Truth is, there simply aren’t many shows on TV with Latino leading characters. Which is troublesome, considering we represent 17.4 percent of the U.S. population (55 million and counting). Of course, the success of CW’s Jane the Virgin, with its phenomenal, mostly Latino cast led by Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez, is worth celebrating, as are the Latina characters on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. But Hollywood still has some serious catching up to do if it wants to offer a true portrayal of America in 2015.
On-screen at least, diversity seems to have become a bigger priority for networks, thanks in large part to showrunner Shonda Rhimes, the brilliant mind behind How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, and Grey’s Anatomy. Likewise, Fox’s hip-hop telenovela Empire continues to hold strong, and, in its current second season, has incorporated several Latino characters. Fresh Off the Boat, American Crime, and Black-ish have also helped crack the door open for more diverse programming. In fact, Kenya Barris, creator and executive producer for Black-ish, recently inked a three-year deal with ABC Studios, through which he will develop new TV projects for the network, cable, and streaming services. Factor in Amazon’s Transparent and OITNB and it’s clear the TV landscape looks favorable for the African-American and LGBT communities, and, in theory, Latinos.
Still, writing partners Ed Gonzalez and Jeremy Haft say there’s reason to feel optimistic about the TV landscape in 2016 and beyond, particularly with regard to Latino representation. “Now it’s a whole different world,” says Gonzalez, who, along with Haft, has written for Gang Related, Empire, and just sold a pilot to Fox inspired by his own Mexican family.
“People in TV are always talking about ‘Write what you know,’” Haft says. “They want to buy you and your original voice. Eddie is Mexican and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, which gave both of us a very original viewpoint and stories to tell that the average writer doesn’t have.”
Yet, for Latina writers, getting noticed, even with great material, remains a challenge. “You have to work much harder than everybody else, because the impression is, ‘Oh, she’s just here because she’s a diversity hire.’ When in reality we’ve had to work way harder than the guy whose buddy hired him,” says Diana Mendez, a staff writer on Fox’s new crime-solving procedural Rosewood starring Morris Chestnut and Jaina Lee Ortiz. “But I’m actually grateful for that because you’re just helping me become a better writer, faster,” adds Mendez, a former writer’s assistant on Rizzoli & Isles.
The emerging scribe, who went through the Fox Writers Intensive Program and National Hispanic Media Coalition’s TV Writers Program, lives by the motto “Be the change you want to see in the world.” She’s now doing her part in changing the perception of Latinos on television. One of the refreshing aspects about Rosewood is the positive portrayal of black and Latino characters.
One can point to a show like Empire as having a transformative effect and increasing demand among the networks for different kinds of stories. “It’s not just, ‘We want Gang Related or Narcos,’” says Mendez. “They’re like, ‘What about a medical drama? A legal drama? A musical?’ A lot of my Latina friends this year sold pilots, so it’ll be exciting to see which of them get made.”
Mendez’s own life story is compelling. Born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrants, she grew up helping her mother and grandmother clean houses. And not just any houses, but those of Hollywood power players, like writer/director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Toy Story, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). “Meeting him was super inspiring,” she recalls of her high school years. “It was the first time that I thought, This is something I could do. This guy had movie posters with his name of them and tons of books. What I remember most about cleaning houses was looking at people’s bookshelves. I wanted to know what the secret was and I figured I could find it in those books.” And hit the books she did. After getting a degree from Yale, she used her contacts from cleaning houses to get a job as an assistant and then worked in film marketing before pursuing her dream to write full-time, mentored by Josefina Lopez (Real Women Have Curves).
“I live in a nice neighborhood now, but I don’t forget where I came from,” Gonzalez says proudly. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed as Latino writers, but those stories obviously influence my worldview and we try to get that out there that yes, there are gang members, but there are also honest, hard-working people.”
“There’s this perception that we don’t exist, that there’s no Latino writers and it’s not true,” adds Mendez. “It’s our responsibility to make ourselves seen and heard and really put our names out there and go for these jobs. No one’s going to give it to us, we have to take it.”