Latino actors talk about their rise in a field that hasn't always welcomed them
Three of Hollywood’s biggest Latino stars visited the Notre Dame campus Thursday to share how they rose to the top in a field that had historically marginalized them in stereotypical roles.
Actors Wilmer Valderrama, Mark Consuelo and Nicholas Gonzalez gave a panel talk, “Transformative Latino Leaders in Hollywood: Actors, Producers, Change-Makers.” It was presented by the Institute for Latino Studies in the Hesburgh Library’s Carey Auditorium.
Moderator Jason Ruiz, associate professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, teaches a course called, “Latinx Representation in Hollywood.” He apologized to the panel for "coming in hot" with his first question.
Ruiz said a recent study of 1,600 Hollywood films produced from 2006 through 2022 found that only 5% of the speaking roles went to Latinos, who make up 20% of the U.S. population. He asked the panel for their thoughts.
Valderrama said it wasn’t until the past few years that Latinos have been given the chance at leadership positions, such as directing, producing and writing. Now that more Latinos are in those roles, they’re casting more Latino actors when they fit naturally into a story.
“For so long the expertises of narrative and storytelling has been exclusive to a specific culture or specific group of individuals who made it their expertise to direct, film and perform,” Valderrama said. “So when that becomes this high-level unattainable job, unattainable profession, it becomes a little difficult for other cultures to think they have an in, that there’s a door that they can also walk in, and that opportunity is for them as well.”
At one point, Consuelo asked Gonzalez and Valderrama why there aren’t more Latino showrunners. Gonzalez said Latinos simply need more opportunities to show their talent.
“I mean, I think there’s a lot of different reasons,” Gonzalez said. “One of them is you need to put up a lot of crap before you get stuff that sticks, that’s good. There’s a lot of chances at bat before you can call yourself a professional.”
The discussion wasn’t all serious. There were plenty of laughs from the panel and the audience, especially when students asked the actors for their thoughts on the “Latin lover” and macho masculine stereotypes of Latino men. Each of the actors jokingly described how big of a burden it’s been for them to carry.
Actually, Valderrama said one of the things he enjoyed most about playing Fez on “That 70s Show” for eight seasons was that the character’s gender traits were so ambiguous. It wasn’t quite clear what Fez was or where he came from, but he certainly wasn’t macho.
“I was the farthest from a Latin lover that you can get,” he said, drawing laughter. “I was surrounded by beautiful white men.”
Valderrama said this was the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when the most well-known Latino men on TV had very “hard” images, like Danny Trejo, Edward James Olmos and Jimmy Smits.
“There was this prototype, you know? But that’s just not who we were. And I love playing characters that are so removed from who I am. That’s the only reason why we do it. It’s just so fun. Playing ourselves is boring. Playing something you want people to believe that could exist, or it’s relatable to someone they know, is when it gets fascinating.”
Nayla Guzman, a mechanical engineering major from Houston, came to see Gonzalez. He has played Dr. Neil Melendez on ABC’s The Good Doctor, one of her favorite shows. Like her, he’s from Texas.
“I feel seen, just hearing them talk about their experiences, everything they went through,” Guzman said. “Yes, there’s diversity on this campus, but sometimes I feel left out. There are times where like wow, I can’t do it, and I’m just scared to be myself. And I’m just glad I came to this. I ran across campus to get here.”
Neuroscience and Latino Studies major Alan Saldivar, from the Chicago area, said he found the talk empowering. He plans a career in medicine and was inspired by the amount of time that all three of the actors spend on volunteering and activism to help other Latinos.
“With that sense of fame comes a sense of purpose, almost like, I don’t want to say a responsibility but you have the leverage to make and enact meaningful change,” Saldivar said. “For me as someone who wants to go to medical school, I think that’s awesome not just to serve the science route but also serve the patient, serve the communities that they come from.”
All three of the actors urged Latino students who are interested in breaking into entertainment to start now networking with their peers and practicing writing, directing and acting. Technology gives their generation a big advantage that they didn’t have coming up. They can make high-quality demo reels with their phones and laptops.
Gonzalez encouraged young Latinos to “take up space” with confidence. Valderrama told them to be bold.
“Ask that question, why not me?” Valderrama said. “Why not me? That’s it. That simple. Somebody else is going to do it.”