The bewilderment and anger over what he was--or rather, wasn't--watching on his tele vision screen was too much for Latino songwriter Lalo Guerrero. So he sat down and channeled his frustration into a song. He titled it "No Chicanos on TV."
I think that I shall never see
Any Chicanos on TV.
It seems as though we don't exist
And we're not ever even missed.
And yet we buy and buy their wares.
But no Chicanos anywhere.
There are Chicanos in real life,
Doctors, lawyers, husbands, wives.
But all they show us on TV
Are illegal aliens as they flee,
Or some poor cholo that they bust
Flat on his face, he's eating dust.
Guerrero wrote the ditty in the 1980s. More than 14 years later, the song remains the same.
A study released last September by the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs concluded that Latinos accounted for only 1% of all speaking characters in prime-time entertainment programs during the 1992-1993 season, despite the fact that Latinos make up 10% of the U.S. population. The report noted, moreover, that the 1% figure was a decrease from the 3% that Latino characters represented in 1955 and that the images of Latinos were more negative than those of other cultures or minorities.
For many Latinos, that report was the final insult. On Jan. 12, a coalition of 45 national Latino organizations declared war on television. Complaining that the TV industry is rampant with institutional racism toward and ignorance about Latinos, the leaders said they would use their "$190 billion in purchasing power" to punish the major networks with actions ranging from viewer boycotts to angry demonstrations outside television stations if there wasn't immediate change.
ABC in particular was targeted by the coalition, which claimed that the network reneged on promises it made to Latino leaders to schedule a Latino-themed show this season and to put more Latinos on other programs.
An increasingly negative public image of Latinos--crystallized by the passage of Proposition 187, the get-tough-against-illegal-immigration initiative on last November's ballot--makes it more important than ever that there be positive Latino figures on television, coalition leaders said.
"The subconscious damage that the media has done is incredible," says Jose Luis Ruiz, executive director of the National Latino Communications Center, a nonprofit production company that provides Latino-themed programming to public-television stations. "It drives a wedge between us culturally, historically and socially. The media talks about our shortcomings, not our contributions. And if you continue to tell a child he or she is wrong and no good, they will grow up believing that."
Since the protest was announced, however, no storm has hit. Instead of demonstrations and a mass viewer tune-out, activists have only sent a letter to ABC affiliates. The letter, written by the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which is spearheading the campaign, warned of the impending boycott against the network and its advertisers, informed affiliate officials that they would be under "special scrutiny" by the coalition for any violations of the Federal Communications Commission's equal employment opportunity policies and urged them to lobby Capital Cities/ABC to follow through on the company's "commitment."
This unexpectedly slow start may be indicative of just how divided the Latino community is over what constitutes the best course of action to improve and increase Latino images on television.
On the one hand, many Latino performers and other industry insiders say the coalition's plan is long overdue.
"It's a shame that we have to go to this extreme, but I doubt that the television executives would listen to us any other way," said Michael DeLorenzo, who stars as a police detective in Fox's "New York Undercover." "The squeaky wheel gets the oil, and we have not squeaked."
Said Moctesuma Esparza, who has produced several feature films and television movies, including "Gettysburg" and "The Milagro Beanfield War": "The only surprise was that it took this long. It would have made economic sense for the executives at the networks to have anticipated something like this happening. But many times they have to get black eyes before they adjust to the economic realities."
Others, however, believe the situation is slowly but surely improving and worry that outside pressure now may do more harm than good.
"It's good when people protest, but sometimes they do what they do because they don't know how the industry works," says Nely Galan, whose Galan Entertainment has a development deal with Fox. "There are economic forces making it great to be Latino now. Latinos have become a vital force, spending more. That's the reason it's getting better, period, not because people are complaining."
John Leguizamo, who is the star and executive producer of Fox's "House of Buggin'," said he already has benefited from a search within the industry for a different cultural point of view. The Latino sketch comedy show, which premiered in January and is currently on hiatus, will be back later this season with new episodes.
"Timeliness put me over, luck put me over, and I just came at the right time," Leguizamo said. "There's a huge population that had a craving and a hunger for what we're doing. The (entertainment) president of Fox (John Matoian) calls me all the time, asks how I'm doing and what I need. They're taking great care of me."
And comedian Luke Torres, who is starring in a pilot for a CBS comedy, said: "Because of my cultural humor, I think producers are more attracted to me. There seems to be a Latino wave. Some organizations may have the right to feel this way because of the way they've been treated, but for me, being Latino has been a benefit instead of a hindrance."
Not surprisingly, there are just as many opinions within the Latino community--which is, in itself, hardly homogenous--about why the shortage of Latino characters exists in the first place.
Some say the situation at the networks is evidence of entrenched racism heightened by an increasingly hostile political environment. Others say network and studio executives--nearly all of whom are Anglo--are dragging their feet. Still others point to a dearth of adequate training programs for Latino talent.
The networks counter by pointing to prominent Latinos in popular shows: DeLorenzo of "New York Undercover," Jimmy Smits of "NYPD Blue," Hector Elizondo of "Chicago Hope," Robert Beltran of "Star Trek: Voyager," Liz Torres of "The John Larroquette Show," Rita Moreno of "The Cosby Mysteries," Daphne Zuniga of "Melrose Place," Marco Sanchez of "seaQuest DSV" and Mark Espinoza of "Beverly Hills, 90210."
Yet Torres and Elizondo, two of the fortunate Latino performers who have never been short of work, have had to overcome obstacles in a business that they acknowledge often frowns on diversity.
"In this country, we like to think that we celebrate differences, that we're the melting pot," said Torres, who plays a feisty bus station secretary on "Larroquette," an NBC comedy. "But it isn't so when it comes to listening to accents. Being able to do a lot of things in the theater has been my lifesaver. I'm also light-skinned, which has really helped me. Not for a minute do I not realize that. I'm socially acceptable."
Elizondo, who plays the chief of surgery on CBS' "Chicago Hope," said: "I never studied to be a Latino actor. I had to fight my way out of that category in the beginning, and I did it by doing good work. Now I'm just an actor who happens to be Latino. I have enjoyed a career playing many nationalities. I've received praise because I have crossed over. (But) I don't turn down Latino roles. They just aren't around."
Senior executives at ABC, NBC and Fox--plus the two newly launched network ventures of United Paramount and Warner Bros.--declined to speak on the subject, but spokespersons offered repeated denials that there is prejudice against Latinos or any other minorities.
At CBS, meanwhile, "we're making an aggressive effort to have the involvement of Latinos," said Peter Tortorici, president of the entertainment division. "We've founded a writers program. Ultimately, what they need and what we need is a hit show. Just putting a Latino show on the air is not the answer. But we agree to commit resources to say it can be done."
The door has never been shut, the network representatives say--it's just finding the right combination of concept, performer and producers.
This standoff has been going on for decades--almost since the so-called Golden Age of television, which was marked by the singular phenomenon of "I Love Lucy," which starred and was produced by a Cuban, Desi Arnaz. As far back as the 1960s, Latino activists have been complaining about the quantity and quality of the images of Latinos being served to the television-viewing public.
"These images and this ignorance has been perpetuated for so many years now in the television and motion picture industry," said actor Ricardo Montalban, whose Hollywood credits date to the 1940s. "Remember, these are not organizations dedicated to altruistic endeavors. It is business-driven. Now it's to the point where we're multiplying rapidly. The invisible minority is becoming very visible."
There have been prominent Latinos through the years--Duncan Renaldo in "The Cisco Kid," Montalban in "Fantasy Island," Edward James Olmos in "Miami Vice," Rene Enriquez in "Hill Street Blues," Smits in "L.A. Law"--and yet, as a whole, Latinos have clearly not fared as well as African Americans. Just as the number of Latinos on TV has declined since the 1950s, the number of African Americans in prime-time speaking roles rose during the same period--from 0.5% in 1955 to 17% in 1992, while blacks currently account for 12% of the U.S population, according to the Washington study.
Ruiz of the National Latino Communications Center said there is a significant difference in Hollywood's perception of the various minority groups.
"In the case of African Americans, they are in the consciousness of the nation much more than any other minority group," Ruiz said. "Everything is seen as a black and white world. The NAACP has never taken the media lightly--they regard it very seriously, as does the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"Out of the rebellion in Los Angeles in 1992, and also because of the controversies around 'Miss Saigon' and 'Rising Sun,' the Asian community organized itself. The community as a whole was concerned about how it was being portrayed. There has been a lot of Asian-bashing since World War II.
"On the other hand, the Latino is taken for granted. We're just something that is there. And the community has not prioritized our image. Yes, there have always been grumbling artists, but now it's outside organizations that are coming together. This is the first time in history that injustices and inaccuracies are being addressed."
The hopeful say this latest clash, along with the fallout from Proposition 187, may prove to be a force in bringing together the diverse factions of the Latino community.
"It's just hard to merge into a single political block or a single economic block, because the needs vary from culture to culture," said Robert Beltran, who plays First Officer Chakotay, a Native American, on "Star Trek: Voyager." "We don't have the same needs among Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans. But all of us have to realize that, to the general public, we're all 'spics.' "
Indeed, even the high profile of Latino performers such as Beltran and Smits is not enough to overcome the negative perception of Latinos perpetuated by the media, says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
"What the passing of Proposition 187 told us is that too many people feel the Latino population is weak and is taking from the system," Nogales said. "They see us in the most negative fashion. All of a sudden, we're all illegal immigrants."
And some Latino actors, writers and producers believe that television executives see them that way too.
"These executives have their meals and children taken care of, and their cars valeted by, the people that we're talking about," said Herbert Siguenza, a member of the comedy troupe Culture Clash. "They see us, on a daily basis, as second-class citizens, so they don't have that respect (that would suggest) that these people deserve a show or have financial clout."
Jose Rivera, one of the comparatively few Latino writers who have achieved mainstream TV and theater success, said: "In some unconscious way, the networks and studios accept some supposed racist reaction against Latinos in the population. They feel that the average American doesn't really want Latinos in their living room."
"If you asked a hundred executives, a hundred would deny it," added Rivera, who was the creator, writer and producer of the 1991 NBC series "Eerie, Indiana." "It's an unchallenged assumption, but there's no other explanation why there isn't a Latino character on every show."
But ask others in the industry, and they'll come up with a wide variety of other reasons for the shortage of Latinos.
One is the nature of the business, in which a show is yanked if there is not an instant viewer response. There are those who say that television executives have been scared off by the failure of Latino-themed shows through the years--from ABC's "Viva Valdez" in 1976 to ABC's "a.k.a. Pablo" in 1984 to CBS' "Frannie's Turn" in 1992.
"We work in a climate where succeeding in the short term is everything," said Norman Lear, who co-created "a.k.a. Pablo." ABC eagerly supported his efforts to launch the show but began to lose faith after three weeks of lackluster ratings and dropped the show after five outings.
More recently, the Latino comedy group Culture Clash (Siguenza, Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas) landed a series deal with Fox in 1990. It ran aground due to creative differences, but the group then was given a chance to do a sketch series for KTTV-TV Channel 11 and some other Fox stations last year. The plan was to build a following and then go national on the network, but the series died after 30 episodes.
"It did well in Texas, particularly in San Antonio, where they put it on at 9:30," Siguenza said. Other cities were not so accommodating, however. "Different markets around the country basically said that their viewers could not relate to it," he recalled. "It was 'too Chicano, too West Coast.' "
Most television executives do not understand Latino-based humor, said Paul Rodriguez, who, in addition to "a.k.a. Pablo," has been featured in two other, equally short-lived prime-time series: "Grand Slam" (1990) and "Trial and Error" (1988).
"I've had many heated debates and fights with television people who say, 'That's not funny,' " Rodriguez said. "But I have performed at Fiesta Broadway with almost a million people. They think it's funny. Chicago has over a million Hispanics; they think I'm funny."
Writers and other creators frequently cite the near-total absence of Latinos in influential positions throughout the industry as another reason that Latino projects don't get shepherded to air. According to figures compiled by the Writers Guild, there are only two Latinos of influence at the four major networks--both at CBS.
"We don't have the people in place to get a really organic Latino product on television," said writer Chis Franco, who began his TV career with "a.k.a. Pablo" and spent three years as the comedy segment producer on "El Show de Paul Rodriguez," an L.A.-produced talk show seen nationally on the Spanish-language Univision network (including KMEX-TV Channel 34 here) from 1990 through 1993.
"We have to unite, present our case and come up with well-written scripts," said Franco, who is currently working on the PBS children's show "The Puzzle Place." "Once you become part of the system, people have confidence in you."
One executive who is frequently cited as a breakthrough force is Galan, described by Fox entertainment chief Matoian as a consultant on Latino programming. Her Galan Entertainment is working with Fox to develop English- and Spanish-language programs.
In a separate deal, Galan has a show in development with ABC, but after two years the project has yet to see the light of day.
"I totally think I will get a show on the air," she said. "I can't honestly tell you that the scripts that I've written have been ready."
In fact, she praises ABC for the delay: "It's not like I feel somebody is being racist and not putting on the show. It takes a couple of seasons if you're going to do it right. They've had all the patience in the world about mentoring me. I think that I've learned a lot."
But some other Latinos dispute Galan's clout and cast doubts over her "pot o' gold" philosophy.
"I'm not sure about Nely," said Ruiz. "Up to now, all we hear about her is wonderful hype. But I've never been told about her budget or power. Does she administer a $100-million budget? They never tell you the fine line. She gets a nice office, a beautiful chair and an assistant, but that's just a title. It's not authority. A real decision-maker is when you can green-light projects, and there's probably not one Latino that can green-light. They can just recommend to their superiors."
Galan is not alone in favoring working within the system over pressure tactics applied from the outside, as the newly formed Latino coalition advocates.
"Our group understands and sympathizes, but we cannot support these actions," said Jesus Salvador Trevino, a veteran television director and president of the Latino committee of the Directors Guild of America. Rosemary Alderete, president of the Latino committee of the Writers Guild, agreed, saying she and her group have met with top executives at CBS, NBC and ABC, with extremely positive results.
"We've created several opportunities for our writers in the last 10 months," she said. "We've told the networks, 'We are writers, we do exist, how can we work together so that we can come aboard?' They said they didn't know any Latino writers existed. Now they know we're here and we're not going away."
In addition to the establishment of a Latino writers program at CBS, Alderete said that NBC had made a commitment to develop a one-hour series and a half-hour series directly with the committee.
Nonetheless, many performers contend that even with a threatened boycott and demands from the Latino community, those hoping for quick change shouldn't hold their breath.
"This is a problem we've been dealing with since I came to L.A. 30 years ago, and it hasn't changed," says actress Carmen Zapata, co-founder of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts theater and a co-star of "Viva Valdez." "I was one of the first to go to the studios. They would say, 'Yes, yes,' and a week later they'd forgotten we'd been there.
"We don't have any decision-makers in the industry, and until that happens, nothing's going to change," Zapata added. "Maybe it's because we haven't pushed hard enough."
Yet there are Latino projects in the works at the networks.
Producers David Salzman and Quincy Jones are developing a CBS comedy called "Heart and Soul," which would feature stand-up comic Luke Torres as a young medical resident who spends his off-hours at a Mexican restaurant owned by his grandmother, the dominant force in his life. A comedy starring stand-up comedian Carlos Mencia is on the future slate for Fox. And producer Lear is developing a "dramedy" for NBC with Latina playwright Josephina Lopez based on her play "Real Women Have Curves."
"Everyone is always looking to do a Latino show," said Lisa Loomer, a writer with both Latino ancestry and mainstream credits ("Hearts Afire," "Women of the House") who is pitching a pilot for comedian Marga Gomez.
But what happens after the initial deal is another matter, she said: "Right now there is a tendency toward hiring Latino writers to do pilots and they (the studios and networks) will 'back them up' with a 'show runner'--someone who's been writing sitcoms for a long time," Loomer said. "It is important to be familiar with the form, but the (shows) end up being rewritten by someone who isn't familiar with the culture."
The situation spells creative stalemate.
"The network will not go with (only) inexperienced writers, but none of these 'show runners' have ever done Latino comedy," Siguenza said.
His solution? "We need to start developing more writers. I don't see anyone coming up the ranks."
Galan agreed: "Everyone is focusing on who's not on TV, but the real question is 'How do we train writers?' It's not so much about who (is) on the air. It's about who is mentoring the voices."
While arguments persist over the means, no one in the Latino community disputes the value of the goal.
Marco Sanchez, who plays officer Miguel Ortiz on NBC's "sea-Quest DSV," received an indication of how important the issue was when he rode in the Hollywood Christmas Parade last year.
"The route was just lined with Hispanic families," Sanchez recalled. "I'm almost certain that half, if not three-quarters of them, had never seen 'seaQuest,' but when they saw this Hispanic guy sitting in back of the car, it seemed like they were finally seeing a representation of themselves out there. Little old men were raising their thumbs and saying, 'Sanchez.' Right then, it gave me a clue of how important all of this is to them ."