La Reina of Hispanic Hollywood: Bel Hernandez-Castillo

Publisher of Latin Heat and co-creator of Let's Talk chronicles and empowers Latinos in Hollywood

By Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: August 29, 2010

La Reina of Hispanic Hollywood: Bel Hernandez-Castillo

In 1992, Bel Hernandez-Castillo co-founded Latin Heat, the only entertainment trade publication covering Latino Hollywood. Latin Heat has evolved into a multi-media company which includes the magazine, a website (www.latinheat.com), film & TV production and consultancy division. She is considered one of the matriarchs of modern Hispanic Hollywood, a pioneer and advocate for Latino artists' positive portrayal and representation. From when Bel started until now she, by her leadership and vision, has helped change the cinematic climate for Latinos in the film and TV industry.

Speaking across the country on the topic of Latinos in the entertainment industry, she has served as a panelist at the Smithsonian Picture Gallery Museum (along with director Gregory Nava and producer Moctesuma Esparza) and has traveled to various universities, film festivals and events.

She has appeared on numerous national and international television shows including NPR Radio, and CNN's "Ask the Expert" which spotlighted Latin Heat Magazine, ABC's Vista L.A. Telemundo & KWHY in Los Angeles. Ms. Hernandez has been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, Vogue, Latina Magazine, and was selected as "One to Watch" in Hispanic Magazine. She is featured in the book Careers in Entertainment, Career Role Models for Young Adults from Mitchell Lane Publishers.

In 1996, Ms. Hernandez co-founded the Latino Entertainment Media Institute (LEMI), a non-profit organization which produced an entertainment industry conference focused on providing educational seminars, networking opportunities and resources to up-and-coming filmmakers. She also produced the Latin Heat awards gala at the conference for six years.

As a consultant, Ms. Hernandez-Castillo has worked with various entertainment industry companies including The Hollywood Reporter, NBC's Mun2 TV Network, Lifetime Television Network, and NCLR's ALMA Awards telecast on ABC. She works closely with various film festivals and universities including: Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, Reel Rasquache Film Festival (at the University of Cal State L.A.), and the Latino/Chicano Scholarship Gala at Portland State University. For six years she served as chairperson on the Board of the prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards which honor excellence in radio, television, and documentaries.

www.LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had the wonderful opportunity to spend some quality time with a good friend and admired colleague:

AC: Where did you grow up?

BH: I was born in Zacatecas, My mother immigrated my two brothers, one sister and myself to the U.S. when I was about five. My father died before I was born. My mother remarried before we arrived in the U.S. and two more brothers were added to the family. We grew up in Boyle Heights and I attended elementary through high school there to become a graduate of Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights.

While attending high school there were still teachers who insisted we speak only English, so I learned to speak English while attending school and kept my Spanish while speaking at home. That is how I became fully bilingual.

I had a tough time fitting in and always felt like I didn't belong in America. I was Mexican and didn't belong. I was glad I found folklorico, Mexican folk-dance, in high school - I had finally found something I felt I belonged to, something that I could identify with.

AC: Who influenced you to become an actor? Is there one moment when you decided that this is what you wanted to pursue? What was the first role you ever did?

BH: Growing up in Boyle Heights I never dreamed I would have a career in the arts. I was never exposed to the arts. My aspirations were to be a secretary. In my sophomore year, they offered a Mexican folk-dancing class. I strongly identified with being Mexican at that time and I felt this was meant for me. And it was. I really connected and found a passion for dancing. It would change my life and put me on the road to my life's passions.

Folk-dancing lead to me travel to Mexico and work there as a professional dancer. Upon my return I became the assistant director of Teatro Mexicano de Dance - the Mexican Dance Theater. The group was founded by my very close friend Miguel Delgado, a boy I'd met in high school and whom I encouraged to join the folklorico group. He went on to become the assistant choreographer for many well known projects, the first being Luis Valdez's groundbreaking play Zoot Suit. When the production was recasting (because the original cast was going to Broadway) Miguel encouraged me to audition for a dancing role. I got the part of Dora, a dancer and understudy, and I actually got to do my understudy role, so that was my first acting role. We had a tremendous one year run. I got to understand the world of acting and was performing in a hit play. After that experience I decided to pursue acting and began my training.

AC: What about college? What kind of theatrical training have you had?

BH: No one told me I could pursue a degree in dance. If I knew I had that option I would have no doubt pursued it. My higher education came in the world of dance and it consisted of private lessons in ballet, modern, folklorico, and jazz. I became a professional dancer while still in high school and performed with the Ballet Folklorico de Graciela Tapia. I then went to Mexico City to study and dance with the world reknown Ballet Folklorico de Amalia Hernandez. I danced professionally with the Ballet Folklorico de Javier de Leon at the world famous Plaza Garibaldi.

After two years I returned to the states to join and become Miguel's assistant director in his dance company.

AC: What was your first big break? How did you deal with the fame of success? Which performance platforms did you enjoy the best? Film, Theater, TV?

BH: As a dancer, my first break was when I joined the Ballet Folklorico de Graciela Tapia. I have never been famous, but I have always done what I love. Fame has never been important to me. Doing what I love is what is important to me. I love theater. There is such a different rush doing theater. In film and television, I have been lucky in the sense that once I began acting I was part of some of Latino Hollywood's milestones, albeit in small roles in films like Greg Nava's My Family/Mi Familia and Selena. I was in the pilot of Beverly Hills 90210. I played Mario Lopez's mom in Saved by the Bell and played opposite Jimmy Smits in L.A. Law, his first TV series. I worked in a small film with a teenage Tom Cruise called Losin' It as well as small, but memorable roles.

AC: In 1992 you decided to give up performance and started publishing a magazine. Why?

BH: I didn't just one day decide to give up performing and begin publishing. I fell into it. In 1992 New Line Cinema announced they were going to produce the film Frida (not the Salma Hayek one, this was way earlier). Finally a non-stereotypical role us Latina actresses could audition for, we thought. However, New Line only auditioned two Latinas for the role before declaring that there were no Latinas who could do the role. They decided to go with a "name" and cast Laura San Giacomo (who at that time had minimal credits and was not a big name).

A group of us, lead by my good friend Dyana Ortelli, decided we could no longer remain silent. Hollywood was denying us access to the audition process. We organized a protest in front of New Line Cinema corporate offices. Over 200 people showed up to protest, mostly women dressed as Frida, uni-brow and all (even my 2 year old had her uni-brow going), and we received lots of local, national, and international press. After the protest I realize we had the power to affect change. Our group decided to produce a newsletter that would keep our issues in the forefront. Eventually it was just Loyda Ramos and I who continued to publish. Loyda left shortly afterward and I continued with the publication. That is how my career as a journalist began.

As Latin Heat grew, I no longer had time to go out on auditions. It became a matter of 'do I stay and finish the newsletter or do I go out for yet another stereotypical role?' I chose the first option. I felt empowered by the written word, unlike auditioning where I auditioned for the endless roles some Hollywood writer, who had no idea of who Latinos were, wrote of a maid, gang banger, prostitute, or field worker - people they either read about in the news or employed.

AC: Why did you call it Latin Heat? How had the magazine been received over the years? What were the biggest stories and biggest disappointments?

BH: We first called our newsletter Latin Beat, but we soon found out there was already a music magazine by that name. We changed our name to Latin Heat. The newsletter, which eventually became a bi-monthly entertainment industry trade publication (much like Hollywood Reporter or Variety) filled a void: the lack of coverage of Latino entertainment professionals.The goal of Latin Heat was to give these professionals a place to shine, to promote their projects and to address issues in their professional lives. We discussed issues relevant to our industry. In 1992 it was rare to see much news on Latinos, either in front of or behind the camera, in the other two more established trades: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

Many in mainstream Hollywood saw the value of Latin Heat and would outreach to us to promote when they had a Latino in their shows. We began focusing on network, studios and individuals who were way ahead of their time and already creating a diverse world in their projects. We began interviewing persons like Aaron Spelling and Dick Wolf who made sure they included a diverse cast and wrote roles for Latinos in their series.

We covered the business of Latinos in Hollywood featuring Oscar nominated writer/directors like Gregory Nava (Mi Familia, Selena, El Norte), up and comers (at that time) like Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck) when his first feature Star Maps premiered, Jennifer Lopez when she made her first splash in Mi Familia/My Family and then went on to be the first Latina to earn a million dollars for a role in Selena. We published special issues centered around Latino Hollywood milestones like the Selena Special Issue when the film premiered. We had the very first cover story for Dennis Leoni's Resurrection Blvd., the first dramatic series on TV which aired on Showtime and we distributed it at the Television Critics Association press tour We coined the term "American Latino" and printed a special issue on these indie Latino filmmakers. No other publication was doing this at the time. No other print publication is doing it now.

AC: Do you believe that print media is dead?

BH: No I don't think print media is dead. It's just very expensive to print, but it will never die. On our part, I have hopes and dreams that Latin Heat will once again be in print since no other print publication has been able to do what Latin Heat has done for 14 years. We need to go back to printing. It's always nice to have that magazine in your hand and have a nice spread with pictures and information looking right back at you.

At first Latin Heat print magazine had trouble getting advertising because first of all, we printed in English. Advertising agencies insisted we needed to be in Spanish in order for them to give us advertising dollars. They had convinced the advertisers that to reach Latinos, you had to do it in Spanish. We knew differently and backed it up with stats. Secondly we were a trade publication, so general market dollars didn't come our way. And finally there was no "Latino entertainment industry" to sustain a trade magazine that would cover them in a major way.

Fast forward to the present. Things have fallen into place: (1) Ad agencies and advertisers have realized that there is a big, untapped, English-speaking sector of the U.S. Latino (about 60%) population who are mostly upwardly mobile, high income-earning and highly acculturated Latinos they can target - in English; (2) we are still a trade, but have elements of an Entertainment Weekly style of content so there is room for general market dollars; (3) There is now a "Latino entertainment industry" that would benefit from a publication that will, in turn, promote their projects and the increasing talent pool. Most importantly we are read by mainstream Hollywood.

Since we stopped printing in 2005 there have been many project, talent, and industry milestones. Industry research has gone un-addressed.

AC: You are one of the matriarchs of Latino Hollywood. Do you think you have contributed to the career successes of other people?

BH: I have been told by individuals who read and/or subscribed to Latin Heat and who attended our entertainment conference, which we produced for 6 years, that they read about, made a connection, or began a collaboration with someone because of Latin Heat. Some of these persons now work at FOX, Disney, ABC or other networks or studios. Some of them have gone on to be writers, executives or have produced their own films. It makes me proud to know we might have helped out, even if it was only a small part.

AC: How is Hollywood different now for Latinos than when you started Latin Heat?

BH: In 1992, we were dismissed and not even allowed to audition for the ONE Latina leading role of Frida. Presently there are at least six Latinas that can actually be cast and are cast, in a leading roles: Zoe Saldana; Jessica Alba, Eva Mendez, America Ferrera, Penelope Cruz, Salma Hayek. There are countless other well established actors and actress on TV and film on a smaller scale. George Lopez has a syndicated show and a talk show; one of the top Hollywood producers is Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Transformer); we have nearly a dozen well known television executive producers (including Rodrigo Garcia, Peter Murietta, Silvio Horta, Salma Hayek); Eva Longoria was named as Hollywood's Philanthropist Of The Year by Hollywood Reporter; and there are almost a dozen new Oscar nominated and winners since 1992 (among them Benico del Toro, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Adriana Barazza, Pedro Almodovar, Jorge Drexler, Salma Hayek and others). I'd say things have changed for the better.

AC: How do you feel about the various Latino awards shows?

BH: Latino Award shows obviously became necessary because we were being overlooked in the mainstream awards. It would be nice just to be included in the mainstream awards, but we are not fully there. There is still a need for Latino award shows, but these award shows have to be based in Hollywood and they need to be knowledgeable of the entertainment business. They need to have the pulse of the industry and know who deserves to be recognized. They need to engage industry peers to help with the voting process and find the most deserving talentjust like the big boys do it. There are two such Latino awards that honor TV & Film talent and executives in Hollywood that have the credibility and reputation that make the award coveted.

AC: Tell us about the boards you have participated with.

BH: I was fortunate to sit on the prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards Board for six years. The last year I served at the Board Chair, the only Latina in the Peabody Awards' history to do so. In my last year, as the Chair I spoke to an audience of over 900 at the Peabody Awards which was held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was such an out of body experience to be standing in front of such distinguished persons like that year's winners Christiane Amanpour, Stephen Colbert, Bob Woodward, the cast of Mad Men, Heidi Klum and so many others. Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed I'd have the opportunity to do that. And most surprisingly, I felt I belonged. I identified. We were honoring excellence.

AC: You do a lot with regard to community service. Please tell us about the award you are scheduled to receive.

BH: I am receiving the National Hispanic Media Coalition Community Service Impact Award on September 9th. I was so honored to get the call from the NHMC's president Alex Nogales when he told me. Alex is such a big part of what is going right with the Latino Hollywood community. I love what his organization stand for and what they are doing with the network report cards and the hate crime initiatives. Together Alex and I have fought many of the same battles for equality in Hollywood and now to be recognize by this organization makes me ecstatic.

AC: How do feel about New Media? How has it changed the way the Hollywood community interacts? Is it better or worse?

BH: New Media can revolutionize the entertainment industry for Latinos in the U.S. and worldwide. Where else can you take an idea that Hollywood just doesn't get and do it yourself? With technology lending itself, it would behoove any person, any Latino, to stop complaining and just go ahead and put your idea on film and get it on the web. And I would hasten to say, do it now, because pretty soon the big boys will make sure the regulations that are sure to come will basically wipe out the small fish. So get in now and become a big fish.

AC: What are your plans for www.latinheat.com? Where would you like the website to be in five years? What kinds of things would you like to grow into?

BH: We continue to try and stay ahead of the on-line curve. With so much new technology it is very hard for a small company like us to do that. This is why I am looking for an investor to see our vision, then invest and make it happen. In five years I hope to be funded to have the website that will be ahead of the curve replete with our editorial/information/resources driven channels, lots of video content, searchable database and so much more that I am sure hasn't even been invented yet.

AC: Tell us about "Lets Talk!" Whose idea was it and what are some of the things you have covered? You are a very good host. Where do you want to go with it? Why isn't it a cable or network TV show?

BH: Let's Talk! was created to fill a void much like Latin Heat was. It's a talk show with a twist of flavor and a shot of relevance - a show with a perspective not seen anywhere on network TV - an English-language show with a Latina perspective. The Latina perspective is, for the most part, absent on English Language TV. For years we have been lobbying for a Latina voice on The View and for years we have been ignored. I am of the opinion that, if you want it and it's not there, then create it. That's what we did with Let's Talk! And thank goodness we could do it on the web.

I am also lucky that throughout the years I have met very talented people. One of those is producer Miguel Torres, my partner in the creation of Let's Talk! He takes care of the technical part, which I know nothing about.

My husband, Enrique Castillo, an actor in his own right (Weeds, Outlaw, Blood in Blood Out) is helping us with directing the show. The other three hosts are actresses Dyana Ortelli, Marabina Jaimes and Kikey Castillo. We have a talented crew of professionals: writer Elia Esparza, make up artist Franco of Franco's Make Up Academy, and executive producers Lorena Alvarado and Karina Castillo

We created the show because we had something to say. It's on the internet for all the world to see, but yes we want to be on a network to also capture that audience. But that has always been the battle: convincing the networks that Latina(o)s matter. So for now we continue to have the show on www.latinheat.com and on www.letstalkshow.tv for the world to see and we continue to look for a network that wants to produce a show that matters.

AC: What are your personal plans? Do you ever get the acting bug now? What about producing and/or directing?

BH: I have no plans to go back to acting. I was recently offered the opportunity to audition for a role, a good role, a non-stereotypical role, but my heart is not in it anymore and I would rather someone who really has a passion for acting get that role. My passion lies in journalism and producing. No, directing is something I will, I think, never do. It does not interest me. However, I have been producing since I produced the Latin Heat conferences and I am good at it. I executive produce Let's Talk! and I am producing my husband's projects. At the moment we are working on two of his scripts, a film and a theatrical presentation on the contributions of Latinos in America's defense.

AC: What do you feel is your legacy so far? How would you like history to remember you?

BH: I never think about my legacy other than a personal one and that is that I was a good person, that I added value to someone's life. I would like people to remember me rather than history. History can be re-written, but you can never re-write what you left in someone's heart.

Check out Bel Hernandez on www.latinheat.com and watch her "Let's Talk Web cast, via www.letstalkshow.tv.

About Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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