The emerging Latino majority in Southern California, with its rich musical heritage, historical dramas and vibrant images, has been, until recently, relegated to the fringes of the entertainment world. To a large extent, this has more to do with the incestuous nature of the entertainment business than with racism. Top entertainment executives not only live in a virtually all-white world, they also come from places in the country whose enduring ethnic archetypes are Jewish, Italian or African American.
Yet, Latinos are slowly beginning to breach Hollywood's walls of inattention. Although still rare, several high-profile Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute of Public Policy and at the Pacific Research Institute. He is also business-trends analyst for Fox TV.
Latin-themed or directed movies will probably leave an unprecedented imprint on audiences this year, including a biography of the late Tejano singer Selena, the new movie "Lorca" and a remake of the "Zorro" TV series.
Even television, usually slower at incorporating social trends in its programming, is weighing in with at least two Latino-oriented dramas, two sitcoms and an English-language novela currently in development. Also in development is a TV movie on the life of baseball great Roberto Clemente. And Hollywood's Klasky-Csupo, creator of the popular "Rugrats," has added the Latin-themed Santo Bugito cartoon series.
Hollywood might also consider tapping the resources of Los Angeles' thriving Spanish-language media. In the richest radio market in the nation, Latino programming and personalities dominate the top-rated local FM-radio stations, with No. 1-ranked KLVE's morning show clobbering Howard Stern during drive-time. In the last ratings period, KMEX was first among adults age 18-34, and second among the 18-49 group.
Significantly, some Spanish-language outlets are shifting their production from Cuban-dominated Miami, the traditional center of U.S. Latino mass culture, to greater Los Angeles. During the past year, for example, the new ownership of the Telemundo Spanish-language network has produced variety and talk shows at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. Other programs in development, like sitcoms, aim at markets throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
"The Hispanic market has to be producing programming for its audience in the same place as it's being produced for the rest of the world--and Hollywood is that place," says Harry Abraham-Castillo, executive vice president for production at Telemundo. "It's easy to produce here because there are a lot of support industries, but . . . there is also the pride and the prestige of programming produced in the Hollywood area because it has the Hollywood stamp."
Since Hollywood is helping to develop Latino entertainment, it stands to benefit mightily from the growth of a Latino media presence here. For one thing, many of the industry's freshest faces are from Latino communities across the country and from Central or South America. These include actors Robert Beltran, Jimmy Smits and Hector Elizondo, writer Rene Echeverria and directors Gregory Nava, Robert Rodriguez, Luis Mandoki and Alfonso Arau.
At the same time, Latino music, from the Tejano ballads of Emilio Navaira and the late Selena to Banda and salsa, is gaining increasing air time on mainstream radio. Sales of Tejano music, a Texas-based blend of Latin pop, polka music and country sung in either Spanish or English, have quadrupled, to more than $120 million annually, in the past four years.
In many ways, should Hollywood ride the Latin wave, it would continue its longstanding habit of feeding off the creative energies of America's ethnic communities. For example, the original moguls drew heavily on their predominately East European Jewish culture with its roots in Purim plays and the Yiddish theater.
Perhaps more than anything, what immigrants and outsiders brought to Hollywood were new possibilities for mass culture. In seeking to attract a mass audience, notes historian Irving Howe, the mostly immigrant moguls exuded a sense of optimism and a sense of possibility that have long been at the core of American culture.
But in the conformist-minded 1950s, this robust sense of American culture began to shrink. The new bosses at the studios were hard-headed, mainstream-oriented corporate executives who wanted to "blend in." Minorities such as Asians, African Americans and Latinos were mostly hired to play stereotypes.
Latinas, remembers actress Carmen Zapata, could choose between a maid, a prostitute or the mother of a troubled boy. It wasn't much better for males. Actor Ricardo Montalban recalls three kinds of roles being offered--"the indolent peon," "the Latin lover" and, most often, the Mexican bandit.