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Latino Roles Grow Behind Scenes In Hollywood
by LORENZA MUNOZ and GREG BRAXTON
January 23, 2001
The presence of Latinos in Hollywood, according to some show-business analysts and activists, is minuscule -- nearly nonexistent. There are few Latin stars on television or film. The number of current Latin-themed TV shows or films is so low that you can count them on one hand. The common notion is that Latinos are a virtually invisible part of the movie and television industry.
But that belief belies people such as Emanuel Nuñez. His clipped, Cuban-accented Spanish floats out of a polished, modern office at Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills. It is the rapid-fire, bottom-line-oriented discussion customary of big-time Hollywood agents.
`` . . . Sí, sí, ella es Latina. Bueno, bueno, después hablamos.''
When he is talking to his clients Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Neve Campbell, Nuñez speaks flawless English; for Gloria Estefan or Antonio Banderas, he slips smoothly into perfect Spanish. After 20 years in the business, it's clear he has arrived in Hollywood.
Nuñez is part of an established and growing community working behind the scenes in Hollywood. Call them the stealth Latinos -- a little-noticed but consequential part of the fabric of the entertainment business.
Like Nuñez, these professionals are proud of their heritage and most speak Spanish. But they are also pragmatic. While they agree that the industry is embarrassingly behind the times in terms of casting Latinos, blacks and Asians, they have chosen to work in the mainstream and not make their ethnicity an issue. They firmly believe that the fundamental things still apply -- hard work, talent, perseverance and luck.
Most have not yet moved into prime positions of power. Most have not been in the business long enough to advance to the top echelons where decisions on programming and hiring are made. Others have been too busy trying to survive in a brutal industry -- in which Latinos make up only about 2 percent of the producers, directors and writers guilds -- to worry about advancing an ethnic agenda.
``There is, in fact, a critical mass of Latinos forming in the industry,'' said producer Moctesuma Esparza, 51, who has been one of the pioneers. ``The numbers are just coming to a point where people are just beginning to feel like there is a community. We have the beginnings of a real producing community -- and that didn't exist five years ago at all . . . There are a lot of people who have been working for years and are just now breaking through.''
Most of the Latinos who have succeeded were the first in their families to break into Hollywood. Most, such as producer David Valdes, are college-educated but came to the industry without any contacts.
``It's important to instill in (Latino youth) that I didn't have a father or uncle or granddad in the business,'' said Valdes, who spent much of his career alongside Clint Eastwood before forming his production company, Summer Magic, in the early 1990s. Last year he co-produced the Oscar-nominated film The Green Mile. Valdes, who is Mexican American, began his career in the 1970s on TV shows such as Columbo and now has the clout to make decisions on major studio productions.
But most Latinos in the business lack that kind of power. That leaves baby steps, taken one at a time, in whatever way they can, to effect change.
For example, early on in Antonio Banderas' career, Nuñez and his fellow team of agents at CAA wanted to break the actor out of the Latin lover-boy category. Nuñez wanted to push him for the part of Tom Hanks' partner in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. It was a risky move for Banderas to play a gay character so early in his Hollywood career and a challenge to convince Demme.
``They wanted someone Anglo,'' Nuñez recalled. ``We convinced Demme and the studio and ran it past Tom Hanks that the role would be served well by a great actor and enriched by adding ethnicity to the story. It's more reflective of the world.''
Puerto Rican-born Donna Ekholdt, vice president of talent development and casting at Big Ticket Television (her mother's maiden name is Nieves), who oversees casting for shows such as Moesha and The Parkers, makes her impact similarly.
``There are lots of times when a role is written into a script that doesn't mention ethnicity. They may lean toward casting a Caucasian, but I can suggest going another way,'' she said.
Writer Cynthia Cidre, a Cuban American, often reminds her non-Latin counterparts that Latinos are not a race, but a group of nationalities as racially diverse as America itself.
``At meetings they always say, `the Hispanic and the white guy.' And I try to say, in a good way, that Hispanic means that we speak Spanish, it does not mean we are a race,'' said Cidre, who was plucked out of graduate school at the University of Miami by Columbia Pictures after winning the studio's national screenwriting contest. ``There are Hispanics who are white, who are Chinese, who are black. We represent all cultures and all mixing of cultures. And they get it for the moment.''
Indeed, once those issues are explained, studios seem a little more open to understanding what being Latin means. Producer Julio Caro said he didn't face any obstacles from New Line Cinema when he proposed Jennifer Lopez for the starring role in The Cell.
Lopez had just finished Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, and so the studio was confident of her talent. Although Caro saw her Puerto Rican heritage as an asset, the studio preferred to ignore it. But when her pop album was released, the studio saw her enormous popularity among Latins as well as non-Latins. Suddenly, Caro says, Lopez's ancestry became a marketing tool -- the film has gone on to bring in $100 million worldwide.
Poncho Mansfield is senior vice president of programming at Showtime cable network. His mother is Cuban, giving him his dark, thick hair, and Cuban-accented Spanish. His Anglo surname comes from his father.
Mansfield oversees programming at Showtime, including the cable network's new Latino-themed series, Resurrection Blvd. He believes that as the Latino population continues to grow, the situation in Hollywood will improve.
``No doubt there is not a fair representation of diversity in television,'' he said. ``There are all sorts of reasons. Producers and executives just hire the people they know. But I think it is changing.''