SAN DIEGO — Given what he does for a living, it is no surprise that Rick Najera’s memoir about being a Latino breaking down barriers in Hollywood reads like a good movie.
There aren’t passages so much as there are scenes. One in particular should be required reading for anyone who has ever wondered how it is that, as far as Hollywood is concerned, Latinos seem to be hiding in plain sight.
America’s largest minority accounts for 48 percent of Los Angeles County, where the motion picture business is based. So how does a whole industry filled with curious, creative and perceptive people miss a story that is all around them?
Najera provides an answer in his hilarious but insightful book, “Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood.” Born and raised in San Diego, he has been a writer, producer, director and actor. He describes the time that he was working with a white writer on an HBO pilot and — while exchanging ideas — asked his collaborator: “Have you ever worked with a Latino professional before?”
Without hesitation, and in all seriousness, his co-writer responded: “Oh, yes. My maid, Maria.”
For many in Tinseltown, Najera observes, the only Latinos they deal with every day carry brooms and care for babies. So when they sit down at their desks, it is no wonder that they imagine Latinos as housekeepers, nannies or gardeners. It even happens when Latinos are the ones producing the shows, as when Eva Longoria offered a prime-time drama featuring Latinas cast as “Devious Maids.”
This is not new, but you would think that, with a Latina on the Supreme Court, two Latino governors, and three Latinos in the U.S. Senate, the situation would have improved in Hollywood. It hasn’t.
According to a new study by the University of Southern California, Latinos still play only about 4.2 percent of onscreen roles even though they go to the movies more than any other group. On average, a Latino attended 9.5 movies in 2012, according to the survey. Compare that to 6.5 movies for Asians, 6.3 for African-Americans and 6.1 for whites.
Latinos are 17 percent of the U.S. population. Yet according to a report by the Motion Picture Association of America, they purchased 26 percent of the movie tickets sold in 2012.
It’s true that, in an interesting new trend, actors, producers and directors from Mexico are enjoying some success in the U.S. movie industry. Mexican actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal along with producer Pablo Cruz have founded Canana, an exciting, new production and distribution company. Among their projects is a soon-to-be-released film on the life of the late Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers co-founder and president.
It’s also true that, these days, you’re more likely to see Latinos cast in prestigious roles than was the case 20 or 30 years ago. It’s no longer unusual to be watching television and see a Latino playing an FBI agent, surgeon or judge.
Still, even when it tries to do the right thing, Hollywood can get carried away. There is also a share of far-fetched characters that ordinary folks can’t relate to. Esai Morales recently joined the cast of HBO’s comedy pilot “The Brink” as a series regular. Morales has been cast as Julian Navarro, a Hispanic who is president of the United States. Years ago, on the NBC’s “The West Wing,” Jimmy Smits was cast as Matt Santos, an ambitious politician who also was elected president.
So, according to Hollywood, Latinos usually are either sitting in the Oval Office or cleaning someone’s house. Welcome to Najera’s world.
“The networks aren’t including us in the equation,” he told me. “When they tell a story, it’s either black or white. And, as Latinos, we’re almost white.”
But not quite. And therefore, easy to overlook.
Najera has no plans to leave the arena. Still, his eyes are open. His three big complaints about how Latinos are treated in Hollywood: that their stories aren’t told, they aren’t at the tables where decisions are made, and they’re constantly maligned by writers and producers who cling to stereotypes.
How will that ever change? Answer: One story at a time. That’s why it is so important that people like Najera keep telling them.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.