In a public address at the White House the day after mass shootings in El Paso left 22 dead and more than two dozen wounded, President Trump described the shooter as a "wicked man." He stated that "mental illness pulls the trigger, not the gun." He denounced "gruesome and grisly video games." He even said we "must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy" and that "hate has no place in America."
Nowhere did the word "Latino" come up -- despite the fact that the shooting has been called "one of the deadliest hate crimes ever against Latinos."
When a reporter asked Trump a few days later if he regretted using the same language as the shooter -- language that characterized illegal immigration as "an invasion" -- the president responded: "I think that illegal immigration is a terrible thing for this country. ... We're building a wall right now." That same day, U.S. immigration officials arrested 680 Latino workers at Mississipi food processing plants, filling news reports with images of children crying for their missing parents.
Since he launched his presidential run by describing Mexican immigrants as "rapists," Trump has put forth a narrative about Latinos that revels in vilification. It's a narrative with few counters, at least not on the scale of a sitting U.S. president and his bully pulpit.
"The major event that contributes to Trump denouncing Mexicans is the vast vacuum that exists, the lack of a multitude of representations of Chicanos and Chicanas," L.A. conceptual artist Harry Gamboa Jr. told me last year when his photographic exhibition "Chicano Male Unbonded," an exploration of the often menacing ways in which Chicano men have been represented, opened at the Autry Museum of the American West. "This allows people to insert negative ideas into the vacuum. And this justifies the mean-spirited behavior on behalf of our government."
Those words have echoed in my head ever since. Latinos represent almost one in five Americans yet remain wildly elusive in popular culture, an area that could battle stereotypes through the broadcast of a more accurate, nuanced or humane picture of Latino life. Or at least dot U.S. highways with billboards of a cape-wearing Latino saving humanity.
"People who don't know Latinos, they go by what they see on screen or on television or the words of the president of the United States," says Alex Nogales, president and chief executive of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "If we are absent from mass media, the people believe the others -- which is the president of the United States lamenting an 'invasion.'"
If ever there were an urgent moment for the various culture industries -- film studios, theater companies, art museums and TV production companies -- to think about and act on issues of diversity and inclusion, that moment is now. And not because diversity is some feel-good thing that makes for a nice talking point during Hispanic Heritage Month, but because rendering an entire segment of the population invisible makes the cultural arena complicit in a marginalization that is entering increasingly dangerous territory.
It is the mass media areas of culture -- cinema and television -- that have the most power to help fill that vacuum. And they seriously lag when it comes to issues of representation. Latinos account for more than 18% of the U.S. population (and almost 50% of L.A.'s population), yet they get only 5.2% of the top film roles and 6.2% of roles on scripted television shows, according to UCLA's 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report.
As Chris Rock noted in a searing essay in the Hollywood Reporter in 2014: "You're in L.A., you've got to try not to hire Mexicans."