Last week, the Census Bureau released updated population numbers affirming once again that Latinos are America's largest and fastest-growing minority. There are now 52 million of us residing in the U.S.--nearly one in five Americans. Perhaps the most striking statistic is that more than half of babies born in the U.S. are "minorities," and minority children make up half of all children under the age of five--the American future in a nutshell.
If these figures surprise you, you probably watch a lot of prime-time network television. The shows that most Americans watch at night are a serious contrast to our schools, our neighborhoods, and our communities--devoid of a significant minority presence, especially when it comes to Latinos. And the fall TV schedule unveiled last week in New York by the four major networks does little to change that monochromatic landscape, and perhaps will make it even worse.
Gone are programs such as CSI: Miami, Desperate Housewives, and Rob, all of which had lead Latino characters. In fact, not one of the new shows picked up by the networks features a lead or strong secondary Hispanic character.
How bad is it? When NCLR put out its landmark series of reports on Latinos on television two decades ago, we quoted writer-director Jesus Treviño's quip that you were more likely to find someone from outer space than a Latino on television. Well, 20 years later, there will be no Latino family starring on a prime-time network television this September, but there will be a family of space aliens.
We know of at least three programs starring Hispanics that were developed by the networks, meaning the scripts were shot and considered for the schedule. Unfortunately, not one of these shows, even with high-profile producers and actors attached, were placed on the network prime-time schedule.
There's a lot of talk by the networks about reaching out to the Latino audience, but little action. Networks need to be brave enough to pick up shows with Latinos in starring roles. Learn from what works and what doesn't work, then try again until you succeed. Isn't that how all successful ventures work? With the majority of American Latinos watching most of their television on English-language outlets, this is not only the brave but also the smart thing to do.
To those who say it doesn't matter that Latinos aren't on sitcoms or soapy dramas, we say it does matter. It matters a lot. Recently, Vice President Joe Biden cited the effect of Will and Grace on people's view of the LGBT community. Studies have shown that the single most important factor for someone supporting same sex marriage is knowing someone who is gay, including a character on a television show like Modern Family. In other words, when a gay person stops being the "other," the misconceptions and the barriers fall.
There is perhaps no group seen or treated more as the "other" in today's America than the Hispanic community. Yet in today's society, Latinos are everywhere--your librarian, server, investment banker, bus driver, university president, art school teacher, theater manager, doctor, state senator, interior designer, U.S. Secretary of Labor, neighbor, and more.
Yes, we need a change in political rhetoric: a restoration of light vs. heat in news coverage, and more courageous elected officials denouncing scapegoating and demonizing. But Latinos also need to see their reality, America's reality, reflected on a medium that unites us all--television entertainment.
When Latinos are more than just a blip on the screen, our fellow Americans will learn that we want and value the same things--our family, our faith, our work, and our country. And maybe we will at long last stop being America's "other."
This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.