Last week, I took my 11-year-old daughter to see the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a poignant tale, based on a true story, about a black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South to become a White House butler serving every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.
I worried that the movie might be too heavy a drama for her and, ultimately, was delighted when she declared that she loved the movie and all its historical references — particularly the civil rights era.
Then my daughter asked me something profound: “Are there any movies like that for Mexicans?”
I spent more than an hour explaining that the civil rights movement in our country was not only about African-Americans, but Hispanics as well. She was shocked that segregation extended to the Hispanic community.
And she seemed genuinely frightened when I explained to her the concept of nativism. I told her it’s alive and well in our country, rearing its ugly face most recently when people posted racist tweets as 11-year-old Sebastien De La Cruz — whom my daughter knew from last season’s TV show America’s Got Talent — sang the national anthem at a San Antonio Spurs championship game.
While I enjoyed the conversation with my daughter immensely, I couldn’t help but wonder about the dearth of popular movies that tell the story of Hispanics in America.
I have long preached that the art of storytelling is innate to the human experience — and the reason that some form of the newspaper business will never die. Technology has raised that art form to new heights. But, ultimately, the best stories are those that people can relate to and identify with.
And there are precious few, if any, that fits that bill for my daughter or any of my children.
“There is nothing altruistic about the entertainment industry and Hollywood is one of the most sexist, racist industries in our country,” said Alisa Valdes when I told her about the incident with my daughter.
Valdes has a unique perspective. The New York Times best-selling author was in the process of selling a movie deal based on one of her books when she learned the reality of the movie industry.
Her book, The Dirty Girls Social Club — which sold more than 700,000 copies — is about a group of professional women who happen to be Hispanic. But movie studios told her the book wasn’t ethnic enough; perhaps the characters of the professional women could be altered to be more like … maids or gang bangers.
The experience so disgusted Valdes that she walked away and is now in the process of trying to produce her own movie, a prospect that includes her raising at least $1 million.
It illustrates the enormous challenge Hispanics have when it comes to memorializing the experiences of this diverse culture. Hollywood tends to view Hispanics as a foreign, niche market when the reality is that this nation’s fastest growing demographic represents consumer buying power of $1.2 trillion annually, Valdes said.
“It’s very frustrating,” Valdes lamented. She said a screen writer who adapted screenplays for Waiting to Exhale, and The Joy Luck Club, and whose movies have grossed more than $2 billion, has been trying to help her — to no avail. He suggested they avoid trying to pitch the movie as a Latino project.
So while the rest of the business world is waking up to the power of the Hispanic market, the advice regarding Hollywood is to traipse gingerly so they don’t notice the brown people.
Unfortunately, I think Hispanics are cooperating. When I was my daughter’s age, Hispanics successfully flexed their muscle with the Frito-Lay Corp. and got them to get rid of an offensive little cartoon character that the world knew as the “Frito Bandito.”
Today, if my daughter was so attuned, she would witness the fight between Hispanics over whether we should celebrate or scorn a new television series called Devious Maids, with a Hispanic ensemble cast in which the stars portray sexy maids.
That’s not how the rest of the world should view our women, particularly when those women come in the form of my daughter.
We need a unity of purpose. We must tell the stories of our people and we must demand that others acknowledge the story of our people. If not for us, then for our children.
Carlos Sanchez is editor of The Monitor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (956) 683-4460.