Tanzina Vega: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. Now take a little trip with me to Hollywood, an odd and wonderful place with an outsized influence on our collective beliefs about ourselves and our country. One big-budget Hollywood film can do more to shape perceptions of a historic event, a political leader, or community of people than decades of scholarly research and academic treatises.
Don't even get me started on The Help. It made an absolute mess of Black women's domestic work-- okay, okay. Representation matters and Hollywood's power to represent or misrepresent us is unmatched. It's that power that had Tribeca Film Festival goers absolutely hype about In The Heights.
Tanzina Vega: It's that power of representation which has led some to critique the film's failure to include dark-skinned Latinos among its lead characters. On Monday, the New York Times published a thoughtful piece titled In the Heights and Colorism, What Is Lost When Afro Latinos are Erased. In the article, Sandra Garcia reflected, quote, "There is a reason my mother can name all the dark-skinned newscasters on Telemundo and it's because they are rare to see in the spotlight. In the Heights continues the gaslighting that Black Latinos have endured for my entire lifetime."
Sandra Garcia, reporter with the New York Times joins me now. Hi, Sandra, how are you?
Sandra Garcia: Hello, how are you? Thank you for having me.
Tanzina Vega: I'm thrilled to have you. Now, let's start with this incredible piece that you were part of in the New York Times where you talk about this gaslighting and you write, "Our culture is beautiful, our music is beautiful, but we are not enough to be highlighted with it". Can you expand on that a bit?
Sandra Garcia: A lot of the music and the food, the cultural aspects that we're seeing in In The Heights are part of Dominican culture, and it's a culture that has been fed and grown, cultivated by Black Dominicans. It is easy to just take what you need from that without highlighting the people who created these things. For example, there's a plate of Mangu con Salchichon, which is mashed plantain and sliced and fried salami that is shown and focused on in the movie. That is a Black dish that Dominicans created. It's a typical Dominican dish.
The melange music that you hear, the little tiny bit of bachata that you hear, these are things that were cultivated by Black people. Dominicans are a Black people. While those things are celebrated in this movie, the bodies that created these things, the people who took the time to push these plates of food in front of us and create these music, those bodies don't ever make it to the spotlight.
Tanzina Vega: All the Black girl magic without the Black girls.
Sandra Garcia: There you go.
Tanzina Vega: Talk to us a little bit about Washington Heights, the real lived, actual neighborhood versus what's presented in the film In The Heights.
Sandra Garcia: The neighborhood is pretty vibrant and it's filled with music and food. There's food everywhere. In the Dominican Republic, people normally spend their time outside. There's a lot of people outside sitting outside, playing dominoes and just hanging out. It's a very beautiful community that I had a pleasure spending a lot of time in.
In The Heights does capture that, in my opinion. The vibrancy, the community between people. Neighbors live next to each other for entire lifetimes. They see their children grow up together, they see their children off to college together. That was pretty realistic, in my opinion.
Tanzina Vega: Talk to me a little bit about what is at stake here. Sometimes when conversations like this emerge and we're pushing almost more within, rather than outside of community, it can get misread or misunderstood in a broad context of folks who are like, "Wait a minute, there are Black Latinos?" Help us to understand what's at stake at the core.
Sandra Garcia: It is very, very simple. I am a Black Latina. You don't think I am anything but Black when you see me. There is no ambiguity. When you fail to show people that look like me who exists, my mother looks like me, my father-- There are more than just 10 Afro-Latinos. When you fail to highlight and celebrate us as well, you're erasing us, we cease to exist.
When I go to a place like Colorado and I go to a Mexican restaurant and I order in Spanish, the waitress will ask me, "Why do you know Spanish?" It's like hearing me speak Spanish is an idea that doesn't fit in her head or their heads. It's not something that they can put together. Like you said earlier, Hollywood has the power to shed light on communities and be able to show the different types of people in communities and change the perception people have.
When you're not including a huge part of this community, which are Afro-Latinos, you're erasing them from Latin land. They cease to exist, and then they have to start standing up for their existence, which is incredibly difficult. Take it from me.
Tanzina Vega: I have to say I cringed a bit when after the first big enthusiasm and excitement, and then these really meaningful critiques that emerged alongside the enthusiasm, then there was this little shift that begin to happen. At least in some coverage, it was like, "Well, don't worry because Steven Spielberg's West Side Story is coming and this is going to solve it." Want to speak to that?
Sandra Garcia: I don't know.
Tanzina Vega: It's okay if you don't. I understand. [laughs]
Sandra Garcia: I don't know if Steven Spielberg West Side Story will fix this issue. I think it's an infrastructure issue. I think Hollywood has to pay attention to their Black, not just Black Latinos, but just Black actors and people that they put in their movies. I think Hollywood has to append whatever systems they have been employing to cast people because this is more important. I don't know if the West Side Story movie will be able to do that in such a short period of time.
Tanzina Vega: Sandra Garcia is a reporter at the New York Times. Thank you so much.
Sandra Garcia: Thank you.
Tanzina Vega: We've been talking about representation in Hollywood. The reality is abysmal. UCLA's 2020 Hollywood diversity report found that despite accounting for 17% of the US population, Latinos are vastly underrepresented in nearly every critical Hollywood job category. Meanwhile, 93% of senior executives are white and 80% are male.
For audiences, onscreen actors are the most visible indication of industry diversity. Less seen, but arguably more critical are the writers, producers, showrunners, and studio executives who create and resource the stories we see. Joining me now is Tanya Saracho, who is creator showrunner, executive producer, and director most recently of the critically acclaimed series Vida on Starz. Tanya, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Tanya Saracho: Oh, thank you for having me.
Tanzina Vega: Absolutely. I want to talk a little bit about these data from last year saying that white men still are the overwhelmingly represented among high-level executives and that Latinos in the writer's room or in the director's chair are such a tiny minority. Can you talk a little bit about the rooms that you've been in in the role of showrunner, and how diverse they are or are not?
Tanya Saracho: Yes, we're only 8.7% Latina. I use the term Latina and Latinex interchangeably. It's dire. Before Vida, which is the last show I ran, which had an all-Latina writing staff, I had been-- I entered the industry in that diversity hire position. I don't know if you've heard that. They're trying to phase it out. I didn't know that I was entering this job till the first hour one of my coworkers turned to me and says, "You do know you're the diversity hire, right?" I was like, "What's that?" He goes, "Oh, honey". That, "Oh, honey", I think is still permeating even now that I've run a show because the "oh, honey" comes from Hollywood. It's like, "Oh, well, you're an author".
On paper, it's a good idea, this role, but in practice it is just meant to otherize you. Then Latina writers kept getting stuck because this diversity higher position doesn't cost the show anything. They keep getting it for free so they want to keep you in that level. It's a whole systemic thing that the conversation is that it is changing.
In the years that I've been in it, I have seen a shift in conversation, but the proof is in the pudding, we don't have enough shows that represent us. We are almost 20% of the population and I can count the shows with fingers of one hand. These rooms are, especially before I think there's kind of awareness for the past couple of years and definitely, after last summer, the summer of the reckoning that we had at least people are afraid to say, just ignoring things in a room that too marginalize, otherize, you're in a writer's room, I mean, but it's still there.
Tanzina Vega: Of course, and it's so interesting to hear you talk about it, because I've talked with folks in the corporate world, and I live in the world of the academy and that "oh, honey" shows up in a lot of different spaces. I want to talk a little bit, you said at one point "oh, on Vida, we had an all-Latina writing cast".
Now, I just want you to talk a little bit about what that room feels like because I think it's important to remind that even if all folks are of presumably some one same group, there's still a lot of diversity, creativity, capacity for contributing more than one thing. I'd love to hear a little bit about that writer's room.
Tanya Saracho: Oh, that was such a-- it was a big therapy session, three-season therapy, in a way, but it built the show that we built in the cultural safety of that room. What we realized was that a lot of writers that have been writing TV and Hollywood came with PTSD from being in dominant culture rooms where they were the only other and they had to represent all other others. Sometimes they had to be the ambassador and the defender of everything, and then only turn to them when BIPOC storylines or something were being handled.
What happened in the Vida room within all-Latinx writers' room, it was that cultural safety and that cultural shorthand. Now, yes, there were Puerto Ricans, there were Central Americans, Mexicans, half of the room was queer, too. Yes. Latini, that is a construct, yes, it's not a monolith, but we probably stood under that umbrella in that room for the sake of the show and looked at our commonalities, not our differences as the way we have to stand sort of in, like I said, those dominant rooms. It was so healing and beautiful.
All the writers mentioned it. Was like, "I've never felt like I could just contribute my ideas, not just my defense for my culture". It's dangerous as creators when we're like, have to, because when you go in there trying to sell a show, you have to also convince the gatekeepers, the decision-makers about the value and worth of the world you're bringing, that is a huge burden to be like, "I have to convince you we're worth it. Then I have to see if you like the story."
It's horrible. It was like a perfect formula in that room because also our executive, her name was Martha Fernandes. You didn't have to culturally defend anything to our-- and then that shows. There was a beautiful formula of all of us were making it. All my directors were Latina, all of us had that shorthand, but that's rare.
Tanzina Vega: What I love about the enthusiasm with which you're talking about this is, I can feel the level of creative liberation that occurs. Like if I'm not in the middle of having to do a political fight in every pitch meeting. Instead, we can battle about ideas, we can think about storylines, we can do character development. All of the parts that make you a creative.
Tanya Saracho: Yes, it's the privilege that dominant culture writers have. They can just come in and push their stories, and that was beautiful. I created this incubator, where I want to create-- It's like a glorified paid writers group where I want to recreate that, like that cultural safety. I know it seems like we might be visible and say we don't have it really, in Hollywood. We don't have it in every site, like you mentioned, at every point, below the line, in front of the camera, behind it. There's not enough of us with access, there's enough of us waiting to have access, but there's not enough of us with access.
Tanzina Vega: I think that's such a nice distinction there like, "No, there are enough of us. You got to open the doors." Talk to me about opening the doors a little bit. What's the process? After a show has been greenlit or a project has been greenlit, then what do you do?
Tanya Saracho: That's the thing, that's when you know if you're being supported. The push, marketing, and all that. It costs almost as much as producing the thing. You can tell when we're not being supported in push, when we're just being forgotten. You can tell that those shows are like well, they're using the same images from the first season, like not taking--I've watched it happen to us. It's so offensive. It's like a lot of our shows don't get taken all the way to the push.
Starz, when we were doing Vida, was great about it. I thank them, thank you for promoting us like a white show. I said because that's like extraordinary and it shouldn't be, I should be thanking them for the full support but that's part of the formula, supporting it at development, at production, and then pushing it. It's important because its value.
Tanzina Vega: Thank you so much to Tanya Saracho, creator, showrunner, executive producer, and director, and most recently of the critically acclaimed series Vida on Starz. Tanya, thank you for being here.
Tanya Saracho: Thank you so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.