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“We Don’t All Fit Neatly Inside a Box”: How Latin Execs Across Studios Are Fighting for More Representation

An 80-strong Latina Squad and more top executives discuss challenges with representation, how they use their power to greenlight authentic projects, and their hopes for the next group of leaders coming up behind them.

Once a month, Tanya Saracho’s Ojalá Production’s headquarters in Los Angeles transforms into a safe circle of trust for the Latina Squad — where more than 80 Latin American executives gather to recommend projects and up-and-comers to their Hollywood peers whose companies may be a better fit.

The uber-connected Latina Squad may seem like a well-kept industry secret. But within the entertainment industry powers-that-be, the coalition is making moves. Founded by Ojalá’s head of development and production Christine Dávila in 2021, the group consists of female executives who get together to discuss their creative needs, provide emotional support and share about the film and television projects they’re working on. The high-powered Squad includes CBS’ Adriana Martínez Barrón, Showtime’s Danielle De Jesus, Entertainment One’s Jacqueline Sacerio and Skydance’s Aimee Rivera, who tell The Hollywood Reporter that countless success stories have come out of their meet-ups, including job hires and writer-director introductions.

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Dávila says that several of the Latina Squad’s members have been able to negotiate pay raises and promotions following discussions where they’ve candidly talked about salaries. A major asset for the group has been sharing such intel, along with resources, to elevate their upward mobility across the industry.

Aimee Rivera
Aimee Rivera Courtesy of Alex Berliner

“Everyone can share what they need, if they need anything, or just share a great moment or a stepping stone,” says Rivera, vp motion picture production at Skydance Media, who worked on Top Gun: Maverick. “A need could be, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in looking for a Latin story in this genre or Latinx voices, either writers or directors,’ and we all will help each other in any way we can — whether it is sharing new voices, material, or career or life advice. It’s a beautiful squad.”

The group’s members — a third of whom are industry veterans — also help inspire and are inspired by the generation coming behind them.

“I’ve been very fortunate to receive mentorship from some of the more seasoned executives, who came up in the industry during a time when inclusivity wasn’t a talking point, let alone a priority,” says Vanessa Martinez, a creative executive at Amazon Studios. “I’ve found more confidence and am now cognizant that my point of view also matters.”

Vanessa Martinez
Vanessa Martinez Courtesy of Thu Huynh

Outside of the Latina Squad’s official members, a collaborative system also exists among other supportive Latin execs to the mission, like Hulu vp drama series Dougie Cash, who has made it a purpose to consistently speak to other Latin execs to find projects that may not be on his radar, but that could be good for the streamer.

“If there is one thing I truly love about Latin and Black Hollywood it is this: We truly embrace and support [each other],” he says. “And I plan on continuing my pursuit of identifying projects that portray these communities in normalized manners, marked departures from stereotypical content we’ve seen in the past.”

Such stereotypical content can stem from there still not being enough Latin writers in entertainment who can accurately portray the culture, says Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report, which examines the relationship between racial, ethnic and gender diversity in TV and film.

“When there aren’t enough people who are writing from their perspective, you get a lot of racelessness. Or you get a lot of people who are just playing deep, default whiteness, even though you can see that they’re not white,” says Ramón, who also serves as the director of the university’s entertainment and media research initiative. “But their characters are not necessarily doing anything that would signal their racial, ethnic or cultural background. Or, if it is, it might be stereotypical or might be very one-dimensional, because the people who are writing are not necessarily from the same group, or they’re not people of color at all.”

Ana-Christina Ramón
Ana-Christina Ramón Courtesy of Mike Baker

Nearly one in five Americans is Latin. But, according to the 2022 reports, only 8 percent or less of lead roles in film and TV are made up of Latinx actors, with that number dropping as low as 3 percent for cable and digital scripted shows specifically. And when it comes to film directors and writers, Latinx creatives only make up 7 percent or less.

While there has been significantly more diversity in the entertainment industry over the last decade, the 12 Latin executives who spoke to THR all agree it’s not enough. There’s an imbalance both in front of and behind the camera, Ramón explains.

And while there still needs to be more lead roles for people of color and more non-whites in writer and director positions, she has found that companies in Hollywood can still be “antagonistic” in wanting to try things that could create change or increase diversity. Their argument is that entertainment is a creative business, and that “you can’t regulate art,” but Ramón disagrees.

“The industry is show business,” she points out. “So, it is a business, and you can regulate business. You can’t hide behind the shield that you’re an art and a creative industry, and then still function as any other corporation would and use outdated methods.”

The researcher argues that the best way to keep increasing Latin representation in entertainment is to continue to greenlight projects by Latin creators and make diversity a mandatory — not voluntary — part of every business plan. Take, for example, Mayans MC, The Mandalorian and The Equalizer, all of which feature more than 50 percent of people of color in their casts.

“You need people to get into those executive positions that have greenlighting power, that have the power to shepherd along projects that are made by Latinx creators,” Ramón states. “That’s the only way.”

Claudia Lyon
Claudia Lyon Courtesy of Elisabeth Caren/CBS

Still, getting to those top-level positions doesn’t always guarantee greenlighting power. “It’s a fact there are just not a lot of Latino executives in entertainment,” says Claudia Lyon, executive vp talent and casting at CBS Entertainment, who has worked on series like Grey’s Anatomy, Supernatural and Gilmore Girls.

Barrón, vp drama series at CBS, points out that companies can’t solely purchase a project for the sake of diversity or increasing representation. “Your shows, first and foremost, have to be commercial,” Barrón tells THR. “The thing that matters is, the more commercial something is, the more successful something is, the more that person has leverage to bring [others] in. Usually, a Latino showrunner will want to bring in and want to try to elevate other Latinos. But that showrunner first needs to prove that they can make money.”

That’s why the exec fights for viable and bankable Latin writers and projects whenever she gets the chance. “When pitches come in that are written by Latino writers, and they make sense for CBS, I very aggressively defend them,” she says. “Then, when it comes to staffing, we’re the watchful eye of the teams to make sure that our rooms are representing the voices that the show needs and that it’s not predominantly white, but that it actually represents CBS values and is much more balanced.”

While not a showrunner, Barrón believes that Eugenio Derbez is a prime example of someone who uses his star power to elevate Latin writers, actors and directors. Through his AppleTV+ series Acapulco, Derbez created an opportunity to give up-and-coming writer Eduardo Cisneros a co-creator role, as well as opportunities for all the other writers and directors on staff.

“In terms of Latino showrunners with blockbuster commercial successes, we’re still working on that in our community, but hopefully, the success of Wednesday on Netflix — a gigantic high-concept show with a Latina lead — will be an indication that you can launch a Latino show that connects with a broad audience,” she says.

Increasing Latin representation in entertainment is the goal for many execs who grew up wanting to see more of themselves onscreen. If they couldn’t do it for themselves, at least they can try for the generation to come.

“I wanted to be a part of that because, at the time, I felt like a lot of the stories that I was seeing and that I was attracted to and passionate about, while they were really great stories, they weren’t necessarily stories that I identified with completely,” says De Jesus, vice president of scripted programming at Showtime, who credits her career to a CBS executive mentoring her in college. “There weren’t as many people that looked like me. And so, for me, it really became a passion about like, ‘How do I tell stories that are reflective of me, my community, my friends, my family?’”

Carlos Aguirre, former vp development at Paramount TV, echoes that sentiment, explaining that he wants his biracial children to be able to see themselves onscreen. “I want to see more stories that reflect our own communities and our own society as a whole,” he says. “My wife is Asian American. My two little kids are Chinese Peruvian American. I’m like, ‘That’s what I wanna see on TV.’”

But it can be difficult to bring all the intricacies of the Latin community to life on the screen, when, to many people, being Latin is wrongly perceived as one big group. Latin is an umbrella term with cultural variations among different regions, from Mexico to Cuba to Puerto Rico.

“The biggest challenge is trying to get people across the spectrum to see our community, see how rich it is and how nuanced in itself it is,” Aguirre says. “We all have a different thumbprint. We’re as different as that thumbprint. We don’t all fit neatly inside a box.”

And that’s just one of the challenges when trying to climb the ranks at an entertainment company as a Latin person. The executives collectively cite such hurdles as trying to enter an industry with no connections, being the only person of color in the room, facing a lack of support from higher-ups or even needing to find a job at a company that’s willing to sponsor a visa due to immigration.

“The older generation, especially the people of color, they had it really, really bad,” says Dávila, head of development at Ojalá. “There is a perverse cycle of some people who perpetuate that like, ‘I had it really shitty so therefore, you have to have it really shitty.’”

Then, there are challenges that are beyond personal control, like an oversaturation of content on television, according to former Starz president of original programming and current Loyola Marymount University visiting professor Christina Davis. While Davis was at Starz, she greenlit projects like Blindspotting, Black Mafia Family and Gaslit.

The way she sees it, streamers are busy throwing projects at the wall and trying to see what sticks, instead of seeking out inspiring and meaningful content. “The big studios and buyers are most interested in massive franchises, marketable superheroes, noisy IP and prepackaged pitches,” she tells THR. “Unfortunately, it’s been trending toward low-risk. Hopefully, the trend swings back toward the voice of the artists — unique stories that shine a light on the diverse worlds and people we haven’t seen before. History has shown us that high risk reaps high rewards.”

And while several of the execs agreed that finding a good mentor is crucial, that can also be tough to do, especially when the best mentoring relationships come organically. Choosing a confidante can seem daunting, whether through a program or university alumni network or simply stumbling across someone who wants to do whatever they can to help the upcoming generation.

Jacqueline Sacerio
Jacqueline Sacerio Courtesy of Eric Charbonneau

“I try and find mentors across the industry and across the board that I feel like I can lean on for different things,” says Sacerio, co-head of scripted development at Entertainment One, who worked on the first season of Yellowjackets. “A lot of it is your peer groups. I’ve had to really lean on people that I trust, that I respect and that I know are looking out for me, that aren’t competitive with me, or are like true, true allies.”

Paul Perez
Paul Perez Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Another way to find a mentor could be through one of the many Latin entertainment organizations that exist like the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Latino Film Institute, to name a few. But producer Paul Perez, who has a first-look deal with Warner Bros., says there aren’t enough bigger organizations making a real difference. “It’s trying to be focused on what the intent of the organization is, and what the mission statement is and pursuing that, because, if not, it’s just another organization that pops up,” Perez tells THR. “Like, what are they going to do now? Tell me something I don’t know.”

But Sacerio adds, “We can’t blame everybody. We also have to do it ourselves. We should be getting together more. There are so few of us at the top. It’s just really tough.”

One area they all agree on is that, with Latin representation still falling short, it’s crucial to show the next generation of Latin execs that there’s a community they can be a part of and help grow.

More than just showing future entertainment leaders how many people are eager to tell stories that reflect their life experiences, it’s also about paving the way. “It’s not just about leaving the door open once you’ve crossed the threshold,” says Aguirre, “it’s about ushering the next generation in.”