Imagen: Change is good

As roles for Latinos evolve, so too do the awards

Since the Imagen Awards were established in 1985, their goal has been to encourage and recognize the positive portrayals of Latinos in the entertainment industry. So some might find it strange to see Jimmy Smits' turn as a Cuban-American district attorney whose skewed vision of justice drives him to murder on Showtime's "Dexter" and Edward James Olmos' performance as the voice of the Doberman El Diablo in Disney's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" among the nominees for this year's awards, presented tonight at the Beverly Hilton. After all, a cold-blooded killer and an evil dog can hardly be seen as role models.

According to Imagen Foundation president Helen Hernandez, it doesn't represent a betrayal of the organization's mission, but rather an evolution.

"First of all, our whole premise is to really show people the vast diversity and capabilities of the Latino community," says Hernandez, who co-founded Imagen with producer Norman Lear. Imagen's mission has "evolved to looking at the actors and writers and producers and how we're considered for different types of roles."

The diversity of the this year's nominees -- which range from ABC's "Lost" to Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" -- demonstrates that the roles haven't only gotten more plentiful as the Latino population in the U.S. has mushroomed in recent years, they've become more interesting and nuanced. The question is, how much?

"A lot of the barriers have come down," says A Martinez, who's nominated for best supporting actor/television for his performance in Lifetime's "Little Girl Lost: The Delimar Vera Story." "But it's still reflective of the culture at large in the fact that most of the roles that drive television drama, for instance, are for Anglo people."

According to a 2007 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos constitute 15.1% of the total U.S. population, or 45.4 million people, making them the second-largest ethnic group behind non-Hispanic White Americans (68%), but a SAG report found that in 2006 they only commanded 6.3% of all TV and film roles. By comparison, blacks, who constitute 13.5% of the U.S. population, had 14.5% of the roles, while Caucasians had 72.3%.

This year, two Imagen Awards categories did not meet the minimum number of entries required for award consideration and were eliminated from contention -- best actress/feature film and best supporting actress/feature film. But Hernandez says it's not because of a lack of representation on the big screen; rather, it's because of a lack of entries. In the past year, there have been high-profile films featuring such Latinas as Penelope Cruz ("Elegy," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Rosario Dawson ("Seven Pounds") and Jessica Alba ("The Love Guru"), but they weren't submitted for consideration by their representatives.

"Why aren't the agencies, the managers and the studios taking this seriously enough?" Hernandez asks. "It's interesting. With the actors, we don't seem to have a problem."

Is it simple incompetence or are some actresses afraid to be identified as Latinas?

"You could make the argument for both," says Judy Reyes, who's nominated for best actress/television for "Little Girl Lost." "Some actresses don't like to be pigeonholed or limited. Typically, with awards like Imagen there are certain actors who are constantly nominated who never show up," though she notes that Alba and Dawson are not in that group.

"Most of the artists I know that are Latin-based really don't like to be cultural at all," Olmos says. "They would rather just be known as artists, not Latino or Hispanic actors. And I understand that totally. You never hear anybody say, 'That great Italian-American actor Al Pacino' or 'Jewish-American actor Dustin Hoffman.' But you do hear 'Latino-American actor Edward James Olmos.' A lot of actors, like Andy Garcia, will really get angry if you do that to them. They'll say, 'Are you kidding me? I'm an actor. What does my culture have to do with my art form?' I'm just the opposite. I want people to use the word Latino every time they speak about me."

Embracing one's identity as a Latino actor doesn't just mean facing the prospect of typecasting, it also means dealing with the pressure, both internal and external, to be an Imagen Award-worthy community role model.

"That's something we're always grappling with," Smits says. "You want to be able to show your versatility as an artist and an actor, and that means you have to do all different kinds of things. If the playing field were level all around, it wouldn't be an issue. But it's not."

Consequently, Smits makes a concerted effort to maintain a balance in his own career choices. He cites his work for PBS -- including hosting their July Fourth celebration this year and a four-part documentary he produced on Latin music in the U.S. scheduled to air in October -- as an effort "to send a subconscious message to the public that (Latinos) can be accepted on all levels." It gives him the psychic freedom to accept roles like Miguel Prado on "Dexter," which "takes the 'imagen' -- the image -- that I have from the roles that I've done in the past, which were role models -- the lawyer, the cop, the politician -- and turns it on its head," he says.

Of course, having the ability to pick and choose ones roles is a luxury most actors, regardless of ethnicity, only dream of. Only in the upper echelons of superstardom does one have the ability to transcend ethnic casting barriers at will, and so far no Latino actor has reached those heights.

"We don't have a Will Smith, we don't have a Denzel Washington," Olmos says. "We don't have a Tom Cruise or an Al Pacino."

But Martinez believes the dream is within reach.

"You can't really say that the doors are locked when you have Obama as president of the United States," he argues. "It's possible for everyone to do everything. It's been demonstrated on the biggest stage."

"There's more opportunity to seize opportunity," Reyes concurs. "What we cannot do is victimize ourselves. We have to write, create and produce."

One Latino already doing that on the big stage is Roberto Orci, this year's recipient of Imagen's Norman Lear Writer's Award. With partner Alex Kurtzman, he has scripted the blockbuster revival of the "Star Trek" franchise and both "Transformers" films and executive produced the Sandra Bullock comedy "The Proposal." Although there is little overtly Latino about those projects, they're subtly informed by his experiences as a Mexican native who moved to the U.S. at the age of 10.

"I thought of Spock as a Latino who comes from another world and has to assimilate with all of his American friends," Orci says. "In a way, Kirk and Spock (were) drawn from my friendship with Alex. He's Kirk, the guy from Earth, and I'm Spock from another planet."

But the stories that have the strongest impact on the community are those in which the central characters are literally Latino.

Olmos recalls speaking with Evelina Fernandez, his co-star in 1992's "American Me," following the premiere of his SyFy series "Battlestar Galactica," in which he plays Adm. William Adama.

"She called me, crying, and stated that her nephew had just called after seeing the show and was just so ecstatic and so happy," Olmos remembers. "He kept saying, 'I saw us in the future! I saw 'Battlestar Galactica,' and we were leading the ship!' "