Originally published at LatinoPOV. Republished by permission.
A dialogue with Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition
Jimmy Franco (JF): Alex, can you share with us a bit of your personal history and what influenced and motivated you to become involved in this type of media work?
Alex Nogales (AN): I grew up in a family of expatriates from Mexico who during the period of the revolution settled in Brawley which is in the Calexico-Mexicali border area of California. They became farmworkers and every June my family and I would migrate to different areas of California in order to find work in the fields and then finally return in December to Calexico, which is a small town 24 miles from Brawley.
Within our community, there existed a Mexicano theater group, a Spanish language newspaper, poetry and other cultural activities which greatly influenced my parents, who then shared this knowledge with me. My parents always stressed education while I was growing up and from an early age I knew that I wanted to work in the world of media. I then became involved in plays, folklorico dancing and other cultural activities.
Unfortunately, I left school at the age of thirteen and later went into the military, but I continued to read a lot ranging from classic novels to newspapers. I attended college in my late twenties and began to do some commercials and after graduation I worked for a children's program as a writer and produced some films for the county of Los Angeles. I then went to work for CBS as a producer for thirteen years.
With the passage of time, I began to realize that despite having talent and a good work ethic, the culture of rampant cronyism and an ethnic ceiling that existed within the industry were blocking many Latinos from progressing in their careers.
JF: What issues led to the creation of the National Hispanic Media Coalition?
AN: During the mid-1980s, I co-founded an organization named HAMAS along with Frank Zuniga who was then a notable director of films. HAMAS as an advocacy group attempted to get more Latinos into the media industry by meeting with management and asking for change. However, since most of its members were working within the industry it was difficult to speak out publicly and forcefully without experiencing retaliation at one's job.
During this time, I met Bert Corona and Joe Sanchez, who provided assistance and encouragement to myself and others in our struggle with the media industry. Soon, we formed the National Hispanic Media Coalition to carry out the immense work of tackling these issues of inequity that existed within the television media industry. An attorney named Armando Dur??n became president of the group and I became vice-president.
We began to acquire the necessary funding in order to develop the organization and broaden out its work. After a while, I decided that I didn't want to work as an employee for the media any longer and have my voice stifled by retaliation, so I left in order to be free to advocate for Latinos from the outside.
JF: What was the relationship between the local media and the Mexican-Latino population in Southern California?
AN: At that time, Chicanos-Latinos comprised about 40 percent of the population in the Los Angeles area, yet there was not one Latino news anchor on local television. To make matters worse, the news media coverage for our community was primarily done as a crime blotter report, which of course only promoted negative images and reinforced stereotypes of our people.
During this period there existed a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation called the Fairness Doctrine. It stated that for radio and television stations to qualify for a license, twenty percent of its labor force had to be comprised of the ethnic groups within the area. Meanwhile, at the majority of these stations Latinos only constituted 2-3 percent of their employees and none were employed in any major decision-making capacity. Still, the stations continued to resist any changes that would have provided equitable hiring opportunities for Latinos
JF: How did the NHMC challenge this discriminatory situation?
AN: We confronted the local station owners with the fact that they were in violation of the Fairness Doctrine and they still fought us in order to maintain the status quo and keep Latinos out. Finally, after much struggle with them and filing numerous complaints with the FCC, we signed a memorandum of understanding with some of the stations in which they grudgingly agreed to change their hiring practices and increase the number of Latino employees working for them.
After this, the other stations fell into line and agreed to abide by this memorandum.
Again, they did not eliminate these segregationist hiring practices voluntarily, but did so only out of fear from the impending threat that they could possibly lose their FCC licensing and thus their profits. We learned a hard lesson which was that only by pushing hard and continuing to apply pressure on the industry could these walls of segregation and cronyism be broken down and opportunities be opened up for young Latinos. It also became apparent that for the NHMC to continue developing as a civil rights media advocacy organization for Latinos that we had to become a national organization with sufficient funding and expertise that guaranteed our political independence and success.
JF: There has been a history of negative Latino images in film and television since the 1920s that has run the gamut from "Latin lovers, Mexican Bandidos, hot Latinas, cantina girls and gangbangers. Have these negative roles been worse in Hollywood films or on television?
AN: The negative stereotypes promoted by the media have been just about the same for both Hollywood films and on television. The old and insulting portrayals of Latinos as the "greaser bandidos" on film and other racist images such as "Speedy Gonzalez" on television have diminished over a long period of time. This was not done by the media out of the goodness of their hearts, but was due to the complaints made by Latino groups and the collective political pressure applied upon the media industry.
Thus, while we still have negative views and images depicting Latinos, they are no longer as blatantly racist as before. When we meet with the heads of the corporate media we always emphasize the need for them to have a balance of characters in regard to portraying Latinos so that different positive role models can be viewed by the public and not simply those of gang members for example. There has been some quantitative progress made as a whole within the industry in regard to eliminating the historically racist images of Latinos. While the situation today is still bad, the insulting images and portrayals of Latinos in the past were much worse.
JF: How do the media's hiring practices presently affect Latinos?
AN: When a proposed film has Latino roles in them the people in charge of the industry tend to look to Spain or Latin America in search of actors and talent to fill these roles. We have a large pool of Latino talent here at home and it is essentially ignored by these casting directors. Also, in filling these Latino roles with actors from other countries the producers try to get the most famous actors that they can while overlooking home-grown Latinos struggling to find work within the industry. Their perspective needs to be expanded in order to realize that Latino talent is available right here at home. On the positive side, the cable channels have created more opportunities for Latinos to showcase their media talents.
JF: Who has progressed the furthest within the media Latino males or females?
AN: In entertainment it's probably about half and half while in news programs and film there are a lot more talented Latinas getting work than men. The heads of the media industry feel more comfortable with roles for minority females as it's hard to find a major Latino actor who gets quality roles on a consistent basis.
One exception has been a very talented Mexican-American actor named Michael Pe??a who is from Chicago.
A new image problem that has arisen with the news programs is that they hire Latinas to do the weather reports and then dress them up in tight-fitting short dresses in order to look sexy rather than emphasizing their professionalism and reporting skills. A Latino male as a news anchor is still somehow threatening to the stations as these positions are usually preserved for white males with a female Asian or Latina co-anchor.
JF: Which local talent has the advantage when a Latino film role is available?
AN: Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have an advantage over Mexican-Americans due to the excellent training that they receive in the New York area from acting instructors and involvement in the extensive number of Broadway theaters located there. Yet in many cases, the casting people from the media industry still go to other countries in search of talent to play Latino characters in films.
The Univision and Telemundo media corporations are based in Florida because there are no unions there and the costs of production are thus lower. These two media groups are generally run by Latinos from other countries and their lack of perspective and knowledge of our homegrown Latino talent causes them to look mostly at Florida and to Latin America for actors and news persons to fill their media positions. It is almost as if the large Latino population within the country especially on the east coast and southwest and particularly its large Mexican-American component are invisible to these people.
JF: What progress has been made in regard to Latino made and directed films?
AN: An ABC executive recently bragged to me in an excited voice how they were working with film directors from Mexico and other Latin-American countries in order to create Latino-themed projects for the U.S. market. What he and others still don't realize is that there is a tremendous amount of Latino talent here in the US that needs to be looked at, discovered and allowed to excel.
It's hard to find one Latino director from the US who is working regularly at one of the major studios. These local directors aren't given an equitable opportunity to present their talent, ideas and projects for proposed films. On the positive side, this same ABC executive agreed to send his casting people to the L.A. Theater Center to audition their actors and diversify their search for local talent. In addition, Telemundo now has a Mexicano president and he and the people at Univision have agreed to begin making more of an effort to hire more Latinos from within the U.S. and to even perhaps make novelas that reflect Latino life here in the US.
JF: What are the latest media issues that you and the NHMC are working on?
AN: Of course, we're still going head-to-head with the heads of the industry to try and persuade them to diversify and open more doors by hiring Latinos who are still vastly underrepresented in the media in front of the cameras and within the realm of production. We have also struggled with the Ken and John program in California which is on KFI AM radio. Their blatant racism and verbal attacks against minorities and particularly Latino immigrants have been horrible, but they are now tempering their portrayals of the Latino community. They are presently attempting to expand their show to the New York area and we're having our New York chapter monitor them.
We also do a lot of work with the telecommunications industry and were involved in preventing the huge ATT from aggressively gobbling up T-Mobile which has a large Latino customer base due to the lower rates that it charges. A hostile takeover by ATT could have resulted in many workers losing their jobs while Latino customers would have been negatively affected by having their rates increased. The Department of Justice and FCC quoted the NHMC's briefs in their case against ATT whose acquisition was not approved. This federal decision embarrassed every major national Latino organization and even Asian and African-American groups who had sided with ATT and their proposed acquisition of T-Mobile.
JF: What advice can you offer to young Latinos/Latinas about a media career?
AN: The present period is the right time to break into the industry as our numbers have increased as well as our political and economic power. In order to get hired, our young people need to be assertive and break down the barriers of cronyism and nepotism within the industry. Many of our youth don't even consider a media career and need to be exposed to the industry and encouraged and trained for these jobs. Latinos are 39 percent of the population in California, yet we comprise only 2 percent of the jobs behind the cameras.
We have arranged for minority persons presently working within the media to speak to students about the preparation needed and benefits of such a career and the response by young Latinos has been positive. Universal Studios even rented a bus to take students to their studios to experience in person how the industry functions.
Studio heads have also agreed to sponsor local schools within the Los Angeles District to provide training and expertise to students interested in a media career and school board member Monica Garcia has agreed to this project. However, there is a lack of money within the school district to implement such a program, so, we're attempting to raise some money to fund this project which will provide the necessary technical training for these students. We now have the demographic numbers so young people have to keep pushing and demand the equal opportunity to work within an industry that makes tremendous profits from Latino audiences of film and television.
JF: What is the ongoing strategy for dealing with the media?
AN: Well, it is now our time as our numbers are growing a well as our influence. African-Americans are way ahead of us because their efforts to gain entry into the industry started sooner and they have had positive results. There are still many obstacles and discriminatory attitudes that need to be confronted within the media.
These narrow and existing prejudices are symbolized by the recent Academy Awards event where the legacy of actress Lupe Ontiveros was completely ignored and the MC of the program spouted sexist remarks and made fun of Spanish accents.
In 2013, this is still the unfortunate situation that we face.
There is a pending discussion with one of the major studios to create a Latino "Roots" mini-series. Such a "Roots" project needs to accurately portray the lives and contributions of centuries of Latinos within the US and would do much to educate the American public and create a new national perspective that promotes a positive image of our people. We also need a new generation of young people to take on this struggle with the media as the wall of white supremacy and cronyism is deeply ingrained and requires a lot more pressure to finally tear down this biased system and institute one based upon equality of opportunity and mutual respect.