Where are the Latinos on TV?
|thenorthstar||Mar 26, 2019|
While this may be a tired refrain, representation matters. We're often glued to the couch during this platinum age of television, but American Latino viewers are rarely reflected on screen, particularly on streaming service Netflix. Sure, there is Narcos, Casa de Las Flores, and Always a Witch — all Netflix originals set in other countries — but the stories of United States-born families with Latin roots are strikingly absent from the screen.
That is, until One Day at a Time.
The family sitcom ran for three seasons and quickly became a fan favorite for its humor and heart. One Day is inspired by Norman Lear’s 1975 series of the same name (which was the first television series to show a single mother) but with a Cuban American twist. It stars the multiple award-winning Rita Moreno and Justina Machado, who plays Penelope Alvarez, a nurse and Army veteran raising two teens as a newly single mother. She gets plenty of input from her mother, Moreno’s Lydia Riera, and together the family tackles a litany of pertinent issues — from post-traumatic stress disorder, to queerness and quinceañeras, to senior sexuality.
“We try to model behavior on the show, we try to talk about real things families talk about — all families — and we try to do it in a way that comes from a loving and kind place,” One Day Executive Producer Gloria Calderón Kellet said on Busy Tonight. “Our show is about love in the end of the day…..and we love our LGBTQ teen, we love our veterans and our single moms. It really is a show about trying to build bridges instead of divide us. Which, in this time, is more important than ever.”
Vanessa Erazo’s op-ed in The New York Times echoed Kellet’s sentiment. “The series tackles issues from homophobia to colorism with sensitivity and insight, and offers Latinos — members of a woefully underserved demographic — the chance to see ourselves, warts and all, while still reliably delivering laughs and earning rave reviews.”
The team behind Busy Tonight are such big fans of One Day that they hired a plane to fly outside the Netflix headquarters with a banner encouraging executives to renew the show for a fourth season.
On March 14, Netflix announced it was cancelling One Day at a Time. The company issued a rare statement of its reasoning, citing less than ideal viewership and hinting at a licensing fee the streaming service had to pay to Sony Pictures Television, which owns the show. While The Hollywood Reporter noted that Netflix “continues to embrace diverse voices with Latinx-themed series including Mr. Iglesias, Gente-fied, and Selena” (as well as this writer’s favorite, the coming of age dramedy On My Block), there was a massive backlash. Erazo’s op-ed, titled “Netflix Has Turned Its Back on Latinos,” called the cancellation “an egregious erasure of Latinos at a time when anti-Latino rhetoric floods our political discourse, and it’s a reminder of Netflix’s tepid support for our stories, just when we need them the most.” The piece also contrasted the success of the Netflix-distributed, Oscar-winning Roma, which was lauded for its inclusivity of indigenous Mexican populations.
“Just one example of how conflating Latin American success in Hollywood with Latino representation tends to overlook how Latinos in the United States remain invisible both behind the camera and in front of it,” Erazo wrote.
Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the United States and comprise 20 percent of the key 18–34 marketing demographic. However, only 7.2 percent of roles in digital scripted series go to Latino actors, and Latinos are even less represented on broadcast and cable television.
A report by the National Latino Arts, Education, and Media Institute revealed that of the top 10 films in Hollywood made between 2010 and 2013, Latinos accounted for 2.3 percent of directors, 2.2 percent of producers, and 6 percent of writers. The results of this representation gap can be devastating.
“When Latinos are visible, they tend to be portrayed through decades-old stereotypes as criminals, law enforcers, cheap labor, and hypersexualized beings,” the report noted. “The limited and stereotypical nature of existing stories about Latinos skews the public’s perception of US society. It also sanctions hostility toward the country’s largest minority, which has already become the majority in many cities, including the media capitals of Miami and Los Angeles.”
Latinos are “watchful of their image,” the report continued, and “when programs or films are perceived to have anti-Latino content, advocacy groups and consumers target studios and networks with increasingly effective campaigns. Simultaneously, programs and movies featuring compelling Latino talent and storylines are rewarded with high ratings and revenue.”
While One Day’s depiction of a Cuban American family is important for myriad reasons, the show’s success and subsequent sadness about its cancellation are evidence of a larger trend. “The show’s fan base doesn’t seem to be just Latinos who’ve tired of popping up mainly on drug shows and telenovelas ….The show just felt good — precious, even,” wrote Slate’s Lili Loofbourow. “We’re living through a period of near-total civic disillusionment, and while plenty of shows are responding to this moment in vivid and provocative ways, few of them are doing so by approaching almost every character in merry good faith. One Day at a Time is one of them.”
Rather than indulge in escapism, or explore the existential meaning of life (as shows such as The Good Place and Miracle Workers do so well), One Day grounds viewers in solid family values that reflect America’s diverse population. The show “isn’t philosophically or generically ambitious…it’s almost laughably obvious and structured and plain. It also demonstrates why that structure works,” Loofbourow continued.
If One Day were to move to traditional network, it would join The CW’s heartfelt and earnest telenovela Jane The Virgin, which also focuses on a family of Venezuelan American women in Miami (with many more soapy plot twists and drama, however). Cable television is also promoting shows that focus on Latina narratives; Starz is developing a series about Afro-Latina Chicagoans called Bruja and will release a second season of Vida, which focuses on Mexican American sisters in Los Angeles. In the meantime, One Day isn’t giving up hope, or its quest to better represent American Latinos on television.
About the Author
Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline, and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories, and also writes on the business of music.