WASHINGTON — The Macarena was more than just a dance to Felix Sanchez. To the head of the new National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, it's proof that the entertainment industry needs to pay more attention to the Latino community.
The dance's popularity--as well as the box-office success of the Mexican film "Like Water for Chocolate"--shows that a cross-section of Americans are interested in Latino-oriented entertainment, which in turn breeds familiarity and positive cultural exchange, Sanchez says.
Enter the foundation, which aims to increase the number and visibility of Latinos in the entertainment industry through lobbying efforts and college scholarships.
The group is the brainchild of "NYPD Blue" star Jimmy Smits, who recently announced its creation at a Washington news conference, where he was joined by fellow actor Esai Morales and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
One of the foundation's first steps has been to join forces with the caucus' Arts Task Force to send a joint request to entertainment executives, asking that they participate in informal hearings that will explore ways to expand opportunities for Latinos in the industry. The hearings are scheduled for mid-September on Capitol Hill.
Sanchez said one topic at the hearings will be a recent study by the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based Latino advocacy group, that found Latinos account for only 1% of television characters and 2.5% of film characters.
The hearings also will focus on the type of roles Latinos get. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), a caucus member, complained that if most Latinos continue to portray "negative stereotypes on TV and in the movies, then society continues to have a perception that we are all gangsters and crooks. . . . If we get more Latinos into positions in the industry then they can demystify these stereotypes."
For now, the foundation is operating on a small budget--$15,000--donated by Texas lawyer Rene Rodriguez. And Sanchez, president of a Washington government and public relations firm, is running it on a volunteer basis.
But several key figures have pledged support, and plans for an annual budget and permanent staff will take shape after a black-tie dinner in September that will also raise money for the foundation's scholarship program.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has agreed to chair the event, which will coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, Sanchez said.
Actors Bill Cosby, Andy Garcia, Charlie Sheen and Martin Sheen and former Clinton aide George Stephanopolous, among others, have volunteered to serve on the foundation's advisory council, he added.