Actor Carlos Carrasco wants people to know that this year’s Best Picture Academy Award winner was a Latino film.
“Who wrote it? Alejandro Iñárritu. It was a little bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The magical realism that Marquez won a Nobel Prize for 40 years ago — that’s what Birdman is,” he boasted over the phone. The critically-acclaimed movie, starring Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, follows a washed up Hollywood blockbuster star struggling to find his footing as a Broadway actor/director. As he prepares for his play’s debut, an inner, fantastical bird that undermines his confidence manifests itself in eye-popping action sequences.
“That kind of writing has been poking out in other places. There are other [Latino] directors and screenwriters bringing that to the fore,” Carrasco, known for his roles in Speed and Deep Space Nine, continued.
Their presence, he argues, is a sign of the times: Latinos are becoming a dynamic force in Hollywood. And as of 2014, they’re officially the majority population in California — up from just 12 percent in 1970. Los Angeles County, the home of Hollywood, has the single largest Latino population in the country. And by 2060, half of all California residents will be Latino.
Much has been said about what the growing population means for the future of politics and the economy. The majority of wage laborers in the state are Latino, although upward mobility is commonly achieved by second-generation individuals. Politicians are also more reliant on the population’s votes than ever before. But what does the demographic shift mean for Latinos in the entertainment industry?
“It’s miles and eons away from what it was,” said Carrasco, a Panama-born, classically-trained actor who moved to the U.S. for an acting scholarship in college. Being a big, dark-complexioned, and smart Afro-Latino created significant challenges for him when he began his career — to the point where he had to learn to dumb it down. He’s convinced that when he dies, people will remember him as the conspiring Mexican gang-banger in the cult-classic Blood In, Blood Out.
But he’s optimistic about the future of Hollywood. “It’s about the inevitability of the numbers, the purchasing power,” he explained. “There have been efforts to start Latino distribution companies. Latino original production is increasing. [And] Latinos go to the movies a lot — more than any other demographic, especially in California. Imagine a scenario where suddenly they’re holding back their movie dollars. It would be a huge crisis at the box office, but I think the industry is starting to recognize that.”
Indeed, Latinos bought 25 percent of movie tickets in 2013. In an interview with the Wrap, Fox President of Domestic Distribution confirmed, “You don’t have a major hit without Hispanic moviegoers.”
And more Latino visibility onscreen can translate to more ticket sales and TV revenue. The small screen has proved to us over the past few years that people are hungry for stories and characters that represent them, and major TV networks are benefiting from diverse casting. Now, as an added bonus, the industry has a majority population to capitalize on.
But many barriers still exist. In 2013, only 5.2 percent of network TV writing positions were filled by Latinos, and only 2.7 percent of directors. Among Silver Screen actors, they accounted for only 4 percent of Oscar contenders for the major categories, between 2002 and 2012. They only received 1.6 percent of the primetime Emmy nods between 2002 and 2013. And the reality is that the vast majority of actors and actresses are relegated to stereotypical roles: maids and criminals.
“We need more in art and entertainment that is reflective of the world that we live in. And there’s just not enough reflection in it for women, for people of color,” America Ferrera previously told the Huffington Post. “I’m a huge lover of television and of film — I have been my whole life — and when there’s too much of the same thing and not enough to reflect the world that I live in, I take it personally.”
There’s also the problem of mis-identification. “That’s the next layer of the onion to unpeel of what it is to be Latino. They do come in many sizes, shapes, and colors,” Carrasco said. The pattern of only hiring certain “types” of Latinos is one that breakout Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez has also been vocal about in the past year:
The industry says ‘let’s hire a Latino,’ and then the Latinos say ‘well, you want a Mexican and I’m Puerto Rican; you want a Guatemalan and I’m from El Salvador; you want a Cuban and I’m Dominican’ … We need to have the conversation; if they’re going to put us under one umbrella… if we want to be considered and we want to show and use our power to the fullest, we need to unite … They see us as one community and we need to be one community, because we all share the same struggle.
To really change the face of Hollywood, Carrasco contends, Latinos need to be behind-the-scenes. That’s where people like Iñárritu come in. “Something else that’s key is that a lot of decisions get made long before the casting starts, which means the decisions are being made in the writers’ rooms, the production offices. The actor is the last thing brought in. What I’m driving at is it requires a Latino presence behind the cameras, directing the films, writing the scripts, producing.”
With 15 million Latinos living in California, the talent pool is larger than ever.
“I’m really pleased and encouraged by what I see today. I know the struggle continues. We’re not there yet, but the changes have been really monumental,” Carrasco concluded.