Latino Artists Bear Burden of Anti- Immigrant Frenzy

JLo in Bordertown(Jennifer Lopez in “Bordertown,” which won’t be seen in the United States)

by Guest Contributor Alisa Valdes-Rodiguez, originally published at Multiplicative Indentity

In 2007, Mexican-born author Reyna Grande’s first novel, “Across a Hundred Mountains,” is released to critical acclaim, and wins the American Book Award – yet Grande’s San Diego bookstore appearance is canceled after anti-immigrant patrons call the manager to protest their support of a novel by and about “illegals”.

In 2004, the South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, Calif., kills its Hispanic Playwright’s Project, in part to appease donors who fear “illegals” benefiting from their money.

In 2007, Touchstone Pictures pulls the plug on “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” a feature film starring Eva Longoria, about a fully assimilated Mexican American woman, saying there is nothing particularly “Latina” about an educated, professional shopaholic from Texas; meaning, the character is “too American” for audiences to believe as “Latina”. (Meanwhile, Texas is no longer a majority-white state, and most Latinos there speak English…)

In 2005, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles dismantles all four of its minority playwright development programs.

In 2008, People magazine puts Latina singer Christina Aguilera on the cover and sees the average number of copies sold drop by more than 100,000.

The Latin Grammys, created in 2000 with a mainstream English-language CBS audience in mind, have since been downgraded to Univision only, in part due to protests from anti-Latino viewers.

In 2007, ABC decides to pull the plug on The George Lopez Show, even though the show had better ratings than at least two other series that were renewed; he is replaced by a short-lived sitcom about cavemen.

Also in 2007, Jennifer Lopez wraps filming on the Gregory Nava movie “Bordertown,” about serial killings of Mexican women along the US-Mexico border, only to find that it will not be released in the United States after all; hostile anti-Mexican reaction in screenings relegate the film to release in Europe only. Variety magazine savages the film’s anti-NAFTA stance. The film goes on to win several awards at the Berlin film festival, including one from Amnesty International.

I, meanwhile, have seen my publisher decide to stop printing my books simultaneously in Spanish for the domestic market, citing a waning interest from booksellers for such material. Latina authors in my circle of friends all say times have gotten harder and harder for them over the past two or three years, with several telling me they, like I, have been on the receiving end of more and more hate-mail through their web sites and blogs. Personally, I have seen the advances paid on my books decline by 80 percent, and the size of my book tours slashed from 14 cities to 4.

Taken separately, these anecdotes might appear to be nothing more than bad luck, or flukes, a the natural ebb and flow of a career in the fickle entertainment industry. But taken together, and held up against a shifting corporate media climate that increasingly scapegoats and targets immigrants and Latinos (a trend both the ACLU and FBI blame for drastic rise in hate-crimes against Latinos), they paint a frightening picture of an increasingly hostile America for all Latinos – creative artists included.

There are more than 30 million Latinos in the United States – that is more than the entire population of Canada. We make up the fastest-growing segment of the nation, and make up the largest slice of the demographic pie in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston. We are consummate consumers, spending more than we save, and we are the first in line on opening night at the movies. We watch more TV, and buy more beauty products. In other words, in a capitalist society, it makes no sense to overlook us and our $686 billion spending power – which is growing at twice the rate of non-Latino spending power. Our economic muscle in the United States is expect to reach $1.2 trillion by 2011.

And yet we are being ignored – and maligned. And if we are artists, it seems, punished.

While Latinos make up close to half the population in Los Angeles and New York, UCLA’s Center for Chicano Studies has found that prime-time portrayals of these cities on TV do not come close to reflecting reality. The vast majority of programs on TV have no Latino characters at all, said the study, and the numbers are declining. We are the single most underrepresented group on American television. The only prime-time program featuring a cast of Latinos is currently “Cane,” which is mafioso and violent, and as of last week CBS had made no move to renew the show for next season – meaning it is all but canceled.

Mary Beltran, of the Univ. of Wisconsin, took a similar look at Latino roles in movies. Her conclusion? That Hollywood still portrays “Latinas as exotic, sexually hot, passionate ‘spitfires,’ for example, or language-mangling comic relief.” While Latinos “seldom play fully realized characters. Although there may be more jobs available, they are basically the same roles that Latinos have assumed for the last 80 years.”

So it was that, after toiling for years to learn the screenwriting craft, I finally sold the DIRTY GIRLS SOCIAL CLUB movie script, and got two amazing producers signed on, with high hopes. Our numbers are there. The need for this sort of material is there. The book is a mega-bestseller. Latina actors are hungry for real, meaty roles. Studios would jump at the opportunity, right?

Well, not quite. It turns out that to get financing, we have to have at least one famous actress signed on. When it comes to A-list Latina actresses, you’ve really got few enough to count them on one hand. We approached them all. And they all said no. We were, in a word, shocked.

Several of them (and several, when you are counting a handful, is telling) said with great apology that they had been advised by their handlers and management NOT TO PLAY LATINAS in movies that were ETHNIC, because that was seen as being too political a statement at the moment. In other words, they could play the exotic Latina love interest of an action hero in a “white” movie, but they could not play self-actualized Latinas with depth in a Latina movie. These actresses, many of whom have complained in interviews about the lack of exciting roles for Latinas, in private meetings said they were unwilling to play Latinas in a Latino project lest they be seen by the powers that be as “going the JLo route.”

Now, I know I am not supposed to talk about this. I am supposed to keep it quiet. I am expecting calls from my producers telling me to can it. They don’t want me to do anything to make the movie seem risky. Right? Me. Like the problem here is ME making it look risky. Yeah.

But here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: Hollywood, America, the mainstream media, they have already decided the DIRTY GIRLS project is too risky – just like “Bordertown,” just like “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. This one, and every other one like it. Look at what is happening across the country, to all of us who are Latino and creative. We are, in a word, screwed, because America has been on a hatefest against immigrants, and the media confuses the words “immigrant” and “Latino,” and the resulting effect is that over the past few years, Americans have been trained to see all of us as a huge threat to their well-being, at the very same time the economy has tanked. We are the face they blame.

So I’m not worried about screwing the movie over by telling the truth. The truth will set you free. This movie won’t get made anyway. Not in Hollywood. Not this way. If you can’t get an A-lister, you can’t get financing. If you can’t get financing, you can’t get a movie made. If you can’t get a movie made, you can’t control the images. If you can’t control the images, the climate is in the hands of others, like Michael Savage, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck and those who canceled Lopez’s show. The climate, in the hands of others, has led us here. And so, here we are. In a resounding, terrifying silence.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know the question: What the hell do we do now?