I’ve been known to watch non-Oscar nominated movies while I multitask around the house, so it wasn’t really surprising when Netflix suggested Falling Inn Love. I was curious about the female lead Christina Milian, who I recognized as a Latina that had been up-and-coming a few years back. How, I wondered, would they represent her Latinx identity in a movie set in New Zealand, if at all?
Teeny tiny spoiler here: Her character, Gabriela Diaz, gets the guy. Huge spoiler: She doesn’t go full-on sassy Latina in the process—and she’s a Silicon Valley designer. She’s the first (that I can remember) leading Latinx lady with a STEM career. That felt huge, but not as huge as what I realized when I hit play on the next suggestion the Netflix algorithm served me.
Initially I thought that the system had passed me from one cheesy rom-com to another, but no. The next movie, called Someone Great, borders on being indie-cool in aesthetic and has a killer accompanying soundtrack. It took me no more than a glimpse of lead character Jenny, played by Gina Rodriguez who was wearing a “Latina AF” T-shirt for me to suspect the connection. Did the system just take me from one Latina leading lady to another?
That’s never happened before. Not in English and not in Spanish and definitely not for content set in the U.S. It’s especially noteworthy given that in a recent USC Annenberg Report titled Latinos in Film: Erasure on Screen and Behind the Camera found that across the 100 top-grossing movies from 2007-2018, only 3% of those films featured Latinx leads or co-leads.
That is exactly three movies, and I just watched two in one weekend. I hoped the AI would suggest the third, but no luck. Maybe it hasn’t been filmed yet.
I think about Latinx identity and authentic representation in media and branding—or lack thereof—every day, and these films stood out for me. I want to see their back to back appearances in my stream as a signal of progress and increased visibility overall. But I can’t help but compare it with the complete blanketing of Latin music in all aspects of media and entertainment.
Why is it that every major music festival this summer was headlined or had significant representation by Latinx artists, but Latinx leads in film or TV content are hard to come by? Why are the top sales, airplay and stream charts chockfull of Spanish language and Latinx collaborations but Latinx storylines set in the U.S. so rarely seen?
It’s true that music transcends language and you don’t need to speak Spanish to enjoy the feelings that Latin music easily communicates. But a language barrier alone doesn’t explain the chasm. We are seeing some evidence of spoken Spanish, presented without preamble (Easy) and sometimes untranslated (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and fans seem to accept it.
Latinx wants to see themselves completely and authentically in the media they consume, not just hear the rhythms and words they also love. There are so few shows where Latinx see themselves portrayed authentically that an Instagram post from Hulu’s East Los High nearly two years after the show ended generated more engagement than the typical brand post ever enjoys. When Netflix canceled One Day at a Time, the rabid support from Latinx fans eventually led CBS’ Pop to pick it up.
There will only be more demand for this kind of Latinx content in the future. But the leading roles and the native stories of Hispanics in America are rare. Jane the Virgin (CW) recently ended its five-season run leaving only Vida (Starz) and Pose (FX) to fill in the gaps.
As for movies? Well, this weekend’s offering from Netflix is all I’ve seen. Which brings me back to my original question: Why is Latinx music everywhere but Latinx-led TV and film content rare? Latinx audiences clearly crave it.