Hollywood's Latino Culture Gap
Times journalists examine the complicated history of Latinos in Hollywood and the actions being taken to increase their representation, which remains stubbornly low. FULL COVERAGE
Almost every Friday night since the pandemic started, spouses Salvador Limón and Esmeralda Garza prepare dinner at their Norwalk home and settle in for a film or TV series.
If it were up to Salvador, a schoolteacher with an elite college degree, they’d watch something on Netflix. Maybe “Gentefied,” the hyper-contemporary, Sundance-kissed series that reminds him of his experiences growing up in East L.A.
Lately, though, Esmeralda has wanted to watch shows on an upstart Spanish-language streaming service called Pantaya. Launched in 2017, Pantaya (a play on the word for “screen” in Spanish) specializes in middle-of-the-road genre fare; some of its biggest shows are vehicles for Mexican comic actor Eugenio Derbez and members of his family.
It’s the kind of entertainment that Esmeralda is more used to, since she’s still learning English. So they’ve been catching up on “De Viaje con los Derbez” (“On the Road With the Derbez Family”).
The pair were born in the same town of Yahualica, in Jalisco, Mexico, but came to the United States at radically different times in their lives.
He left Yahualica at age 2 with his parents, who settled in East Los Angeles. During one of Salvador’s many back-and-forth trips to Mexico — in that transnational L.A. way — they met at a festival in their pueblo. Just like in the movies.
Esmeralda, now 24, migrated to the United States through the conventional method, marriage. As the bride, Esmeralda’s choice on Friday nights usually wins, Salvador admits. Often that choice is on Pantaya.
Netflix, HBO Max and others are investing in Spanish-language content to target U.S. Latinos and Latin American markets.
“I notice her ability to laugh is a lot different if we were watching something on Netflix subbed, you know, es tu gente” or, It’s your people, Salvador says one cool spring evening in their living room.
“I don’t like some of the corniness that Pantaya has, pero bueno es una película, la ves, your wife is happy,” he says.
Sometimes on Friday film nights, Salvador will sit fuming, spotting elements of the Pantaya storylines that he describes as “problematic.” For him, that means shows that feature largely white Mexican casts, although Mexico’s population is mostly mixed-race mestizo.
“It’s the same little ball of people” on Pantaya, he says.
“You don’t see Yalitza Aparicio on there,” Salvador adds, referring to the Oscar-nominated Indigenous Oaxacan actress who carried the 2018 art-house hit “Roma.”
The couple are a personification of the veritable sweet spot for every major entertainment-producing company in North America today. From Pantaya, with its 900,000 subscribers, to Netflix, with more than 200 million, and competing streaming service and movie studio in between, all in some form want to reach this house: one combining acculturated and non-acculturated U.S. Hispanic media consumers, eager to be told stories to.
Although networks say they want to offer Latino consumers stories that capture and reflect their experiences, producers largely have been unable to figure out a fail-safe way — unless the programming is in Spanish.
At the same time, U.S. Latinos trend relatively younger than other groups and are increasingly English-dominant. By the second or third generation, U.S. Hispanics begin shedding their affiliation with the Latino label altogether, according to research by Pew.
Can’t keep asking
Over a dinner of carne asada, homemade salsa and grilled cactus, Salvador and Esmeralda sit down to discuss their Friday-night viewing habits.
When it’s Salvador’s choice, Esmeralda might struggle to follow along, like when he asked that they watch “Westworld” on HBO. “I don’t understand a lot of words they use,” she says, “and I can’t keep interrupting and asking.”
Salvador asks Esmeralda what she thinks of “Gentefied,” which deals with the issue of gentrification in a Mexican American community in Boyle Heights. Esmeralda does not totally identify with the characters but says the show reflects to her how brutal the U.S. economy can be on regular people in this country.
Hollywood has often limited Latino stories to Boyle Heights and East L.A. Now, two Netflix series are imagining how to broaden pop culture’s horizons.
“In Mexico ... you’re poor. But you always have something to eat,” she says in Spanish about the challenges facing Mexican Americans. “If you are poor here and don’t work, you’re basically homeless. It’s bad.”
On Netflix, Esmeralda has to dig around to find something that suits her. “You have to search for stuff,” she says, “but it’s not the same or that you can identify with.”
As for Pantaya, even Salvador admits he can often find something to his liking there. Lately he’s enjoyed “Bronco: The Series,” a dramatized true-life story about a beloved Mexican regional band fronted by Jose Guadalupe Esparza, known as much for his voice as for his dark skin and Indigenous features. That show is more attuned to his values on representation, though Salvador says more is needed.
In the Limón and Garza residence, little by little, Pantaya is winning.
Alan Sokol, chief executive of parent company Hemisphere, told the Times’ Wide Shot newsletter that the service wants 2.5 to 3 million subscribers by 2025. “But honestly,” Sokol said last month to Times reporter Ryan Faughnder, “we feel that’s a conservative goal and that the opportunity is two to three times that.”
Recently, Esmeralda discovered she’s expecting their first child. The couple is thrilled. Their residence, where the newlyweds nested comfortably during pandemic shutdowns, is a three-bedroom home with a detached garage. Smartly, Salvador bought the property after the downturn of the Great Recession, at 25.
What will their baby grow up watching?
Rehashes such as “Charmed” and “One Day at a Time” put Latinos on TV. But narratives wholly shaped by Latino points of view are much harder to find
Salvador, with his U.S. upbringing, doesn’t want the baby tied to content that reflects conventional gender representations or colorism, which is pervasive in Latin America. He says he’d also like their child to see the Mexican American experience, specifically, more richly depicted on-screen.
Esmeralda, who grew up in a picturesque pueblo in Mexico, says she’d want her baby to watch “the classics like ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Plaza Sesamo’ and ‘Pistas de Blu,’ using the Spanish phrases for “Sesame Street” and “Blue’s Clues.”
In this household during this period of extreme scripted entertainment overload, the couple sometimes marvel at how divergent their tastes can be. But they make it work.
Salvador asks Esmeralda if she feels closer to Mexico when she watches films or stories in Spanish.
“I feel ... the same,” she replies, “because I’m here now.”
“But,” she adds, “I like remembering.”