to 2012, Broadway and nonprofit casting was not diverse. During that time period 79 percent of all roles were filled by Caucasian actors, 14 percent by African Americans, 3 percent by Latinos and 3 percent by Asian Americans, according to a study made by The Asian American Performers Action Coalition.
Alma Acosta is a Latina theatre student at DePaul University. She is one of two students who were accepted into the costume technology program through The Theatre School at DePaul. She is also the only Latina in the program. Acosta, a Texas native, went to a very diverse school and it was there where she developed her love of theatre. Today, in addition to theatre, she hopes to work in film.
Acosta says the lack of Latinos in the entertainment industry is disappointing, but she says that unlike people who blame actors, she instead blames the executives in the entertainment industry.
“People get fired up and get mad at the actor, when the actor didn’t choose for him to be cast in this,” Acosta said.
“They’re trying to get a job!” Jennifer Moore, Acosta’s friend says, laughing.
Geovanny Acosta, Acosta’s brother, who was looking at his phone screen, bursts out laughing in agreement.
“Yeah, but it’s the director, you know, the casting director, the producers. Why did they give the green light for this to happen?” Acosta said.
That greenlighting was most likely given by executives, show creators and producers, and a lot of the times these executives are not very diverse either.
According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, mostly white men held executive positions in the Hollywood film industry. The report states that the CEOs and/or chairs running the 18 studios examined were comprised of 94 percent white and 100 percent male. The same report also states that minorities only made up 5 percent of the creators of television shows.
Between 2010 and 2013, Latinos also were not included in any of the top 10 television show creators. They comprised only 1.1 percent of the television producers, 2 percent of the television writers and 4.1 percent of the television directors, according to “The Latino Media Gap.” As for the top 10 films, the same report also states that Latinos composed 2.3 percent of directors, 2.2 percent of the producers and 6 percent of writers.
For Acosta, this is not surprising. She knows there are very few roles for Latinos in television, film and theatre. Even within the profession of costume technology, there is a lack of Latinos.
“It’s not like you can give me this B.S. answer that, ‘Oh, there are no Latino designers out there,’ ’cause there are in Chicago,” Acosta said.
But shows like Gloria Estefan’s “On Your Feet!” give her a glimmer of hope.
“‘On Your Feet!’ was great, I loved it. I loved the costumes,” Acosta said. “I also met the costume designer (Emilio Sosa) when I went to see the show.”
The costumes in the show were very Cuban-inspired. A myriad of the costumes for the first half were full of colorful pastels and some floral prints for dresses. Then, as the time period moved forward, clothing was based on what singer Gloria Estefan wore during her performances, which included a bright red ’80s-inspired dress, leather jeans and intricately designed jackets.
Acosta follows the designer on Instagram, and before the show she found out he was there and messaged him to congratulate him on his work.
“I was like, ‘I’m here watching the show I’m so happy to see a fellow Latino work in action,’” Acosta said, smiling.
Sosa responded to her message, and she was able to meet him after the show ended. She continues to look up to him and sees him as a great example of a successful Latino in the entertainment industry.
Krystal Ortiz, acting student at The Theatre School at DePaul, came to Chicago from Miami and has become more aware of the importance of Latino diversity, because back home she was part of the majority.
For Ortiz, growing up in Miami meant that the majority of people are of color and most everybody was Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian or Venezuelan.
“When I came here all of a sudden it was a big deal that there were six Latinas in my acting class and that it was (an) overdose for some people,” Ortiz said. “I’m really happy and thankful that my class had at least that, because otherwise I would have felt like a fish out of water.”
According to Ortiz, she has not faced any adversity because of her ethnicity. She says she is ethnically ambiguous and can “pass” as white, Greek or French, “whatever that means,” she said.
One instance when she really noticed that being an actress and a Latina is different from being the mainstream white actress was in her class. Her classroom was doing professional preparation and a guest speaker went to her class to speak of types of actresses people usually are to fulfill a storyline. For instance, the girl next door would be a type, or the mean girl.
“One of my classmates asked a question about type, and she is Latina, and as soon as she asked a question about type, the woman’s response was, ‘Well, you’re Latina, right?’” Ortiz said. “She was asking a question about her appearance. If you change this about your appearance, would that give you more of a different type?”
According to Ortiz, when the guest speaker was talking about her own type, never did she mention how being white gave her certain roles, because in general white women get the majority of female roles.
Still, Ortiz doesn’t necessarily think there is a lack of Latinos in theatre and in television, but like Ruiz and Soto, she sees more of a lack of diversity among the ways that Latinos are depicted on stage and on screen.
“Latinos are not necessarily written as the everyday character; it has to be a Latino character and they’re either the Latino sassy gay guy or the drug lord or the gang member or the sassy Latina friend and there is not a whole lot of diversity in that,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz, like many Latinos in the industry, tries to get involved in the Latino community to reinforce her goal of Latino inclusion. She is also constantly looking for any work written by Latinos when she is looking for audition work or scenes to do.
“(The) Latino theatre community in Chicago is like home. There really is a sense of community. We check in with one another and support each other, each other’s work,” Ortiz said. “We know each other and we make it so that’s the case, and we make real relationships with one another, and it’s a really nice support system to have.”
Ortiz also made it a goal to help put together “In the Heights” at DePaul University. She quickly realized that they had the cast to be able to do “In the Heights,” which is a specifically Latino musical. Since all of a sudden the program had six Latinas in her class and one Cuban male who was about to graduate, she knew it was something she had to do.
“I suggested it to one of our teachers who is also Cuban -she’s a director here- and I was like, ‘Hey, escuchame, escuchame bien (listen to me, listen to me carefully). We should do this,’” Ortiz said.
And so they did.
“I was so proud of that and that it came from the students and it was such a good experience and the story was so beautiful and were able to do it on one of our bigger stages,” Ortiz said.
Like theatre and film, television also lacks Latino representation, but shows like “Jane the Virgin” (The CW) are television shows that people like Acosta want to see more of.
“I love ‘Jane the Virgin’ because it’s such a good show, and every time I watch an episode at the end I see the credits and I try to pick out all the possible Latinos,” Acosta said. “I see some of them are Latinos and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s awesome.’”
Minority actors claimed 6.5 percent of the lead roles in television during the 2012-13 season, which increased by 5.1 percent from last season, according to the Hollywood Diversity Report.
“Jane the Virgin” is an example of a show that features a minority lead: Gina Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican. Other shows that fall under this category are “Scandal” (ABC), “The Mindy Project” (Fox) and “Nikkita” (ABC). “Cristela” (ABC) was also a show that featured a minority lead, Cristela Alonzo, who also was the creator, producer and writer.
Ruiz, who has his own production company, sees the lack of roles for Latinos as a result of the lack of content being written that highlights Latino stories. He insists that in the same way that there are African-Americans saying why the Oscars are so white, people should all be asking why there aren’t more diverse roles in general.
“It’s a huge problem not having people who create distinguished roles for Hispanics but outside negative stereotypes,” Ruiz said. “I think that’s kind of the big thing, that we get pigeonholed really quickly, and so I find that it’s really hard as a Latino to find good roles.”
According to “The Latino Media Gap,” in TV and films, Latinos are mostly represented as criminals, law enforcers and cheap labor. The report also states that in 2012 and 2013, 17.7 percent of Latino film characters and 24.2 percent of TV characters were linked to some sort of crime. These results are an increase from the small 6 percent of characters being linked to crime on TV.
The same report states that 36 percent of Latino television character appearances are in law enforcement and 69 percent of maids in film are Latinas. And, overall, 44.7 percent of Latino characters are unaccredited or unnamed, which highlights the misrepresentation.
Ruiz has met and has worked with Latino artists, and when he asks what their next project is, their responses are hesitant, and sometimes they just don’t know what they will do next.
“They are quick to say, ‘I speak a little funny, I have an accent, and I feel that it disqualifies me from having any bigger roles ,because I don’t fit the matrix of what they’re looking for,’” Ruiz said.
Ruiz has dealt with the problem firsthand.
Currently, he is producing a thesis film called “Aguila del Sol,” which revolves around a Mexican lucha libre wrestler who is called to Chicago to save the grandson of his longtime trainer, who has been kidnapped by some goons.
He works with a casting director in his production company who has worked with actors for decades.
“She had the most trouble casting the amount of Latinos we wanted for this. We didn’t need that many Latinos, but finding the right Latinos was really, really difficult,” Ruiz said.
Again, Ruiz really sees this as a result of Latinos not always envisioning themselves as actors.
Ruiz sits in the corner of a gray classroom surrounded by large film posters. The room is vacant with only empty desks covered with backpacks. He is eating his dinner; it’s Mexican food today on “The Wonderful” film set. He wants to tell undergrads not to give up on their dreams and to join in in the cinematic art they are creating.
“I want to tell Latino stories and not just Latino stories. Chicago is expanding, but there are not a lot of Latinos to source, because they’re so scarce. [And still] white people are easier to cast,” Ruiz said.
*This line has been corrected from the original, which misstated when Montalvo got the idea for the script.
**This line has been corrected from the original, which misstated where Larios was living.
Header image by Jasminne Hernández. Grant Wieland prepares for a scene as DePaul graduate student Patrick Montalvo goes over the script for the short film “The Wonderful” with Amy Limpinyakul, the cinematographer.
Photos by Jasminne Hernández from top to bottom: Director Patrick Montalvo talks with actor Mathew Barnard on the set of “The Wonderful.” Edwin R. Ruiz, a graduate student and producer, watches a live recording of the on-set actors.