Hispanic women navigating Hollywood ranks

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POWER LIST: Hispanic women Power 25

The smiling face of actress America Ferrera in braces, bangs and geeky glasses might not be a revolution in fashion, but it's nothing short of a coup for Hispanic women in entertainment. "Ugly Betty," ABC's Golden Globe-winning comedy, is both a career-making starring vehicle for Ferrera (she's been honored with a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her role) and a crucial victory for executive producer Salma Hayek, who also recently signed a landmark deal to produce Latin-themed pictures for MGM. And "Ugly Betty" is only one of a flurry of projects evidencing that times are changing for the better for women of color in Hollywood.

Writer Luisa Leschin, whose television credits include "George Lopez" and "Resurrection Blvd.," already senses that "Ugly Betty" has whetted the network appetite for Latin-themed programming. CBS recently presented her with an idea for a 13-week South American-style soap opera, for which she has written a pilot. "They came to a female Latina writer for that in their attempt to do more 'Ugly Betty'-type projects on an evening nonprimetime schedule," she says. "So the fact that I was Latin and a woman absolutely got me that job for sure."

Vic Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP's Hollywood Bureau, says that Leschin won't be the only one. "'Ugly Betty' is such a huge cultural phenomenon," says Bulluck. "I would anticipate it would encourage greenlighting Latino projects and also just women's projects in general, because it's popular."


CBS' "Cane" -- created and executive produced by Cuban-American writer Cynthia Cidre -- has already made history as the first Latino-based drama on a broadcast network. "This is a first for the Latino world," Cidre says. "CBS has put everything behind this show, and we're very proud of it. I don't know if you can see from all the publicity, but they've really pushed this. There are 200 people working their butts off to not disappoint the audience or our supporters. I've never had this much responsibility in my life. I love it, by the way. It's not like it's freaking me out or anything. It's really fun!"

On the feature side, Picturehouse's August release "El Cantante," which Jennifer Lopez produced and co-starred in with husband Marc Anthony, was released this past summer; ThinkFilm's "Bordertown," Lopez's acting-producing collaboration with director Gregory Nava, is currently in theaters; and the upcoming Spanish-language drama "La misma luna," purchased at Sundance by Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Co. for $5 million, has huge crossover potential. Directed by Guadalajaran-born Patricia Riggen and written by Ligiah Villalobos, the mother-son reunion drama received standing ovations from festival audiences.

"In terms of a feature film written by a Latina -- and I'm talking about an American Latina -- I cannot think of a single other one (besides 'La misma luna') that I could name you other than the film that Cynthia Cidre wrote, 'The Mambo Kings,' a number of years ago," says Kimberly Myers, director of diversity at WGA. "The success of one film can really begin to make a difference. So these women like Cynthia Cidre and Luisa Leschin and Ligiah Villalobos in a way are pioneers. You wouldn't think in this time that they would be, but they are."

The increasing inclusion of these diverse voices in the writing room means more color on the screen. "We're beginning to see more roles for Latinas that are less stereotypical and encompass more well-rounded, complex characterizations," says Rebecca Yee, SAG's national director of affirmative action and diversity. "We believe such improvements are attributable to an increasing number of Latinos involved in the production process. We also believe that there is a strong Latino market that wants to see more accurate depictions of Latina characters."

Even though the quality of roles and opportunities for Hispanic women is improving, the quantity still leaves much to be desired. The most recent WGA diversity report, which covers 2005-06, shows that a mere 9% of all employed television writers and 6% of screenwriters are minorities, with only a small fraction of these being Hispanic women. The situation for Hispanic actors is only slightly better: A UCLA study by law professor Russell Robinson published in December 2006 reported that almost 69% of roles are reserved for white actors.

While some in the industry attribute these numbers to the lack of Hispanic female role models already working in Hollywood, others cite more concrete obstacles. "My guess is that some of it is that the people who run things are by and large white males who are more comfortable with people who remind them of themselves," says Howard Rodman, USC screenwriting professor and WGA board member. "There has not yet been a critical mass of Latinas in the industry so they can pull more aboard. With every diverse group, it takes somebody to break through, and it takes some people willing once they have broken through to reach a hand back and say, 'Come along with me. This door's now open.' "

Still, progress is sure, if slow. "I believe that this is a quite unbiased industry," says Kathryn Galan, executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP). "It's not a brown issue. You know, I think you could be green if what you were writing, creating, doing is commercial and is seen and a way can be found to sell it."

The bottom line, as always, is that Hollywood is a business. This is why many people feel that the significance of Hispanic women ascending the executive ranks at studios, networks, agencies, management companies and production shingles cannot be underplayed. Some even believe it is the true key to seeing more Hispanic women employed in all fields of the entertainment industry.

"When you look at (president of CBS Entertainment) Nina Tassler, how can you not think that there's hope?" asks Helen Hernandez, president and founder of the Imagen Foundation. "You look at Edy Mendoza, who started off as a page at CBS, and now she's vp of comedy development over at CBS. You look at Belinda Menendez, president of NBC Universal International (Television Distribution); or Christina Norman, president of MTV; or Frida Torresblanco, the producer; or Christina Davis, who's the vp of drama series development over at CBS; or Antoinette Zel, who's the senior vp of strategic planning for Telemundo. We're making strides. Maybe perhaps not as fast as some of us would like to see, but you know what? It's happening."

To highlight the achievements of such high-powered executives, a committee of editors at The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard did extensive field research to rank the following 25 Hispanic Women in Entertainment in the fields of film, television and music. The list evaluates and celebrates each woman's unique achievements over the past year, taking into consideration her position within her entertainment company, influence to get projects greenlighted, budgeted and staffed, and that ineffable but all-important quality -- force of personality. Their substantial and inspiring contributions tell the real story of Hispanic women in Hollywood this year. There's no doubt about it: The door is wide-open.    


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