(Mis)Representation of Latinos in Media

May 1, 2017

It is no secret that the United States’ film and television industry has a diversity problem. Latinos make up 17% of the American population and 32% of frequent moviegoers, but are entirely underrepresented in film and TV.  In the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative's 2014 Report, Latinos made up only 4.9%  of the movie characters in the 100 top grossing films of 20131.  

Latinas are more likely than women of other ethnicities to be shown nude or partially nude in film2. Latino men were the most likely among the studied groups to be shown wearing “tight, alluring or revealing clothing”2. In 2012-2013, 17.7% of Latino film characters and 24.2% of TV characters were shown as involved in criminal activities. Between 1996 and 2014, 69% of maids in television and film were Latina3. According to an article by the New York Times, Latinos are still subjected to parts that play into the stereotypes of the “cop or the criminal, the illegal immigrant or the emotional sex kitten”. These stereotypes are also perpetuated through the news media. Between 1995 and 2004, less than 1% of stories were about Latinos and most of those stories focused on illegal immigration and crime. At the same time, there were no Latino news anchors or executive producers on major English speaking news stations. The problem of stereotyping has affected Latinos of all ages for decades. Rita Moreno, the first Latina to win an Oscar said that the roles she was offered were “a lot of little senorita Lolita, conchita Lolita kind of spitfire roles, everything but an American girl. I was the utilitarian ethnic”4.

The past few decades have been a series of trials and errors when it comes to not just Latino representation in entertainment media, but also in avoiding Latino stereotypes. When the Latino population made up only 3% of the population, Carmen Miranda was the highest paid woman in the world5. In the 1950s, one Latino gracing the television screen was Desi Arnaz, who played Ricky Ricardo in the hits show I Love Lucy. Along with his role in I Love Lucy, Arnaz was also the first Latino to co-host a national English language television show in prime time6. His role in the show, however, was criticized by some as simply perpetuating Latino stereotypes. Around the same time, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez was being featured on the quiz show You Bet Your Life, singing and speaking in Spanish. Two decades later, Freddie Prinze, born Frederick Karl Pruetzel to a Hungarian father and Puerto Rican mother, starred as Chico Rodriguez in the show Chico and the Man. While many felt that some of these previous shows were one-dimensional portrayals of Hispanic Americans, one short-lived program popular with Latinos was ¿Qué Pasa, USA?  This program was shown on PBS and featured a Cuban family living in Miami. In 1983, another briefly aired show featuring a Latino family hit the cable network. The show Condo was the first to feature a Latino family alongside a white family, with both being upper middle class. The show only lasted for a dozen episodes before a ratings drop forced it to be canceled. ABC later tried to replace Condo with a new show called Pedro which was quickly shut down after being deemed by many as offensive to Latinos. Another popular Latino star, Mario Lopez, began his career on a sitcom in which he played a character that was written as white. Lopez reportedly convinced the producers that he should play the role. On the show, Saved by the Bell, the race of Lopez’s character is rarely mentioned or featured7.

Two of the popular television shows of the late 90s and early 2000s, That 70’s Show and The George Lopez Show demonstrated two different types of representation of Latinos. In That 70’s Show, Wilmer Valderrama played Fez, an exchange student from an unknown country with a thick accent and crazy antics. He is constantly teased by his friends for his accent and for being a foreigner. George Lopez created and starred in The George Lopez Show before later becoming the first Hispanic to host a late-night talk show, Lopez Tonight. His sitcom, featuring the everyday life of a working-class Latino family, was the first successful Latino comedy since Chico the Man. A more recent show that was groundbreaking for Latinos was Ugly Betty. The show won two Golden Globes after its first season and featured a cast of Latinos, Latino producers, a Latino plot and the entire script was based on the Colombian soap opera, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea8.

In 2016, three Latinas starred in television shows that depicted various aspects of life for Hispanic Americans. America Ferrera, Gina Rodriguez and Eva Longoria took the year by storm with their shows; Superstore, Jane the Virgin and Telenovela. In Superstore, Ferrera stars as an employee at the store Cloud 9 where she struggles to deal with her fellow employees’ crazy antics. In this role, Ferrera’s character’s heritage is not the main focus of the show. Ferrera says that her character is an employee and a wife who just happens to be Latina. She applauds the show for the fact that “all of these characters were written with no specified ethnicity. And usually what that means is, you cast white actors, because that’s the default”. She says that when they opened it up all the roles to whoever would fit best, the people chosen “happened to be Latinos, black, Asian, Jewish.” Jane the Virgin and Telenovela remind Latino audiences of traditional telenovelas found throughout Latin America. Despite having some of the same tropes found in traditional programs, both shows confront the challenges of being a Latina in the United States. In one episode of Telenovela, Longoria’s character has conflicting feelings about how her white boyfriend can speak Spanish much better than she can. Jane the Virgin also has important discussions about facets of Latino identity and morality, especially when it comes to abortion and virginity9. These three programs have tried to expand beyond the stereotypes, showing that there is more than one way to be Latina. Despite the clear problems with a lack of Latino representation, these three women are paving the way for more roles. Their success have helped to show producers and networks that diverse programming can appeal to all audiences.

About Author(s)

Katherine Andrews
Katherine Andrews is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science with certificates in Global and Latin American Studies. She spent her summer interning with the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department and has done research with CLAS in Costa Rica and Mexico. Her focus is on gender and sexuality issues in Latin America, specifically international gender-based violence policy.