Movie theaters have been getting nicer—with their fancy recliners, upscale food, and at-your-seat cocktail service. But there's still something (well, someone) majorly missing on their screens: Latinx characters.
A study released on August 26 by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has found that Latinx people are severely lacking on-screen representation in film—and the numbers are harrowing. While films like 2018's Oscar-winning film Roma—which was helmed by a Mexican director and centered on an indigenous woman from Mexico—were groundbreaking, the stats show that we have a long way to go in popular entertainment's depictions of Latinx people.
The study—titled "Latinos in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera"—found that 47 percent of the 1,200 films surveyed erased Latinx people completely from on-screen speaking roles. Of the 100 highest-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018, only 3 percent featured a Latinx actor in the lead or co-lead. (According to 2017 Census data, there are nearly 59 million Latinx people living in the U.S., comprising 18.1 percent of the total population.) And in total, just 17 films out of 1,200 showcased a Latinx woman in the leading role.
Five out of those 17 roles went to Cameron Diaz, who is of Cuban descent but has never been cast in a Latinx role that speaks to her Cuban heritage or the diversity in Latinx culture. In fact, when it comes to the representation that is offered, America is served an extremely narrow vision of what Latinx people look like, act like, and are interested in. Thirty-six percent of all Latinx speaking characters and 60 percent of Latinx actors that get top billing are whitewashed of any indicators that they're Latinx, like language or symbols connected to their culture.
The study also showed that only eight Latinx men and two Latinx women over the age 45 were leads or co-leads in 2007 to 2018, and both female roles went to Jennifer Lopez. Additionally, between 2014 and 2018, only five films out of 500 portray a Latinx character from the LGBTQ+ community, and just two out of the 100 top-grossing films of 2018 featured a LGBTQ+ Latinx character. The omission of characters of this type in popular media seems especially concerning when, according to the Human Right Campaign, 1.4 million LGBTQ+ Latinx adults currently live in the United States.
In addition, the study found that the Latinx characters that are depicted tend to fall into stereotypical markers of Latinx identity: They are frequently light-to-olive skinned; sexy or sexualized (35.5 percent of Latinx women are depicted in sexualized ways); funny (often leaning on their sex appeal for laughs); tragic (13 percent of characters are shown living in poverty); or criminals (see: every movie where Latinx people are portrayed as drug lords or gang members). Researchers found that 61.9 percent of all Latinx characters are portrayed as engaging in illegal activities. It's not hard to make a leap between these depictions and the political rhetoric that casts Latinx people as criminals.
When representation of Latinx identity is this lacking and narrow, it becomes near-impossible to represent Latinx people who live in the many intersections of Latinidad. Afro-Latinx representation is only mentioned once in the study, noting the inclusion of only one Afro-Latinx director out of 1,335 included in the survey. But nearly a quarter of the Hispanic population in the U.S. identifies as Afro-Latinx. Many Afro-Latinx people in Hollywood describe having to lean on their Blackness over their Latinx identity because they are not viewed as neatly fitting the mold. The same goes for Latinx people of Asian and indigenous descent, who also receive little to no representation on screen (no numbers were reported for them in the study), and Latinx people with disabilities (only 13 out of 400 movies included a Latinx character with a disability, according to the study).
In effect, when so few roles are created for or made available to Latinx actors, where does that leave everyone who doesn't fit the extremely limited parameters of what a mostly white industry considers to be Latinx? It doesn't bode well for more nuanced depictions of the many faces and stories that encompass Latinx identity, and it perpetuates a monolithic ideal of what Latinx people look like, leading to racial and ethnic erasure, reinforcement of offensive stereotypes, and straight up racist depictions.
Hollywood is certainly lacking Latinx representation on screen, and while we have to start somewhere, it's vital that we not only ask for more. We have to demand better.
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Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.