Opinion: How the invisibility of Latinx people in media is enabling Trump’s bigotry
It was a time of economic struggle and xenophobia. Sitting in the White House was a businessman who had never before held public office. His slogan and rallying cry was unsubtle and racially coded: “American jobs for real Americans.”
His name was not Donald Trump, but Herbert Hoover. And, like Trump, he followed up on his threats. During the Great Depression, the Hoover administration, in order to create jobs for “real” Americans, started a policy in 1929 that illegally and unconstitutionally deported 1.8 million Latino men, women and children, 60% of whom were U.S. citizens. The vast majority were given no due process. One of them was my grandfather, Incarnación Nava.
Incarnación was a refugee who fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and journeyed to el norte — the United States. He was granted asylum and became a legal resident the same year. He worked in a smelting factory, lived here for more than 20 years, got married and started a large family, which was forever shattered by his unjust deportation in 1931.
My grandmother, Raquel, was forced to raise seven children alone; my father, Rudolph, was raised without a father; and my young Aunt Irene died needlessly from tuberculosis because her family, struggling without a breadwinner, could not pay for medical care. My grandfather died brokenhearted and alone in Mexico, separated from the family he loved.
The mass deportations that swept up my grandfather and nearly 2 million more like him are a disgraceful but largely forgotten chapter of American history.
Now this nightmare is happening all over again. How can that be? How can President Trump get away with and even gain pubic approval by scapegoating the Latinx community 90 years after President Hoover did?
To me, a filmmaker who has dedicated his life to making movies and television series that create an understanding and empathy of the Latinx American experience, the answer is simple: Latinos and Latinas have been rendered virtually invisible in popular culture. That invisibility is enabling history to repeat itself.
A recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative spells it out clearly and dismally: Latinos and Latinas are 20% of the U.S. population, but only 4.5% of the nearly 50,000 speaking or named characters parts in major movies over the last 12 years. And only 3% of those roles were lead or co-lead actors.
Even worse, when we are portrayed, too often we’re presented as criminals and “narcos.” The study’s conclusion is obvious: “At a time where Latinos in our country are facing intense concerns over their safety, we urgently need to see the Latino community authentically and accurately represented throughout entertainment.”
This erasure pains me deeply because I have seen the impact that storytelling can have on public opinion and enlightened public policy. I made my films “El Norte” (about siblings who, like my grandfather, flee war and violence in their homeland and make an arduous journey to the U.S. seeking sanctuary) and “Mi Familia” (which dramatizes the devastating consequences of the deportations of the 1930s) because I never wanted what happened to my grandfather and my family to happen again. I believed that by making these tragic situations real to all Americans, and giving voice to such stories, I could help end the demonization of Latinos and immigrants.
And these films did have an impact. “El Norte,” released in 1984, especially helped change the narrative of how immigrants were perceived. Both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan mentioned the film in their presidential campaign debates, and it played a key role in the United States granting temporary protected status to Central American refugees. Likewise, the film was cited as an impetus for the passage of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which resulted in millions of immigrants being granted citizenship.
But that was decades ago. Trump wants to rescind Central Americans’ hard-won protected status. He brands us as “criminals,” “rapists” and an “infestation,” while abuses against Latinos and Latinas regularly go dismissed and our triumphs and contributions are overlooked.
As I watch the news, I see my grandfather’s saga being played out over and over again; mass deportation raids, separated families, caged children, a wall built on fear. And, of course, the white supremacist-motivated massacre in El Paso.
The issue is bigger than the entertainment industry. The erasure of the Latinx American experience extends across all fields. We lack presence in journalism, in literature, in school curricula, on the news, in the arts and museums, and in politics. Latinos and Latinas must break down those doors.
Representation isn’t about quotas or statistics, it’s about touching hearts and opening minds. The Latinx community has to show our hearts to our nation and the world, so that what happened to my grandfather, what’s happening on the southern border and what happened in El Paso can never happen again.
Gregory Nava is the Academy Award-nominated writer and director of “El Norte,” “Mi Familia” and “Selena,” as well as the executive producer of the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated television series “American Family.”
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