Times Staff Writer

The message delivered at the Imagen Awards ceremony on Wednesday was diplomatically phrased, but quite blunt: The television and film industry failed last year to improve its portrayal of the Latino community or provide positive roles for Latino artists.

As a result, only one, rather than the customary three obelisk-shaped awards, was handed out this year to a television program or feature film, explained David Picker, president of Columbia Pictures and spokesman for the eight-member selection committee that decided to break with tradition.

"A lack of positive Hispanic roles convinced us to eliminate from consideration . . . several entries that were clearly well intentioned . . . , " said Picker to the 350-member audience attending the third annual luncheon ceremony at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

"Sadly," he continued, reading from the committee's prepared statement, "most of (the entries) limited Hispanics to stereotypical roles; illegal aliens; street-smart kids; long suffering mamacitas. These stock characters are based, to some extent, on an undeniable reality. But equally undeniable is the fact that there are many other kinds of Hispanics as well, and we just don't see enough of them in films or TV shows."

Despite entries from 13 television programs, only Steve Bochco, executive producer of NBC's hit series "L.A. Law," and the handsome Jimmy Smits, who plays the tough, young attorney Victor Sifuentes, were selected for an Imagen ( image in Spanish) Award. No award was presented to a feature film because no entries were submitted in the category.

The Hispanic Media-Image Task Force, a group of Latinos and non-Latinos in and out of the entertainment industry, has staged the event since its formation in 1985 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a nonprofit organization that attempts to ameliorate interreligious and interracial prejudice.

In past years, films such as Gregory Nava's "El Norte" and Rene Enriquez, who played Capt. Ray Calletano in NBC's "Hill Street Blues," have been lauded. This year's Imagen committee had considered filling out the program by creating new awards categories.

However, after careful consideration, Picker said, the committee decided that it " . . . could not, in good conscience, lower the standards set for these awards merely to represent all three awards this year."

The selection committee's decision to limit its praises this year parallels a similar move by the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in awarding its Image Awards in 1981, and it concluded that it would not honor a recipient in one of its most important award categories, best actress in a theatrical film, due to a dearth of films in which blacks played leading roles.

But Helen Hernandez, Hispanic task force co-chairperson and vice president of public affairs for Embassy Communications, said the committee's appraisal of Latinos in television and film did not look as bleak as it appeared.

A new crop of artists, such as Esai Morales, who plays the troubled brother of rock star Ritchie Valens in Columbia's soon-to-be-released "La Bamba," and Andy Garcia, who plays an Italian FBI agent in Paramount Pictures' "The Untouchables," as well as new television shows, should make next year's selection process much easier, Hernandez said.

Besides Picker, the selection committee included Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Glenn Pladnick, president of Embassy Communications; Ricardo Mestres, a senior vice president for Disney Pictures; Cecilia Sandoval, president of the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission; Frank Del Olmo, an editorial writer for The Times; Dan Taradash, a screenwriter, and attorney Herman Sillas.

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