Friday , March 09, 2018 - 5:00 AM
CHICAGO — In the aftermath of a somewhat snoozy Academy Awards ceremony, here was my favorite headline: "This was the most Latino Oscars ever (but still not so much)."
It was a reference to the fact that plenty of Hispanic and Latin American people appeared onstage to present and receive awards, but there weren't any nominated for the top acting prizes of the night.
(Permit me to interrupt myself to trot out my favorite double diversity factoid: Lupita Nyong'o of "Black Panther," who won the best supporting actress award in 2014 for "12 Years a Slave" and presented on Sunday, was born in Mexico and lived there for several months in her teens to perfect her Spanish.)
To many critics, it was not enough that the film "Coco," based on Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration, won for best animated picture and best original song, and that Guillermo Del Toro became the third Mexican director to win best director (for "The Shape of Water"). True parity, many believe, won't be achieved until more Latino actresses and actors are nominated for their work in front of the camera.
It's a fair criticism: Only 2.7 percent of the top film roles of 2016 were performed by Latinos, according to the latest Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA's Division of Social Sciences.
The reasons behind this oversight are perplexing. Let's face it, you have to work hard to ignore Hispanics in Los Angeles, where they make up 48 percent of the population. They also make up 17.8 percent of the United States.
Oh, and another little-known fact: Latinos buy more movie tickets than any other minority group.
Yet, time and again, individual Latino actors are passed over as too ethnic or too "Latin" for a non-Hispanic character or not brown enough or Mexican enough for an explicitly Hispanic role — as if it weren't the job of the actor to shift, chameleon-like, into a role that does not represent their lived experience.
Truth be told, sometimes roles that portray Hispanics as thickly accented foreigners or impoverished gang-banging types are not played by actual Latinos, because the actors approached for the roles won't stand for being the face of offensive stereotypes.
Justina Machado, the star of the Latino-centric Netflix reboot of the sitcom "One Day at a Time," told me at a media event last spring that she's finally in a place after two decades of acting where she can confidently turn down requests to read for simplistically ethnic roles.
And yet, stereotypes seem to be what sells in Hollywood — at least that's the perception.
Despite the highly publicized incidents of Latino actors being overlooked in Hollywood (who can forget comedy darling Tina Fey failing hilariously at naming 20 Latino performers for "Billy on the Street"?), at least one person thinks being Hispanic is a good career move.
The week before the Academy Awards, Hollywood acting coach Lesly Kahn was caught on tape advising a young Armenian actress to try passing as Hispanic: "Just the fact that your name is Rosa Ramirez is gonna get you a meeting," Kahn said. "Wear something f-----g red. Wear some f-----g sparkly earrings," Kahn continues. "Change your goddamned name and let's just do an experiment. You know what I mean? Just f-----g come up with the most Latin name you can come up with. ... So stop admitting to being a huge Jew, OK? That's not going to help you."
After the audio of Kahn's comments went viral, the National Hispanic Media Coalition's president Alex Nogales released a pointed statement: "Shame on you. Latinos are severely underrepresented in the film and television industry, and through your words you are contributing to even less representation." Kahn apologized.
She was wrong to suggest that actors misrepresent their race or ethnicity, but I like Kahn's sunny outlook: It sure would be nice if, someday, having a Hispanic surname wasn't an immediate disqualifier for speaking roles in mainstream TV shows and movies.
It would be even better if someday there were so many Hispanics (and for that matter, Asians, African-American and Native Americans) who won best actor and best actress statues that their achievements were lauded for supreme artistry and sublime ability to evoke emotions — instead of being notable because of their rarity.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group
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