Minority representation on TV shows, movies helps share individuals’ stories

6 months ago
Esteban Bustillos
Commentary

As a kid, I didn’t have a lot, if any, Latino stars to look up to. So when I was younger, I pretended Batman was Mexican.

Growing up, Batman was a big deal to me. I tuned into Kids’ WB every day to watch “Batman: The Animated Series,” where the adventures of Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego enthralled me to no end. What made it even better was the fact that the animators used a certain color for Wayne’s skin that made it look more brown than white. With his black hair and dark skin, I came to the only logical conclusion an 8-year-old could make: Batman was Latino.

Sadly, I eventually realized that it was all pretend. Batman turned out to be white and I once again had to search for someone to look up to on the TV screen that looked like me. Thankfully, for today’s young Latinos and other people of color, that isn’t the case in the world of entertainment.

This year alone, we have seen a huge influx in the number of authentic Latino portrayals on screens of all sizes. In January, Disney announced Princess Elena of Avalor, its first Latina princess ever. This summer, DC’s “Suicide Squad” featured Jay Hernandez as Chato Santana, also known as “El Diablo,” the first time a Latino super hero has been portrayed in a major summer blockbuster. And on Sept. 12, “Saturday Night Live” announced it was adding Melissa Villaseñor, its first Latina cast member.

Thankfully, Latinos aren’t the only ones coming into the spotlight. Across the entertainment spectrum, minorities are finally getting recognition and it’s not just as token pieces. From Aziz Ansari on “Master of None” to Donald Glover on “Atlanta,” minorities are acting, creating and running their own shows and franchises.

This is a huge deal. It’s becoming increasingly rare for other people to tell us how our stories should be told. For the first time, we’re telling our own stories, our own way.

What’s important about this is that it finally feels like we’re getting accepted into the American mainstream. For years, turning on the TV and going to the movies meant almost exclusively watching white people. Now, it’s becoming rare to see a show or movie without a minority cast member of some kind. We’re not just the person who dies off first. Now, we’re the stars of the show.

Even more importantly, having minority representation in entertainment, especially entertainment catered to children, allows kids to aspire to one day take those positions themselves. It’s the Jackie Robinson effect. Before the groundbreaking Brooklyn Dodger geared up and became the first black player to play baseball in the major leagues, the dream of being a minority player in America’s biggest sport at the time was just that — a dream, a fantasy, an unachievable goal.

Once Robinson broke that barrier, however, the floodgates opened forever. All it took was one person.

That’s the kind of change I hope this renaissance of minority talent will bring about. We’re no less talented as writers, actors, musicians or designers — we’ve just never felt comfortable telling our stories because we thought no one would listen, care or pay attention. But as America moves closer and closer to becoming a majority-minority nation, I feel entertainment is finally being democratized for the disenfranchised.

Now, the Latina screenwriter in a college classroom doesn’t have to feel like her words don’t matter. Now, the black actress looking to make her big break doesn’t have to fear being overlooked because of her skin. Now, the Asian director trying to get her vision across doesn’t have to feel pressure from studios to cater to a white audience. We’re now making the decisions for how we should be portrayed on screens across the country and, contrary to what detractors might say, we’re getting paid for it too.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges still to be overcome. For every victory, there’s an incident of Hollywood whitewashing a minority character a la Matt Damon in the upcoming film “The Great Wall,” where he plays a Chinese character. There’re still people who just don’t get what it’s like to not see people who you can look up to on the TV and movie screens and feel left out.

But that’s why it makes me so happy to see all of the new diversity that’s apparent on a daily basis in Hollywood. Now kids who look like me don’t have to pretend their superheroes look like them. Now they just do.

It can’t stop here, though. As minorities, we can’t depend on anyone else to look out for us. History has taught us time and time again that simply doesn’t work. So for all of the minority creators out there, the message has to ring loud and clear: We can’t rest on our laurels. We have to keep pushing.

We have to keep writing, acting, designing, drawing, animating and doing whatever it is that we do to tell our stories. In a school like UTD, there’re a million of them, each unique. Maybe those stories won’t all go on to be award-winning shows or movies, but they’re all worth telling.

Our history and culture are not barriers. They’re bridges we can use to connect to other people like us. It’s time we started crossing them ourselves and opening them up for others to join us in our journeys.