Last year Congressman Joaquin Castro requested a report from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, on Latino employment in the media industry. He shared the findings of the first of two GAO reports at a National Press Club event on Tuesday. Below is an excerpt from his remarks.
As the latest census numbers show, Latinos are nearly one in five Americans, about 19% of the United States population. And in my home state of Texas, Latinos are 40% of the state’s population, including a majority of Texas students today. But despite our growing population, Latinos still face persistent invisibility in American society.
Of course, we live not only in the Southwestern United States, but across this nation in emerging communities in states like Rhode Island, Utah, Kansas, and Nebraska. So, not just the large states of Texas, Florida, New York, and California.
We’re not only recent immigrants, but many of our families have lived in the U.S. for generations. Many families are like mine.
Next year marks 100 years since my grandmother, Victoria Castro, moved from Mexico to Texas as a 6- or -7-year-old orphan. On her immigration documents, where it asked the purpose of her visit, her relatives at the time, wrote in the words “to live.” That she was coming to the United States to live.
My brother and I grew up in a household that was very engaged in grassroots politics. In fact, my parents were involved in the Mexican American civil rights movement, or the Chicano movement, of the 1960s and 1970s. And so, the issues of civil rights, voting rights, equal opportunity, and fair representation, are of great importance to me and to my family, and ones that I literally have grown up around my entire life. I’m very proud of that.
I’ve long believed that issues of economic and social justice are coupled with issues of cultural advancement. So, I want to start off today with a brief story that I think summarizes the challenge very well. As chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, I convened a meeting in May of 2020, with a group of publishers. And, in that meeting was a CEO from one of the top five publishing companies in the country. I asked this very accomplished, very bright, very ambitious man — he was probably 50-something years old — I asked him a very simple question. I asked him whether he could name three Latinos or Latinas who had had a significant impact on American history.
And this very accomplished man, whose company publishes not only fiction and nonfiction books but also textbooks for our schools and universities, he thought about my question for a second. There were 20 to 30 of us on the Zoom call, and he finally said “No, no I can’t.” This man wasn’t trying to be rude. He wasn’t being dismissive of my question. We were having a very earnest conversation. And yet, this bright person could not name three Latinos and Latinas who had had a significant impact in American history.
I want you to think about that for a moment. What it signifies and what it means. Because the contributions of Latinos to the prosperity of the U.S. are not widely known. And I’m convinced that if you asked the same question of many Americans, perhaps 80%, 90%, or more might give you the same answer that the CEO of a major textbook company gave to me last year.
The contributions of Latinos have been written out of American history and many state history textbooks. So, this is a challenge to our educations system as well.
We’ve also been largely excluded from American media, including Hollywood. What this represents is a void in narrative in American society for a group that is almost 20% of the American population. And that void in narrative, that black hole, has been filled over the years by stereotypes that have been perpetrated by American media. Latinos as gang bangers, as drug dealers, as “illegals.” Latinas as hypersexual on screen and on television.
Those stereotypes are then taken by unscrupulous politicians who abuse them for their own political gain. And the result, the marriage of those two things, is a dangerous mix that, in its worst iteration, produces the kind of tragedy that occurred in El Paso, Texas, in August of 2019, where a madman drove 10 hours to stop what he called the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That gunman in El Paso killed 23 people and injured many more, including people who were not Latino or Hispanic.
This missing narrative, this systemic exclusion, it’s not only dangerous for Latinos, again, but it’s also dangerous for everybody. This work is not only about representation. It’s about how the lack of representation in the media affects the portrayal of Latinos, and really, all Americans.
The media industry, and Hollywood in particular, is still the main image-defining and narrative-creating institution of American society. And Latinos are mostly invisible from this institution.
Just published today, and described for the first time right now, is a new report from the Government Accountability Office (the GAO) — an independent, non-partisan agency — and this report documents the representation of Latinos in media, particularly the film, television, and publishing industries. The report includes an analysis of Latino employment from entry-level to executive-suite in the media industry. I hope this report is a wake-up call for the media industry.
The GAO found that the media industry has a much smaller percentage of Latino workers than the rest of the American workforce. Specifically, Latinos are about 18% of the workforce outside of the media, but only 12% of workers within the media industry.
The media industry would need to increase its share of Latino workers by 50% to match the rest of the American workforce. But over the past few years, from 2014 to 2019, the report shows that Latino representation in the media industry has barely changed at all. And there is a significant disparity between media executives — those at the very top — which are about 80% white and only 4% Latino and the service sector jobs in the media industry — as custodians, security guards, food preparers — where more than 1 in five workers or 22% are Latinos. So, you can see that the workforce is concentrated in the service sector jobs within the media industry.
The worst offenders in the media industry are actually news organizations and publishing houses. The people responsible for delivering hard news, facts to the American people do not reflect America’s diverse population.
At the New York Times, the paper of record for our nation, only 7% of staff are Latino. At the Washington Post, right here in our nation’s capital, only 5% of employees are Latino. Even at the Los Angeles Times, in a city that’s nearly 50% Latino, only 17% of reporters are Latinos.
The fact is, that some of America’s most renowned media companies are the largest and longest perpetrators of cultural exclusion. Just last week, some of you might have seen this, the archivist at the New Yorker, Erin Overbey, shared a very revealing analysis of that publication’s track record on diversity and inclusion. For example, she noted that Latino writers have only published 7 book reviews, 1 profile, and there was not a single cinema review in print from writers or critics of color in the last 30 years.
This is not to pick on a certain publication. I think their editor, David Remnick is a brilliant journalist. They have great people who work on their staff and work as reporters there, but it does signify an incredible cultural exclusion of a major population in the U.S. and there are consequences to that that the media must be cognizant of. The level of cultural exclusion of Latinos in American media is shocking and should alarm us all.
By and large, the American people do not know who Latinos are, where Latinos fit in to U.S. history, and the contributions of Latinos to our nation’s prosperity. It makes the Latino community almost ahistorical, seemingly disconnected from our role in American history. In other words, the Latino narrative is missing in American society.
And this is not to take away from the wonderful work of journalists across the U.S., who day in and day out are publishing stories that do include the Latino community. But we cannot ignore the inequity and systemic exclusion of Latinos in the media industry. And, by the way, it’s not only Latinos who face this challenge.
For years, in much of American media — and especially in Hollywood — the African American story was largely confined to two periods, mainly about slavery and civil rights. We’ve seen progress in recent years with Black creators and writers being able to share their stories in full. Muslim Americans, especially after 9/11, were often stereotyped as terrorists and it impacted how their community was perceived within the U.S. and how their children perceived themselves.
I would argue that Asian Americans have also suffered from a void in narrative that made them more vulnerable to a president who described the virus as in racist terms and resulted in a horrible spike in hate crimes.
After the El Paso tragedy in 2019, I really put my foot on the gas on this issue. I led a congressional oversight delegation to Los Angeles to meet with Latino talent, unions and guilds, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and with major Hollywood studios. And it was clear, for at least some, that while they were aware of the lack of Latino representation, it was not a priority for Hollywood executives. Many of the companies and organizations were not even keeping track of the demographics of their workforce.
Just last week, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published an alarming new study showing that Latinos are almost invisible in Hollywood films, often portrayed as negative stereotypes, and hardly even given a chance at directing movies.
On the big screen, only 7% of films featured a lead and co-lead Latino actor in 2019. And Latinas represented less than 2% of all leads and co-leads across more than 1,300 films. And then, when Latinos are included, more than one-quarter of all Latino speaking characters and over 40% of top-billed Latinos across 100 movies were depicted as criminals in 2019. And behind the camera, only about 4% of directors were Latinos or Latinas. This is what systemic exclusion looks like in an industry.
And it’s not like Latinos don’t go to the movies. In fact, Latinos are about 19% of the population, but 29% of the purchasers of movie tickets. As consumers, Latinos are literally the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Not just in terms of ticket purchasers, but also over-indexing on streaming. I applaud the researchers of others, like Ana-Christina Ramon at the University of California, Los Angeles, to highlight this very irony.
As you all know, every industry produces a product and, oftentimes, a by-product. For example, the oil and gas industry produces energy, but it also produces carbon emissions. The tech industry produces platforms that connect us, but also those platforms help spread disinformation. Hollywood produces entertainment, but over the years it has also produced damning and dangerous negative stereotypes.
So, I started working with members of Congress and with state lawmakers around the country about this exclusion, including the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators led by executive director Kenneth Romero, who’s been a champion on this issue.
State governments give very generous tax breaks to Hollywood in the form of production tax credits. I looked at this from a perspective of a policymaker. If you are a lawmaker representing a community that is 64% Latino, like mine — or it could be a community that is overwhelmingly African American or Asian American — how does it make sense to subsidize an industry where your community, the people you represent, are only getting a tiny fraction of the jobs?
No community should be asked to subsidize their own exclusion. Latinos should not subsidize our own exclusion as taxpayers. We’re already subsidizing the industry as streamers, as purchasers of movie tickets.
I’ve been very impressed by state lawmakers like Wendy Carrillo in the California State Assembly who have successfully pushed legislation, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, so that the California film tax credit will now be directly connected to companies’ plans to ensure their workforce reflects the diversity of our communities. That’s a good step in the right direction, and I hope other state legislators, who offer similar tax breaks, will take up the same measure.
I also want to recognize Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York, who leads the House Judiciary Committee, and last year at the request of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, held a landmark hearing on Latino representation in Hollywood.
From state houses to the halls of Congress, lawmakers are focused on this issue and working hard to advance the inclusion of Latinos in American media and Hollywood.
Working with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, we’ve held meetings with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Meredith, Conde Nast, the Hearst Corporation, Comcast/NBCUniversal, Telemundo, Univision, Disney, Netflix, Amazon Studios, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Sundance Festival, and many more. The purpose of these engagements has been to push the industry on their practices and directly confront company executives on their systemic exclusion of Latinos.
This issue will not fade away over time without a meaningful change in representation. Again, because that representation affects the portrayals that come out of American media.
Now, it’s an established fact, thanks to this GAO report and many other studies, that Latinos are underrepresented in the media industry. The question is now whether the media industry — in film, in television, in books, in news — will accept the challenge to break down barriers and unlock closed doors so Latinos can tell their stories.
It’s also a call for policymakers to greater scrutinize and discern the incentives that they’re providing to the media industry in the U.S., specifically to Hollywood and its tax production credits. Oftentimes, various industries will tell you that we’re just going to go by the numbers. That this is a business. Well, as a policymaker, if I’m looking at the return the people I represent are getting in terms of jobs from the industry and we just go by the numbers, then many of the tax incentives out there are not worthwhile. That’s simply a fact.
So, I want to leave you with this: the thought about what it means for an 8-year-old Latina, who is growing up in Texas, California, Nebraska, or wherever it may to not only never or hardly ever read about anyone from her community in history textbooks who has made a significant contribution to the nation’s history — never to learn about it — but also, to be such an avid consumer of films and television and streaming content and hardly see herself or people like her reflected in that media. What it means for a person, for a young girl, like that growing up in the United States of America in 2021.
And let us all resolve in our own roles to help change that.
See Rep. Castro deliver his full speech here.