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Latino Roles Still 'Mired in Stereotypes' : Commentary: Reports on the Center for Media and Public Affairs study focused on the declining number of Latinos on TV, but equally important is the absence of positive portrayals.


The report itself was a stunner--detailing the sorry state of Latinos as portrayed and employed on prime-time TV entertainment series.

Could it really be true: a decline from 3% to only 1% of all prime-time characters between 1955 and the early 1990s? Incredible. Outrageous. But, alas, documented.

The recent report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington research firm, provoked a simple and obvious question:

Couldn't programmers read simple census returns about the growth of the U.S. Latino population?

But there is more. Amid all the facts, figures and condemnations, the report also disclosed a detailed, less-publicized but specific rundown of shows that featured Latino characters throughout the history of TV--and how absurdly the broadcast industry has remained in a retarded state in this program area.

From "The Cisco Kid" and "Zorro" to "Chico and the Man," "Miami Vice" and "L.A. Law," the report paints a vivid picture of what should have been progress in the number of TV Latino actors and characters but hasn't turned out that way.

Yes, Hector Elizondo is in CBS' new medical series, "Chicago Hope." Yes, Rita Moreno is a regular in NBC's new Bill Cosby drama, "The Cosby Mysteries." Yes, Jimmy Smits is replacing David Caruso next month in ABC's "NYPD Blue." And, yes, Liz Torres is a regular on NBC's "The John Larroquette Show."

There are other examples here and there. John Mendoza starred in the NBC sitcom "The Second Half" last season. Series such as Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" and NBC's "Hill Street Blues" have had regular Latino characters. Edward James Olmos was one of several major Latino characters in NBC's "Miami Vice."

Considering the huge amount of Latino bad guys that TV's reality shows seem to focus on, all of these fictional characters--and more--are needed to provide some sort of reasonable balance.

For, as the Washington report says, Latinos on mainstream television still are "mired in the stereotypes of a previous generation. . . . Hispanics serve as window dressing. . . . Unfortunately, Hispanics have never played a significant role in television's debate over race relations."

Latino actor Ricardo Montalban, whose career spans the history of TV, says: "They (TV executives) are trying, but it's not good enough. We're a minority that's becoming a majority, and we're still unseen."

Montalban, who starred in "Fantasy Island" and plays an angel in a new syndicated series, "Heaven Help Us," says TV simply inherited "the image that Hollywood movies had created."

"In the old days, we were the bandits or the indolent peon leaning against a tree, the thieves, maids, prostitutes or, on the other hand, that vapid thing called Latin lovers. And, in between, nothing. It was a terrible image. You never saw the great Latin artists or surgeons or architects."

Several times, the Latino community was roused in anger. One notable case was the notorious Frito-Lay commercial in the late 1960s--the "Frito Bandito." As one report described it, the ad "utilized a gun-toting, serape-clad, unshaven Mexican cartoon character as the company's Hispanic character." The commercial was quickly yanked after protests.

Montalban said he spoke to a top executive of the company and asked him, "Why don't you make him the Frito Amigo, who is so wonderful that he has to share the chips with people?"

Luis Reyes, who later this month is coming out with a new book for research institutions, "Hispanics in Hollywood: A Film and Television Encyclopedia," released by Garland Publishing of New York, has a partial explanation of why the percentage of Latinos on TV was higher in 1955.

He says that in addition to shows with a few high-profile TV Latinos, such as Desi Arnaz and the stars of "The Cisco Kid," there were a large number of Western series in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and that meant more work for Latino actors.

"Usually they were not in leading roles," says Reyes. And, in those days before political correctness, "if the characters weren't clearly Latino, then Hispanics might play Native Americans or half-breeds."

Reyes thinks the image of Latinos also was affected somewhat by "that bearded guy in fatigues in Cuba, Fidel Castro. All of a sudden, he was a threat. In numerous TV shows in those earlier years, another cliche emerged--the American Anglo guy who goes down to some fictional Latin country and saves the day."

For Reyes, "one of the best portrayals of Mexican-Americans came out of the Western 'The High Chaparral,' " an NBC series "where the Mexican family was on equal footing with the Anglo family. It was a crucial series at the time (1967-71)."

Other pop TV figures that Reyes found positive included Elena Verdugo as the nurse in "Marcus Welby, M.D." and, surprisingly, Erik Estrada as a highway patrol officer in "CHiPs."

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