Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear? Latinos Misrepresenting Themselves in Film and Television

Guest Blogger: Marco Antonio Rodríguez
[Originally published in the December-January 2012-2013 issue of Latino Leaders Magazine.]

Ahh, the fall and winter seasons in entertainment. A cavalcade of television shows and holiday films begging the attention of our DVR’s and wallets. In television the next
LOST or FRIENDS is announced. In films it’s the arrival of: “The scariest movie since The Exorcist” or “Better than the last eight sequels put together!” And of course, “Sure to be an Oscar contender!” Remote and/or supersize bucket of buttered popcorn with cholula sauce reporting for duty! I am bursting at the chones with excitement!

Yet recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Indeed Hollywood is making efforts towards putting more Latinos in front of mainstream media but are we being authentically represented? I’m not referring to the usual dreck of drug lords, maids and prostitutes. Lately, I am watching characters on film and television clearly defined as being from a specific Latin American country open their mouths and either speak Pocho-guese (slang for broken Spanish mixed with English) or in a completely different accent than what is being called for in the script!

I was streaming an episode of Nip/Tuck where a female character was being discussed as being from Venezuela. The character arrives, opens her mouth… it’s “Che” this and “Boludo” that… an Argentine accent! Unless another pesky revolution is going down, that’s not Venezuela. I’m gonna go on a whim here and assume the writers were probably not Latino.  Lines were probably changed on set and required being translated into Spanish on the spot. She, not knowing Venezuelan vernacular but nevertheless fluent and happy to have a job, was given free license to improvise whatever she felt was familiar. Apparently, no one on set heard the difference.

Another evening I watched the film We Bought A Zoo. The main character is interviewing what is clearly defined as “a native Colombian.” The gentleman opens his mouth… “¿Par-Kay mi ista entreevaystendoe, signor?” Par-Kay? Isn’t that butter? Fee fi fo fum, I smell a fake one! I believe he was trying to say, “¿Por qué me está entrevistando, señor?” The man spoke Spanish as if he had just completed a Rosetta Stone training course… 5 seconds ago! Other shows such as True Blood and the recently canceled The River (where a so called Cuban character opened her mouth and spoke Haitian Creole) are guilty as charged. The Hollywood casting process is typically about looks, but as a well-traveled, fluent Spanish speaker, I watch these situations unfold in a show or film and am immediately taken out of the story and consumed by the desire to hurl my remote and/or supersize popcorn at the screen!

Does Hollywood not realize we are not all from the same country? If indeed a character is from a specific place, why not attempt to cast the appropriate actor or, if said actor isn’t from that country but is fluent, find out if they can be coached into authentically pulling off the accent? After all, just because they are fluent does not mean they can do it. We don’t all speak the same Spanish, folks! Think of it this way: not all Americans are Irish.  Imagine watching a film like Rob Roy or Hotel Rwanda with actors speaking in New York or Boston accents. It’s jarring to say the least. Just ask the critics who had to sit through Tom Cruise’s Irish brogue in Far And Away

When it comes to actors, the solution may lie in the casting process. When a script calls for a Latino from a specific country and said character must speak dialogue, it should then transcend more than just a look. The casting director who isn’t as familiar with the diversity of our culture should make the extra effort to hire an assistant that can tell the difference between a “vos” and an “usted”, a “carnal” vs. a “pana.”  Hey, we don’t all know about tripa tacos or that Windex can also be used on cuts and scrapes. We are from all walks of life. If we are to see ourselves reflected on mainstream media it should come from an authentic place. This encourages curiosity and pride within the up and coming generation who will be exposed to the diversity that makes up our Latino culture.

Recently I spoke with a known Latino casting director in New York who shared that, thankfully, the demand for bi-lingual casting assistants has increased because of this very issue: “Most casting directors in the field are either Caucasian or, if Latino, don’t really dominate the language. I include myself in that club and now, with the recent increase in Latino projects, I hire fluent bi-lingual assistants to help weed out the actors who speak fluently and could possibly do a neutral or specific accent versus those who claim to be fluent, study the one or two lines from the script really well but when asked to improvise or have a conversation are unable. That’s when my assistant steps in and lets myself and the director know this person will not work out.” He goes on to say, “I was recently in a casting session for a dialogue heavy national Spanish commercial. The director fell in love with an actor. His resume said he spoke fluent Spanish, but as soon as he auditioned my assistant heard a thick Chicano accent. A few questions were asked and my assistant quickly realized he was unable to hold a conversation. The minute he left we had to break the news. The director was very grateful. You see, if they had hired this actor then decided to change the script on set (which, in commercials, happens all the time) it may have created an embarrassing and costly situation with the client when the actor couldn’t deliver.

The fall/winter seasons of entertainment are indeed upon us and I am ready with my cholula sauce drenched popcorn. Did I mention I’m Dominican? That’s right! From the Dominican Republic where spicy foods are nonexistent and yet I heart spicy! It happens! And guess what? Not all Mexicans love spicy foods either! As Latinos, we’re not easily defined. Our diversity should be authentically represented, front stage and center. And by the way, after years of living in Texas watching Chespirito and Thalía telenovelas, I can confidently pull off a Mexican accent that will knock your sarapes off! If you wear one, that is.  Pos, ¿qué te crees, carnal? ¡No contaban con mi astucia! So… do I get the part?

Marco Antonio Rodríguez was born and raised in New York City to parents from the Dominican Republic. A graduate of LaGuardia High School For the Performing Arts in NYC, he holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Southern Methodist University. He has acted, written, produced and directed hits such as Pico de Gallo and the Southwest Premiere of Rick Nájera’s Latinologues (which later moved on to Broadway). As an actor he has worked all over the United States and in countries such as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He has participated in various films and numerous national commercials for radio and television, most recently roles on Prison Break, The Good Guys and the film Upstream Color (an official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival). As a writer he has done commissioned work for ANTHEM, a national organization that promotes positive family dynamics, and has received acclaim for writing the Southwest hits Pico de Gallo and Heaven Forbid(s)!, the latter named Outstanding New Play by The Texas Theater Critics Forum. His short screenplays Silence, Mariscal and Kennedy in a Box all placed first at the NYC Midnight international screenwriting competitions. His play, La Luz de un cigarrillo, received an "extended by popular demand" run at New York's off-Broadway LATEA theater and is the recipient of 5 HOLA Awards, including a nod for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting. La Luz de un cigarrillo has been added for study to the 2012 University of Puerto Rico Spanish department curriculum as well as the 2013 Spanish and Caribbean Studies Department Curriculum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. La Luz de un cigarrillo was also published by NOPE press. The English edition (entitled Ashes of Light) will be published this coming January 2013. His latest play, Barceló con hielo, is a finalist in the 2012 Nuestras Voces Playwriting competition at Repertorio Español. For more information, click here.

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