How Imagen Awards Leaders Are Working to Get More Latinos Recognized in Hollywood

Courtesy of Subject
Helen Hernandez

The Imagen Foundation looks to spearhead a movement for more Latinos recognized for their work in Hollywood: "The industry has not made the connection with [Hispanic/Latino] writers or they don't know where to look," Imagen Foundation President Helen Hernandez says.

In recent years, names like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gina Rodriguez and director Guillermo del Toro have made significant impacts to the entertainment industry, all having won high honors in their respective fields, including a Tony, Golden Globe and an Oscar, respectively. The trio of Latin stars have also recently been honored at the Imagen Awards, an annual event that celebrates Latino representation in the industry. Though these stars and other Latinos have made professional strides in their careers, the public's lack of awareness of their accomplishments is a key issue going forward for Imagen Foundation President Helen Hernandez.

“I can’t believe our people are not as competitive as everyone else,” Hernandez told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the 33rd Annual Imagen Awards. “It only speaks to why Imagen has to exist, because if we’re not doing it, no one will do it.”

The Imagen Awards were created in 1985 as a joint effort between veteran producer Norman Lear and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Hernandez, who worked with Lear as vp public affairs for what is now Sony Pictures Entertainment, was the liaison that brought the two groups together. Hernandez said Imagen began as a luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with fewer than 100 attendees. The goal was to have something to promote positive portrayals of Latinos in entertainment. That meant no more having to settle for the roles of the maid or criminal, the most popular roles for Latinos at the time.

“You get more with honey than you do with vinegar,” Hernandez recalls Lear saying at the initial meeting that sparked the creation of Imagen.

Since 1985, Imagen has grown into a yearly black-tie dinner with 600 to 700 attendees (this year's ceremony takes place Saturday at the J.W. Marriott L.A. Live). Although they have honored Latin icons including Salma Hayek, Rita Moreno and Jenni Rivera in the past, a mission for Imagen is for major awards ceremonies outside Imagen to recognize Latinos in the same capacity that they do. “[Imagen] is the only mechanism we have to celebrate our creative community,” Hernandez said.

Earlier this year, former FiveThirtyEight chief culture writer Walter Hickey examined voting at the Academy Awards. In his research, Hickey pointed to 2013 as a turning point for the Academy, as it looked to remedy criticism over its lack of diverse voters by adding a significant amount of new voters to the fray.

“Since 2013, the Academy has invited 2,296 people to join its ranks, which, after accounting for deaths, declined invitations and loss of voting status, translated to a net increase of 1,402 voters. This means somewhere between 19 and 32 percent of the Academy voters have joined in the past five years,” he wrote in February. 

Hickey, who has since created the daily newsletter Numlock News, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on what the voting change means for the awards ceremony at large. “The Oscar electorate may begin to behave more like the electorate of union and guild awards than it has in the past. While it's not perfect, the guild's membership likely represents the broadness and diversity of the industry better than the Academy has, historically. This may also mean the Oscar electorate will be less likely to follow the lead of critic awards, whose membership, has broadly speaking, not undergone the transformational shift the Academy has pursued,” Hickey said.

There remains to be an in-depth study specifically in regard to awards representation, although the recent wins at the Academy Awards for best director by del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — all of Hispanic descent — may be a sign of things to come.

And while it may see like there is more content geared toward Latinos than ever before with shows like CW’s Jane the Virgin and NBC’s Superstore featuring prominent Latino leads, studies show there is a disproportionate amount of Hispanic/Latino representation onscreen than what is reflected in the U.S population. 

According to a Columbia University study, titled "The Latino Media Gap Report," conducted in 2013, since 1940, Latino participation in popular media has very modestly increased and at times even decreased proportionate to the amount of Latinos in the U.S. today. In the 1950s, for example, Latinos were on average 2.8 percent of the U.S. population. In the top 10 scripted shows at the time, Latinos were 3.9 percent of lead actor appearances and 1.5 percent of all lead roles. When looking at the top 10 movies of the '50s, the study found that Latinos made up 1.3 percent of lead appearances and played 1.7 percent of lead roles. By 2013 Latinos comprised 17 percent of the population. Despite that, Latinos actually comprised none of the lead actors among the top 10 movies and scripted network TV shows.

Most recently another study was released in July 2018 by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Of the top 1,100 most popular films between 2007 and 2017, only 6.2 percent of characters onscreen were Hispanic/Latino. While this is an improvement from the 3.3 percent seen in 2007, according to the study, each film would need 15.8 percent of its characters to be Hispanic/Latino for it to be proportionally representing the U.S. population. Currently, Hispanic/Latinos make up 17.8 percent of the population and, according to the same Columbia University study mentioned before, Latinos attend more movies than any other racial and ethnic group. The Columbia study projected Hispanic/Latinos having $1.6 billion in buying power by the year 2015. 

Hernandez recognizes that there has been a slight uptick in representation. This year Imagen received 218 eligible entries for its awards ceremony, a jump from last year when Imagen had 165. But for it to remain on an upward trajectory rather than become a passing fad like in the '50s, Hernandez wants more industry executives at places like Netflix and Hulu to offer organizations like Imagen a seat at the table.

“The industry has not made the connection with [Hispanic/Latino] writers or they don’t know where to look. I welcome them to contact us and we’ll do everything we can to make it happen for our folks on the creative side of the business,” she said.

The fear that the slight rise in Latino representation in front of and behind the camera is really just a passing fad is not lost on Hernandez, who has seen the Imagen Awards nearly stopped twice, both in 1988, due to lack of talent to nominate that year, and in 1995, when the NCCJ, according to Hernandez, decided the Imagen Awards didn’t have “any kind of influence.”

Imagen creative consultant and famed choreographer Kenny Ortega has been apart of Imagen since the beginning. Ortega told The Hollywood Reporter that supporting Imagen is beyond supporting an awards show, that adding to its membership and influence helps keep the entertainment industry accountable.

“It’s so less about winning awards and more about coming together and being reminded how how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go,” said the Hocus Pocus director and High School Musical mastermind.

Ortega is a second-generation American whose grandparents initially came from Spain on a boat that took off to Hawaii. Ortega, who has choreographed award-winning films like 1987's Dirty Dancing and music videos like Madonna's "Material Girl," said he has personally dealt with self-doubt on making it in the industry in his past because of his heritage. He recounts a time in his life when he had to pay a lot of dues as an up-and-coming choreographer solely because his name was Ortega.

During one particular production, Ortega said, a standards and practices exec went up to him, telling him to switch up the dancing partners, saying “the chorus line is too dark,” referring to the color of the dancers' skin.

“I looked up and, there were about 2,000 lights above the stage that weren’t turned on. I said ‘Why don’t you have them turn on more lights then?'” Ortega said.

It’s not a secret that, in recent years, Hollywood has been on the clock to be more inclusive. Not only has concern come from consumers, but also from those already in the industry. There have been sweeping movements like the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and actors including inclusion riders to their contracts, but for those in the Latino community proper recognition is only just getting started.

“We just need to keep rolling,” Hernandez said. “Until the industry takes full notice of our abilities creatively, we need to keep growing [the Imagen Awards] every year.”