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John Leguizamo Points Out How Latino Actors Often Have to Change Their Names to Find Success

In a new open letter published by the LA Times, actor, activist, and comedian John Leguizamo has once again taken Hollywood to task for its refusal to portray Latinos on-screen in proportion to just how many of us live in the United States.

For Leguizamo, it’s not a matter of just representation, but honest portrayals of how major cities like LA and New York — where a vast majority of productions are either shot or set — are often home to more Latinos than white people, while Hollywood productions are refusing to acknowledge that fact.

“[Los Angeles] is approaching 50% Latino,” he wrote. “But where are we onscreen?” Similarly, Leguizamo points out that the population of Latinos and whites in New York is equal, “but you would never know it if you watched local TV or read our newspapers and magazines,” he explained. “The metrics are on our side, but the system is not.”

Leguizamo traces this inequity back to the early days of Hollywood, when Mexican actors would line up to play extras and background bit parts in stories ripped from their own culture. Known as the “casting tree,” Leguizamo asserts that much of the Western genre is an appropriation of Mexican culture while simultaneously pushing Mexican actors to the back of the line. He even pointed out that “cowboy” comes from the Spanish word “vaquero.”

He also noted how clear it is that any hit movie would have been just as popular with a Latino cast, pointing to films like “Encanto” and “In the Heights” — which both drew in Latino audiences en masse — as proof that Latinos are not only interested in movies but actively buying tickets to them, especially when they’re being represented on-screen.

Even when Latino-led films perform well at the box office, Leguizamo said, studio executives insist that it’s a one-time deal and that Latino audiences are just as happy to see white movies as they are movies with the proper representation.

And if a character does end up being Latino, Hollywood is happy to cast a white actor in the role, as they did with Al Pacino in “Scarface,” John Turturro as Jesus the bowler in “The Big Lebowski,” and Marisa Tomei in “The Perez Family.” And those are only recent examples. Go back to Old Hollywood, and you’ll see Marlon Brando donning brownface as Emiliano Zapata or Charlton Heston as a Mexican man in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.”

“White Latinos are still stigmatized by their names and their culture,” Leguizamo said, referencing how big names like Oscar Isaac and Bruno Mars are only big because they dropped a Hernandez here, an Estrada there. With the added privilege of being white-passing, many Latino celebrities feel compelled to drop their surnames for better opportunities.

The problem doesn’t begin and end with Latinos on-screen. Leguizamo reminds readers that Latinos are just as absent in executive positions, where very few of us are making big-picture creative decisions. Because of this, pitching Latino-centric stories, shows, and movies is made all the more difficult by white decision-makers who don’t see Latino stories as a worthy investment.

Because Latinos comprise 20% of the US population, Leguizamo pointed out, we should enjoy a 20% share of Hollywood’s output. “For every 10 characters, two should be Latino. For every 10 executives, two should be Latino,” he wrote. “For every 10 crew members, two should be Latino. For every 10 films, two should be about Latinos.”

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