Oscar 2005: Disregarding Latino Artists

This is part three of a series of articles about ethnic minorities and the Oscars. The first two dealt with black actors and black actresses.

The position of Latino actors is much worse than that of black performers. No Latino or Latina performer will be in the run for the four acting Oscars categories this year.

What could be more condemning of the stereotyping and underrepresentation of Latino than the sad evidence that in the Oscar annals, only two Latino performers have won the Oscar, both in the Supporting categories: Rita Moreno for West Side Story in 1961, and Benecio Del Toro for Traffic in 2000.

Moreno, the first Latina to win the Oscar, became completely identified with her feisty Puerto Rican heroine in West Side Story. Post-Oscar, all the offers she received were in tune with her stereotypical image as a “Latin spitfire.” Moreno decided not to “get stuck” with this kind of role for the rest of her career and returned to the New York theater. After a decade of stage work, Moreno was ready to begin a second chapter in Hollywood with a more “neutral” screen image.

Del Toro, in a mostly Spanish-language role in Traffic, became the second Latino to win an acting Oscar and the fourth actor to win for a mostly foreign-lingo performance.

The first and only Latino to be nominated for the Best Actor is Edward James Olmos, in 1988, for the biopicture, Stand and Deliver, in which he portrayed Jaime Escalante, the tough, inspirational high school math teacher in the Lost Angeles barrio. (Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor of Madrid, was nominated in 2000 for Before Night Falls.

Among the few Latinos nominees in the Supporting leagues are: Andy Garcia, for The Godfather, Part III in 1990, and Rosie Perez, as an air crash survivor in Fearless in 1993.

Frustrations have been mounting for Latino actors in Hollywood, many of whom feel disenfranchised by the industry and their own unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Although there are over 23 million Latinos in the U.S., roughly 7 percent of the nation's population, during the 1990s, Latinos accounted for only one percent of all characters in prime time television programs. The percentage has actually declined from that of the 1980s, according to the Washington based Center for Media and Public Affairs. For movies, SAG reports that Latino performers in feature films was only four percent. Latino performers felt that the unions weren't doing enough to improve the situation. Among their top complaints are:

Minority casting on theatrical productions is too low, and SAG is not sufficiently releasing data about, or enforcing, the nondiscrimination clause in its contracts.
English language commercials pay more than Spanish language commercials
Latino actors are being turned away when they try to audition for English language commercials.

Theatrical hiring for Latino actors remains lethargic, according to Victor Contreras, an AFTRA board member. “The vast majority of the roles that Hispanics are cast in are either as victims- poor and downtrodden and helpless—or they're the perpetrators, the criminals. Of those that are not, if it's a good Hispanic role, it has a fairly good chance of being cast white.” A prime example was “The House of Spirits,” in which, with the exception of Antonio Banderas, most of the leads were Caucasians, among them, Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, and Glenn Close.

Javier Garcia Berumen's book, The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film, documents the narrow ways Hispanics are typically depicted in American movies as simpletons, ne'er-do-wells, drug dealers, bandits, and murderers. Latinos are invariably portrayed as lazy, unintelligent, oversexed, criminal and foreign. A growing number of Latino Film Festivals have sprung up in recent years to celebrate the Latino experience in all its variety, showing works that tell Latino stories never before published or seen on the big-screen.