'East Los High' and the truth about Latinos and TV


A sexy show about high-schoolers in East L.A. who form a competitive dance crew sure sounds like a hit, but at first all that producers of East Los High heard from networks was, “No.” Executives thought no one would watch a drama with an all-Latino cast, said Mauricio Mota, an executive producer of the show along with his partner and wife Katie Elmore Mota.

“We read the cultural zeitgeist before making the show, so we had research proving that this was an underserved and neglected audience that was exhausted of being seen as hookers, gang members, cholos, gardeners and all the basic stereotypes that you can imagine,” Mota told me.

Unable to get funding in Hollywood, the pair raised millions of dollars from donors and non-profits, including the Ford Foundation, and shot the first season themselves. Once the show was picked up by Hulu in 2013 it quickly found an audience among young Latinos and is currently shooting its fourth season.

It’s the kind of show that inspires Tumblr chatter along the lines of, “Why am I becoming so emotionally invested in the sex lives of fictitious East Los Angeles teenagers?” And, crucially, “skonka.” The fangirls are going to find even more to squee about when Prince Royce, who is an idol to young Latinas but is not well known outside of the community, joins the cast next year.

For Mota, the lesson should be clear. “Hollywood should be feeling pressured to be making more shows like East Los High,” he said. “Latinos move $1 trillion in the U.S. The numbers are there, 20% of the box office. We are media-savvy and people are not doing content for us.”

Maybe Hollywood should be feeling the pressure, but it’s not. While Latino money is valued in entertainment, rich Latino stories are another matter. Despite the Latino community’s considerable buying power, a recent study from Columbia University shows that when media companies merge, Latino representation declines and stereotypical on-screen portrayals increase.

“The companies mistake the fact that Latinos are avid media consumers and are equating it with that they’re happy about what they consume,” said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a co-author of the report along with Chelsea Abbas. “If you created programming and produced films that had a broader range, you would have more consumption—if that’s what you’re after.”

Negrón-Muntaner’s study looked at Latino inclusion following the NBC Universal and Comcast merger between the 2011 and the 2014-15 television seasons. (Full disclosure: I did not participate in the Columbia study in any way or even know about it, but I was an employee at MSNBC in 2013.) It found that following the merger, Latinos made up just 7% of behind-the-scenes roles, and stereotypes in films (such as parts as criminals, maids, gardeners and the like) increased, reaching a high of 66.7% of all of the company’s Latino film roles in 2013. (Another proposed Comcast merger with Time Warner was called off, after objections from both consumers and the FCC, in 2015.)

Hulu performed better than Netflix in terms of Latino participation both in front of and behind the camera, according to the study. But, if you took East Los High out of the equation, Hulu had no Latino writers, producers directors or lead actors, and 7.1% of on-camera talent, roughly equal to Netflix.

In part, media conglomerates seem confused about what diversity looks like. According to Negrón-Muntaner, media companies tout high rates of inclusion by including Spanish-language channels in their count. But not all U.S. Latinos speak Spanish. That is a nuance that could, ironically, be parsed out with more Latinos in charge behind-the-scenes.

“If you see Latinos as foreign, as immigrants, it’s also easy to assume that Latinos are Spanish-speaking people who watch Spanish-speaking media,” she said.

East Los High’s success and the Columbia study coincide with a broader cultural moment that shows little tolerance for media whitewashing. A damning study this past February from USC’s Annenberg School got straight to the point: “The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite should be changed to #HollywoodSoWhite, as our findings show that an epidemic of invisibility runs through popular storytelling.” Researchers at USC found that only 28.3% of all speaking characters were people of color—that’s below the proportion in the U.S. as a whole.

In 2015, NBC announced three new shows featuring Latina leads: Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue, Eva Longoria in Telenovela, and America Ferrera in Superstore. The all-Latina slate was unprecedented for network television, but welcome—and in step with the broader conversation about diversity on TV. 2015 also brought us ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, network TV’s first sitcom about an Asian-American family in 20 years.

While the focus on inclusion has largely been on pure representational numbers, more Latino faces is not an end in itself. Rather, the quality of representation also plays an important role.

Negrón-Muntaner’s study found that, while there were modest gains in on-screen roles for Latinos on scripted shows and film between 2008 and 2014, these tended to be one of four types of parts—person in uniform (that is, maid or janitor), criminal, law enforcement agent of some sort, and immigrant.

Here, the CW’s Jane the Virgin plays an interesting role. As Negrón-Muntaner points out, the hit show features plenty of Latino stereotypes. You have the virgin, of course, the overly-devout grandmother, the Latin lover, and the teenage mom, among others. Yet, the complexity of the roles, which paint Jane’s mom as a great mother and her Latin lover dad as a papi chulo who nevertheless loves his daughter and wants what is best for her, at once conform and transcend the stereotype, she said.

“Even though it’s better done than other stuff, that still seems the only way that we can be framed,” said Negrón-Muntaner.

Still, the fact that a younger generation of Latina actresses such as Jane’s Gina Rodriguez and America Ferrera have landed leading roles without having to play the hot Latina stereotype is an encouraging sign for Negrón-Muntaner. “They are different and it still sells,” she said.

Millennial Latinos and African-Americans are, by far, the largest audience in the country and illustrating news and entertainment from their perspective will be vital moving forward. Social media also allows producers to find an audience, build a following, and fund their projects without necessarily having to go through gatekeepers, as the creators of East Los High did.

Pamela Chavez, an animator from the Bay Area in California, finds herself following a similar model as she begins production on her first film, Caracol Cruzando. The film mirrors her own immigration journey from Costa Rica. Chavez, who was a youth worker before turning to film full time, said she decided to take her art seriously after seeing Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—the animated film about a young girl in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

“That kind of catapulted me,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, you can do that?’ I thought that was such a creative way to tell a story that’s difficult.”

Chavez enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design and found that there were few other Latinos. “That makes me sad because there’s so much creativity and we’re not represented in the institution,” she said. While writing the script for Caracol Cruzando, Chavez said she ran up against the cultural disconnect that often alienates underrepresented filmmakers.

“I was told, ‘You can’t make it so race-specific,’” she said of the film, for which she won a grant from Latino Public Broadcasting to fully produce. Chavez had previously showed a short at the Queer Latino Film Festival. “The community has been so supportive in telling me to use my voice.”

The key for her walking what she calls a “tricky” path in the entertainment industry has been to work with other Latino filmmakers from her undergraduate days at UC Santa Cruz and stay close to her roots in California. Chavez hopes that by mining her own experience of struggle she can connect with audiences and create the kind of empathy that she felt the first time she watched Persepolis.

“I think there’s a lot for us to learn when we listen. I was listening to Marjanne, understanding that there are people in Iran with harder lives,” she said. “When there’s a barrier for people to do that because they don’t have the tools or are left out of the conversation, then it’s difficult to have an honest conversation about what’s going on in this society.”

Gabriela Resto-Montero spends her days repping Puerto Rico and Colorado, writing about politics and culture, and scamming for Hamilton tickets. She awaits both Rihanna and Wisin y Yandel’s new albums with equal anticipation.

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