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The Real Problem With Sean Penn's Green Card Joke at the Oscars

02/27/2015 05:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015
Kevin Winter via Getty Images

As I was watching the final moments of a very long Oscars telecast, all but certain that Birdman was about to be announced Best Picture, I was not offended so much as baffled when Sean Penn joked about Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's green card since Penn, while a talented actor, is not known for being a bigot or, for that matter, funny.

I realize that both Penn and Iñárritu later said that this was some good-natured ribbing between friends, an inside joke. But I also understand--and they should, too--why so many people in the Latino community took offense. Even on the most triumphant Oscar night ever for someone of Hispanic heritage, Penn's joke reinforced Latinos' perception--borne out of history and experience--that Hollywood believes our community does not belong at the Academy Awards. Not only were there no Hispanic acting nominees, but a Latino has not been nominated for Best Actor since 2011, or a Latina for Best Actress since 2006. If you are a U.S.-born Hispanic, the landscape is even grimmer: No Best Actor nomination since 1988 and no Best Actress nomination since... ever. That's right: No U.S.-born Latina has ever been nominated for Best Actress. In nearly a century of Oscars, you can count the number of total acting awards won by Latinos on one hand plus an extra finger.

Our virtual invisibility at all Hollywood award shows--not just the Oscars--is why NCLR created the NCLR ALMA Awards 20 years ago. We realized that if the many contributions of Latino talent both on-screen and behind the camera were going to be recognized and honored, we would have to do it ourselves. Unfortunately, two decades later, that still seems to be the case. After 15 ALMA shows honoring hundreds of Latinos and Latinas in Hollywood, the Oscars still managed to only showcase a couple of us--Jennifer Lopez and Zoe Saldana--as presenters on Sunday night's show.

But we also do ourselves a disservice by dwelling on Penn's dopey, spur-of-the-moment quip, because it overshadows the best moment for Latinos on television in a long time: Iñárritu's Best Picture acceptance remarks. It is a tribute to Iñárritu that in the greatest moment of his career thus far, he chose to focus on the plight of those who are too often invisible. He said, "I just pray [that Mexicans here in the United States] can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible immigrant nation." In just one sentence, Iñárritu captured the hopes and dreams of the nation's 55 million Latinos. And he did so in front of the estimated billion people around the world watching the event, giving voice to something never before heard on such a large scale. The best way to make sure that people forget Penn's crassness is for us to make sure that people do not forget these timeless and eloquent words.

This piece was first posted to the NCLR blog.