Why are Latinx Actors Awarded the Pulpit When Their Series or Movie Becomes a Hit?
Speaking on Latinx issues takes more than just celebritydom or success
There’s this interesting dynamic that occurs in the Latinx entertainment community (not sure if it happens with other folks) when a series or a movie becomes an overnight hit the lead actors and creatives suddenly become the voice of an entire community. Why is this not a good idea?
Let’s list the reasons:
Yes, I added my name to the list because it happened to me. After I’d written my play, YO SOY LATINA! (I AM LATINA!), a funny and very moving one-act play that challenges a group of diverse Latina women to examine their identity and their connections in the contemporary American landscape. The play’s premise unites these six women who come to share their anecdotes of living Latina in modern America. There is Migdalia, a Nuyorican, who experiences prejudice from her own family because of her interracial marriage; Jennifer, a young Mexican-American college student who discovered her Chicana rights; Alicia, a Colombian actress who struggles with what keeps her from landing Latino roles because of the lightness of her skin; Maria Elena, a Panamanian, who faces inequity from other Latinos because of the darkness of her skin; Soledad, a Dominican mother who finds the courage to leave her machista husband in pursuit of her dream; and Louisa, a Cuban-Irish who defends her right to be Latina. So, considering the issues I established in the play, I reluctantly became the Latina expert.
I started writing the play in 1997 and shared it with the public in the winter of 2000. By 2002, I was traveling across the country, performing and speaking about various Latina issues at colleges, universities, off-Broadway festivals, and off-off-Broadway venues. I was also the recipient of many awards for having brought these Latina issues to light. Not only did I become a keynote speaker, but the publishing industry offered me a publishing deal to write a book because I had acquired this new audience. It was an incredible journey. However, just because I had strong feelings, opinions, and a large following, I was in no way the expert of all things Latina. I received paid invitations to speak at conferences at Harvard University, UPenn, and countless Ivy League schools, Advertising Age, World Bank of DC, Campbell’s Soup Company, and more. I suddenly became an expert, and honestly, I don’t think that’s fair to all the academics and real activists who probably knew more than I did. But I didn’t ask for that. Becoming an expert was a by-product of having written a play about my observations in the Latina community.
In my defense, I will say, I do care about my community. Therefore, what I spoke on at the time mattered to me, and I hope that in some way, I helped to bring awareness to some critical issues.
However, I have seen this backfire many times. Case in point: Gina Rodriguez.
No one was happier for Gina Rodriguez when she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for Jane the Virgin. Gina won the role of 19-year-old Chicana college student, Jennifer in my play, YO SOY LATINA! I could tell back then that she would become a star. What I witnessed was an actress who had an incredible work ethic and who possessed a natural talent for acting. She was also incredibly proud to be Latina, and she too had a lot to say about it based on her personal experiences. However, now a decade and change later, we don’t know if she’s anti-black or just someone that Twitter likes to bully for not knowing any better. The person I met in 2005 seemed to be a person who cared about her community, but maybe that was my assumption. Perhaps I missed something in my analysis. Perhaps, I’m like everyone else who places actors on that unrealistic superior pedestal, thinking that they are way smarter than the rest of us. Who started that? Why do we sanctify actors? It’s not healthy.
This reminds me of how, as a kid, I loved the actor James Woods. Who didn’t love him in Mississippi Burning? And who knew he was a die-hard Republican who supports Trump. Need I say more? We’ve seen these same mistakes happen with Zoe Saldana during the filming of Nina, where she played Black songstress, Nina Simone. Michelle Rodriguez has also experienced several faux pas moments.
Actors are important in our culture. They leave everything on the stage and/or celluloid to show us who we are as a society. That’s not always an easy task but when done well is life-changing. However, in real life, actors are not always who they portray and we need to be mindful of who we pick as our cultural representatives.
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Linda Nieves-Powell is a professional writer and a member of the Writers Guild East. Her novel “FreeStyle” is published by Simon and Schuster, her short story, “The Fly Ass Puerto-Rican Girl from the Stapleton Projects” is published by Akashic Books. Linda was commissioned by Proctor and Gamble to write the “Nueva Latina” monologues, a stage play for Orgullosa, the company’s social media brand. Her award-winning play, “Yo Soy Latina” has performed at over 400 colleges in the U.S, off-Broadway, and at the Tony-award winning regional theater company Crossroads. Her full-length screenplay “Six of Me”, was a semi-finalist at the 2013 Sundance Screenwriting Lab. Linda has studied TV Writing with Alan Kingsman.