Hispanic characters and actors in prime time television. Specifically, it will address the absence of Hispanics on prime time television and their negative portrayals when they are included in prime time.
THE ABSENCE OF HISPANICS ON TELEVISION
Traditionally, Hispanics have been one of the least represented minorities on prime time network television. When actors did represent them, it was as fools, buffoons, or questionable musicians such as Ricky Ricardo of the “I Love Lucy” show, or comedian Bill Dana on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Even cartoon characters could not escape the stereotypical portrayal of the Hispanic male, think of “Speedy Gonzales” with his wiry moustache and bandolier bullet holders crisscrossed over his chest. In a study done in 1992, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found:
Compared to both Anglos and African-Americans, television’s Hispanics in 1992 were low in number, low in social status, and lowdown in personal character, frequently portraying violent criminals. The worst offenders were “reality” shows, whose version of reality often consisted of white cops chasing black and Hispanic robbers (Lichter and Amundson).
Unfortunately, not much has changed since 1992 when it comes to the portrayal and attendance of Hispanics on prime time television. In a recent review of the comedy “Seinfeld,” in 10 “Seinfeld” episodes from September 23 until October 4 of this year not a single character of Hispanic descent appeared on the show. Yet New York City, the show’s setting, is home to over 4 million people of Hispanic descent, which is 10% of the entire nation’s population, yet they are seldom portrayed on one of the most popular prime time television shows of the 1990s.
One reason there are so few portrayals of Hispanics in prime time television is lack of viewers. The television community relies on professional rating firms such as Nielsen and Arbitron for their ratings and audience information. Regrettably, it has historically been extremely difficult for ratings services, such as Nielsen and Arbitron to rate the viewing habits of minority viewers. “A special problem is presented by the ethnic groups (black and Hispanic) for two reasons: low cooperation rates and significant viewing/listening differences from whites. The poor response by these groups is the result of suspicion and illiteracy” (Beville 226). Both companies developed different ratings methods that have been more successful, but these ethnic groups are still under represented in rating surveys across the nation. Because of this lack of representation, Hispanics do not “matter” to the major networks, and so their presence in prime time television shows is nearly non-existent.
Another problem with the lack of Hispanics on television is the Hispanic viewers themselves. Many simply do not seem to care their race is not represented. This apathy made itself apparent in 1999, when “A national coalition of Latino groups are encouraging Hispanics to boycott the four major TV networks in response to the networks’ ‘brownout’ or lack of Hispanic actors on those networks” (Henry). Surprisingly, many Hispanics did not join in the boycott.
Some Hispanics did not participate because they are more concerned with the negative stereotypes of Hispanics who are portrayed on television. “They’re either gang bangers or the maids,” one viewer said. (Henry). In a recent episode of the new series “Monk,” the Hispanics in the show were indeed hotel maids who concocted an elaborate plan to steal money and committed murder when caught. They were maids and criminals rolled into one.
By contrast, Hispanics have always been portrayed as criminals and low life. For example, from 1955 to 1985, over one in five Hispanic characters committed a crime, approximately three times the rate of Blacks. Despite all the rhetoric in scripts praising pluralism, Hollywood has cracked the door open wider for some minorities than for others (Rothman 243).
Other Hispanics simply did not participate in the boycott because they do not watch large amounts of network television, instead they watch local Spanish language stations, read Spanish language newspapers, or listen to Spanish radio.
Cheech Marin, who plays Don Johnson’s partner in Nash Bridges, has said of being one of the highest-profile Latinos on U.S. TV: ‘There are Hispanics on TV? That’s news to me'” (Editors). Indeed, from 1952 through 1984, a study shows that a grand total of only 2.2% of the characters in prime time television shows were of Hispanic descent, and 22.2% of those characters committed some type of crime (Rothman 244). Television viewers accept these stereotypes. In a survey conducted by the National Italian-American Foundation, 1,264 teenagers nationwide between the ages of 13 and 18 were asked about their beliefs about minorities on television. “27% of the teens say they see Hispanics on TV or in the movies as gang members and 17% say a Hispanic could be a factory worker” (Whittman). These findings all point to a lack of understanding of the Hispanic community on the networks’ part. Understandably, the Hispanic community turns away from network television to concentrate on programming on the Spanish language channels, which are much more available now.
Clearly, the Hispanic community is not well represented on prime time television, and has not been for decades. In an interesting side note, there has never been a Hispanic character depicted on any show about the future, such as “Star Trek.” Hispanics are not seen as a part of our future, only as a part of the present. They are given sub-standard roles, and if they do manage to break out into major roles, such as Cheech Marin has done, the roles are usually still subservient to a white, (or even black) co-star. (Think of “Chico and The Man” and “Nash Bridges,” as two examples.) Even in the occasional modern show with a positively portrayed Hispanic, the characters are still unique and “quirky,” not the same as their white counterparts. In “That 70s Show,” the character “Fez” has a thick Hispanic accent, yet the show has never said where exactly this “foreign exchange student” is from. Fez is portrayed as more naive and not as smart as his white friends, creating amusing situations on the show, but not helping the cause of Hispanics on television very much.
Perhaps the most positively portrayed Hispanics on prime time television are those who manage to make an appearance during a sporting event. Hispanic team members are treated just the same as the other members of the team, and the broadcasters hail standouts as great players regardless of their national origin. For example, rookie Francisco Rodriguez threw some outstanding games as a relief pitcher for the Anaheim Angels to reach the World Series, and the sportscasters consistently commented on he and his home country of Venezuela in an extremely positive light. Perhaps one of the only ways to appear in a positive light on prime time television for a Hispanic is on the athletic field.
Network television needs to rethink its portrayal of Hispanics, and what is says about their own prejudices. The Hispanic community is the fastest growing ethnic community in the United States, yet their network portrayals are still straight out of the 1950s. Not all members of the Hispanic community work in low-paying dead-end jobs, belong to street gangs, or deal drugs, yet this is their lot on network television. Hispanics are viable members of our society, and our future, and the networks need to recognize this fact.
Perhaps more Hispanic producers, directors, and even camera people could help Hollywood see the error of its ways. Perhaps a real boycott by Hispanics of specific networks and shows might help get their point across. Certainly, Hispanic actors need to stand up for their rights and their self-dignity, and stop taking roles that portray them as second-class citizens. If enough members of the Hispanic community make their concerns known at the networks, some things are bound to change. If network executives see a positive response to positive Hispanic characters, and if the Hispanic community rallies around any channel that broadcasts quality Hispanic programming, certainly the message will get through.
The network bottom line is the mighty advertising dollar, and more advertisers are recognizing the great potential of the Hispanic market every day. Hispanics should patronize those advertisers who are catering to their market, and watch the network shows where the advertising is being shown. It not only sends a message to the advertisers, it sends a message to the networks and their programmers.
Hispanics will never be shown in a respectable light on network television if they do not demand it. Their viewing habits are just as important as any other demographic group watching prime time television. It is about time their voices were heard in a positive demand for change and respect.
While numerous advertisers have recognized the great increase in the Hispanic population across the nation, and the resulting increase in Hispanic television viewers, (for example, huge advertisers such as Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s all have commercials especially geared to the Hispanic audience), prime time television has not made the same advances. There are many…