¡Ya Basta!: We need more Latines in media

Gloria Fuentes (Gina Rodriguez) gets entangled in Lino Esparza’s (Ismael Cruz Cordova) gang in the controversial movie “Miss Bala” (2019). Screenshot courtesy of @missbalamovie on Instagram.

“Basta,” my favorite word in Spanish, perfectly encapsulates a very frustrated and fiery “enough.” It is a word best used when “enough” just isn’t enough to translate how badly you’ve reached your wits’ end. As a Latine woman, that’s exactly how I feel about the continued lack of appropriate Latine representation in mainstream film and television. 

Ethnic representation has received more attention in recent years than ever before. Our 118th congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever, spring 2022 had the most diverse models in fashion history, and as of 2021, people of color held 47% of entry-level positions within the federal labor workforce. We’re seeing real action taking place to correct the ways in which underrepresented groups have previously been denied opportunities to hold space.  

This has been seen within the media sphere of film and television. According to UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity report, people of color accounted for one third of lead roles in 2022’s top streaming films. Although more representation is happening across the media industry, there’s still a lack of it for Latine people. Despite the Latines accounting for 19% of the U.S. population, making us the largest ethnic minority in the country, representation in the media industry workforce increased by only 1% in the last decade, from 11% to 12%, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Media portrayals need to keep up with the momentum at which we’re moving. The lack of growth within our sector of the media has left little opportunity to create new content that accurately reflects what it means to be Latine. 

There is a huge disconnect present between what is perceived as Latine heritage, and what it actually stands for. This is most apparent in the films and shows that resurface with every Hispanic Heritage Month. Every year, streaming services suggest a collection of Latine-centered content, but these titles still center outdated narratives and character representations that continue to reinforce harmful stereotypes and misconceptions. “Miss Bala” follows Gina Rodiguez’s character Gloria Fuentes being thrown into a drug ring after spending just one night in Tijuana. To add insult to injury, she falls in love with the main drug lord, who continuously puts her life in danger. The cult classic “Scarface” shows Al Pacino, who is not Latine, playing a Cuban immigrant who meets his demise after taking over a drug cartel in 1980’s Miami. Even if a film or show has Latine characters, they are often portrayed in drug-affiliated drama, as female characters who play into the “spicy Latina” trope, or as Latine youth struggling with gang-related violence. Netflix’s “On My Block” shows a group of East LA teenagers grappling with gang violence on top of the socio-economic struggles they face in their predominantly Latine community. 

Oscar Diaz (Julio Macias) confronts Ruby Martinez (Jason Genao) in season 2, episode 2 of On My Block. Screenshot courtesy of @onmyblocknetflix on Instagram.

In the cases where a Latine success story is appropriately highlighted, it’s often a story that’s been recycled so much that it becomes oversaturated with how often it is used as an example for positive representation — news flash: there are more Mexican artists than Frida Kahlo. Latine heritage continues into the present, so why are we sticking to the same old stories? 

This is due in part to the fact that Hispanics and Latines account for only 4% of media management positions and 12% of the overall media workforce, as found in a 2021 study by the the Government Accountability Office. The small number of Latine media contributors is even more concerning when compared to the high amount of consumers Latines account for. The Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing found that two-thirds of Hispanic households watch TV and movies online, with 70% of those households subscribed to Netflix and other popular streaming services. This gap is where Latines are becoming invisible. Representation matters, not only because it affects how other people see us, but how we see ourselves too. We need stories that reflect how we’re succeeding despite the struggles that are played out in the films and shows that are supposed to represent us. 

According to a 2022 report from the Latino Donor Collaborative, which highlights the ways in which Latines are thriving, the U.S. Latine gross domestic product was $2.8 trillion in 2020. If Latines were a standalone economy, it would be the 5th largest in the world. Latine high school graduation rates increased from 69% to 90% over a 10 year span, and there has been a 37% increase in how many graduates enroll in post-secondary institutions. There is so much success within the Latine community to celebrate, and there will continue to be. 

It’s time to swap stereotypical narratives for Latine success stories. With this year’s Hollywood strike putting the industry’s future in question, we need to make sure that Latine writers and actors are part of whatever solution will bring about the fairness and equity we’ve been waiting for. 

As a growing generation of media consumers and contributors, we hold a special power that decides what types of stories we want told in the future. We should all be calling “basta” on what’s going on in the media so that we can create space for positive narratives that inspire and promote visibility for Latines. 

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