Why Can’t Hector Be the Hero?

Arts and Media June 2023 PREMIUM
Although the Latino population has grown from 9% in 1990 to 19% in 2020, their representation in film, TV and media has not followed the same progression.

Written by Dr. Shantal Marshall

John Leguizamo is heated. But really, he’s been heated. As a recent guest host of The Daily Show, he took full advantage of the opportunity to bring Latinx issues to the forefront, as he often does. On his first night, he joyously proclaimed he was happy to be hosting during Hispanic Heritage Month, only to turn on the applauding audience because it was not, in fact, Hispanic Heritage Month (that starts September 15). And that was just the beginning.

Cholos, Not Heroes

Leguizamo took his time in front of a national audience to discuss what’s been on his mind for quite a while: the underrepresentation of Latinos in movies and television. As the segment showed, a 2020 study found that only 5% of speaking roles in 2019’s top 100 films were by Latinx actors. This is nothing new. Analysis of primetime shows in 1996 found that just 3% of main and minor characters were Latinx. That number crept up to 5% in 2006.

These percentages from film and television reflect the same problem: Latinos are not in mainstream media very often, especially in lead roles. And those percentages wouldn’t mean much if it wasn’t for the disproportionality of it all. According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos made up 9% of the U.S. population in 1990, 13% in 2000, 16% in 2010, and 19% in 2020. When comparing on-screen presence to population size, we are severely underrepresented in television and movies and less represented than most other racial groups.

And you can guess what kinds of roles make up those tiny percentages. The 2006 study showed that of the few Latinx roles in primetime television, 18% were “immoral” characters - gang members, prostitutes, etc. Only 2% of White and 9% of Black roles were categorized as “immoral.” Gina Rodriguez, who won a Golden Globe in 2015 for her lead role in Jane the Virgin, pleaded with the audience during her acceptance speech that she “represent[s] a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” In the current media landscape, those Latinx heroes are few and far between.

What is an Actor to Do?

Some producers claim that this disproportionate representation is because Latinx audiences would rather watch what White audiences watch. Film and television writers, who are mostly White, claim they just write what and who they know. But it’s not all due to innocent audience analysis or unintended biases. Latinx actors, including John Leguizamo in that Daily Show segment, have talked about the absurdity of auditioning for Latinx roles. They are told to have an accent even if the part doesn’t require one, or to act in stereotypical ways. They are told they aren’t Latino enough or they are too Latino, as if we don’t have a vast array of diversity within our group. (Arturo Castro flipped the script in a skit for Mic and gave unsuspecting White actors feedback to act more or less…White.)

Latinx actors are caught in a bind - should they play stereotypical characters to increase numerical representation or wait for better roles to create more authentic representation? Sometimes, it’s easiest to simply pass for White if it’s possible, as many actors are advised to do, and leave the struggle for the next person.

Cue the Musical Interlude

Anyone with a Spotify account knows there is growing representation in another media realm - pop music. The “Latin Explosion” has coincided with the meek growth of Latinx film and television representation over the last 25 years. Since the 1999 release of Ricky Martin's “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” Latinos have maintained a certain presence in our music collections. Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio (aka Bad Bunny), the Puerto Rican reggaeton megastar, even made it to the top ten list of entertainment earners in the world in 2022 with the $88M he earned mostly from two massive global tours.

But that worldwide popularity doesn’t necessarily come with full inclusion. Although the Grammys are likely prepared for many months, not one person seemingly thought to prepare for Bad Bunny’s 2023 performance and acceptance speech with appropriate closed captioning. Instead, the captions simply read “[SINGING/SPEAKING IN NON-ENGLISH.]” They couldn’t even tell the audience that it was Spanish, as Bad Bunny pointed out in a recent interview, much less have the lyrics play across the screen en español. Many viewers took to social media to share their irritation, with some claiming that it was evidence of racism.

It’s easy to see that an error like that reminds Spanish-speaking and/or Latinx audiences of our “otherness” as the “perpetual foreigners” that are never truly American. Puerto Rico is an American territory after all, and Bad Bunny is a full-fledged American citizen. Not to mention, there is no official language in the United States.

Pedro Pascal Can’t Save Us All

As a Latina professor who teaches about pop culture in the U.S., it’s with a heavy heart that I relay the statistics and examples that demonstrate how underrepresented Latinos like me and many of my students are in film and television, because anyone who studies media will tell you that representation matters. How, and how often, we see people with our identities on screen has profound impacts on our own sense of self - both who we are now and who we believe can be.

And that’s not to say that strides aren’t being made. I see Pedro Pascal, Ana de Armas, and America Ferrera. I see Los Espookys, Gentefied, and Encanto. And more. But for the fact that we are the largest racial group after non-Hispanic Whites, it is simply not enough.

Whenever we can, we should support Latinx media and vote with our remote controls and movie tickets. We should recommend these shows and movies to our non-Latinx friends. And we should bring up this issue with anyone who will listen (or retweet), no matter how big or small the audience.

Whenever John Leguizamo is heated, we should be behind him with pitchforks, and popcorn.


Alpert, J. & O'Neill, M. (Directors). (2015) The Latin Explosion: A New America [Film]. Warner Bros. Discovery

Forbes. (2023, February 13). The World’s 10 Highest-Paid Entertainers.

Mastro, D. E., & Greenberg, B. S. (2000). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44(4), 690-703.

Mic. (2015, November 17). Here’s what happens when you ask white actors to act whiter. [Video]. Youtube.

Monk-Turner, E., Heiserman, M., Johnson, C., Cotton, V., & Jackson, M. (2010). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television: A replication of the Mastro and Greenberg study a decade later. Studies in Popular Culture, 32(2), 101-114

Paper Magazine (2023, March 29). Bad Bunny Addresses Grammys Captioning Controversy.

Pew Research Center. (2022, February 3). Hispanic Population Growth and Dispersion Across U.S. Counties, 1980-2020.

The Daily Show. (2023, March 28). John Leguizamo Takes You to an Audition as a Latino Actor. [Video]. Youtube.

About the Author

Dr. Shantal Marshall is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Nevada State College (NS), a Hispanic Serving Institution outside Las Vegas. She is a first-generation college graduate from UCLA and Stanford University. She teaches about media and social inequalities.



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