Erik Muñoz, a fifth-grader at Monterey Park Elementary School in Salinas, admits he watches a lot of television.
“About two hours a day,” Erik said Thursday. “I watch the news, cartoons, the Discovery and the History Channel and Comedy Central.”
And the 11-year-old’s expertise has taught him that on the small screen, there aren’t many people like him, with brown skin and brown eyes.
“They don’t put (Latinos) on,” he said. “They have Asians and blacks and from every other race. I wish they gave us a chance to be in there.”
Erik is not alone in his desire to see more Latinos on TV.
A forum of media experts in Washington told Latino lawmakers this week that Latinos are woefully underrepresented in television and film.
Wednesday’s forum on Capitol Hill was held to call attention to what critics say is the failure of major television networks and movie studios to hire more Latino actors, writers, producers and directors.
U.S. Rep. Joe Baca, D-Ca., who chaired Wednesday’s forum, said he is appalled at the lack of Latino faces on television and in film.
“Hispanics represent 13 percent of the population in the United States but only 6 percent of the acting roles right now,” he said. “It is time that Hollywood looked like the rest of America.”
In Salinas, 65 percent of the population is Latino, and the figure is 47 percent countywide.
But Baca stopped short of suggesting legislation should be introduced to force the entertainment industry to change its hiring practices or programming decisions.
During the three-hour forum, which was sparsely attended, lawmakers were provided a wealth of data detailing the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
Fewer Latino roles this year
A spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild, which represents nearly 120,000 actors who perform in movies, commercials, music videos and on television, said Latinos appeared in fewer roles in 2003 than the previous year.
Of the 44,282 roles available in 2003, Latinos were cast in 2,402 roles, or about 5.4 percent, Angel Rivera, the guild’s national director of affirmative action and diversity, told lawmakers. They got 283 fewer roles in 2003 than the previous year.
“Latino and Hispanic-American performers continue to see their share of roles fall below their representation in the U.S. population,” Rivera said.
Patti Miller, of Oakland-based Children NOW, a group that, among other things, measures the impact of television programming on children, said her organization completed a study this year that found Latinos rarely appeared as regular characters on prime time (8 to 11 p.m.) network television shows.
She also said Latinos often are cast in low-status occupations.
The study found that 37 percent of Asian actors, 32 percent of white actors and 26 percent of black actors were cast as professionals compared with 11 percent of Latino actors.
“As one of our culture’s primary storytellers, television provides stories and images that help shape the worldviews of millions of people,” Miller said. “When certain groups are privileged and others are excluded, it sends a message that these groups are valued differently by society.”
The message to Latino children, Miller said, is “that the majority culture does not value or respect them.”
Erik, the fifth-grader from Monterey Park, certainly notices that’s the message other people are getting.
Roles that set stereotypes
“People look at Hispanic people and think they only work at fast-food restaurants, that they don’t get good jobs. People at school talk about Hispanic people like that,” Erik said. “It gets me frustrated and mad that there are actually people out there like that.”
Salinas resident Xóchitl Calderón, mother of two children, said she had to explain to her 11-year-old that no, not all Latinos are alcoholics.
“We were watching a sitcom, and the only role for a Latino was of a drunk man,” Calderón said. “The boys are young, and this kind of stuff sticks in their heads. And it’s also in the movies: We always are the maids, the prostitutes or the gang members. In the movies, we’re always portrayed as the worst.”
Clara Rodriguez, a Fordham University professor who has written extensively about the image of Latinos in the media, told lawmakers that decisions by television and movie studio executives not to include more Latinos in their programming show they are ignoring the success of shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “The George Lopez Show.”
“They don’t do it because they don’t have to,” Rodriguez said.