Editor’s Note: Felix Sanchez is the chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
"Despacito (Remix)" is the first Spanish-language song to top Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart since 1996's "Macarena"
Felix Sanchez: For the Latino community, breaking down barriers in music and television is increasingly important during a Trump presidency
While President Donald Trump was focusing on building a wall along our southern border, a sound barrier across the Western Hemisphere was being shattered by the Latin beat wafting across the airwaves.
Reigning on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart at No. 1 is the Spanish-language song “Despacito (Remix),” featuring Justin Bieber and Puerto Rican- American singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. Not since “Macarena” dominated the coveted slot in 1996 has a Spanish language song soared and reached such crossover acceptance. “Despacito” was already a Spanish-language hit, but it was the remix with Bieber that hurled the song smack into the mainstream.
At a time when many US Latinos are feeling marginalized and under attack from political rhetoric on the right and ineffective representation on the left, Spanish pop songs that galvanize an American audience are a recognition that Latinos are part of the American landscape. In addition, a wellspring of Latino TV roles has begun to counter inflammatory images with contemporary Latino profiles.
After four seasons, Hulu’s “East Los High” is ending its run. The teen drama, set in a predominantly Latino high school, became a hit in Atlanta with African-American millennials before it became must-watch TV in Los Angeles. Youth, regardless of race and ethnicity, responded to the series because of its authentic characters and relatable narratives.
When Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya created the show, they gave actors Danielle Vega and Vanessa Vasquez a platform from which to both receive a 2015 Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Performer in a New Approaches Drama Series, while breakout performances led Gabriel Chavarria to key roles in “Lowriders” and “War of the Planet of the Apes.”
Another actor from “East Los High,” J.D. Pardo, was cast in the principal role in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” spinoff “Mayans MC.” The writers’ room for “East Los High” included predominantly Latino and female writers, such as Evelina Fernandez, Charo Toledo, Luisa Leschin and Nancy De Los Santos.
Just as Showtime’s “Resurrection Blvd.” did 17 years earlier, a multiyear, Latino-themed show and cast yields experienced creators, writers, actors, producers and skilled tradecraft professionals.
Shows like ABC’s “Cristela” and CW’s “Jane the Virgin” laid the foundation for a predominantly Latina cast to reboot Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time” on Netflix. America Ferrera’s no-nonsense comedic role in NBC’s “Superstore” expanded the comedic range for Latinas by providing the yang to Sofia Vergara’s over-the-top ying in ABC’s “Modern Family.”
Latino acting leads have grown substantively in the area of scripted dramas. Wilmer Valderrama’s standout performance as the self-assured and cocky Nick Torres on the 14th season of CBS’s “NCIS” — the second-longest-running US prime-time television scripted series – reflects the cumulative advancement that Latinx actors have made on many top-billed television shows across networks, cable and streaming services.
Last week, actress Elena Verdugo passed away at age 92 Many remember Verdugo for her role, from 1969 to 1976, as Consuelo Lopez on ABC’s “Marcus Welby, M.D.” It’s hard to believe that, at the time, Elena’s supporting role was the most visible and recognizable Latina character ever on seen American TV.
It would take 28 more years before another actress, Eva Longoria, would have that distinction, as Gabrielle Solis on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” – although actresses Sonia Manzano, Rita Moreno, Lynda Carter, Constance Marie and Jessica Alba also had prominent TV roles during that time.
Although the struggle to include more Latinx characters and story lines to television content has long been documented, the solution has always been to create programming that affords emerging talent an opportunity to build their craft, either behind or in front of the camera.
At times, that opportunity has been the strongest when members of two different marginalized groups work together. Under John Ridley’s – a black screenwriter and film director – leadership and direction, ABC’s “American Crime” crafted complicated and multidimensionally inclusive characters.
Benito Martinez’s Emmy-worthy performances in all three seasons – but, in particular, the most recent one – portrayed a Mexican middle-class bilingual dad who crosses the border without authorization to retrace his missing son’s path to the US Ridley tackled immigration by juxtaposing hate and humanity. “American Crime’s” final season accomplished what armies of political talk show pundits could not: It imagined immigration in an understandable and contextual media narrative.
Like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film “Amores Perros,” “American Crime” developed overlapping and intersecting hot button and taboo topics that contrasted American lives trying to survive an unforeseen event.
Ridley showcased Latino actors by gifting their characters with integrity, compassion, courage, complexity, grit, determination, flaws and frailty. The show showcased Martinez’s acting chops, as well as those of actors Richard Cabral, Elvis Nolasco and Johnny Ortiz, all of whom emerged as polished, experienced and in-demand actors. Ridley, like Norman Lear almost a half century before, mashed up contemporary content with diverse characters.
As English-language shows continue to be crafted to include Latinx, Spanish-language content on Univision (“La Candidata”) and Telemundo (“El Señor de los Cielos”) have upped the quality and made their telenovela content more appealing and relevant to US audiences. This comes on the heels of Netflix’s sweeping and successful original Spanish programming and independent distribution that includes “Narcos,” “Club de Cuervos,” “Juana Ines,” “Ingobernable,” “Velvet,” and “Gran Hotel.”
Cristela Alonzo (ABC’s “The Gospel of Kevin”), John Leguizamo (ABC’s “Salamander”), Ian Gomez (CBS’ “Living Biblically”) and Rosie Perez (NBC’s “Rise”) return to television’s 2017 fall schedule. Critics are already calling ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” with Nicholas Gonzalez, a bona fide hit. And yet, new shows like” S.W.A.T.,” set in Los Angeles, have no Latinx series regulars; similarly, Latinos, who represent 11% of the military, are not cast in CBS’ show on US Navy SEALs.
As Justin Bieber sings “[p]asito a pasito,” which means one step at a time, the TV doors have begun to swing open in the same manner. Now, if only film studios could follow the lead of music and networks.