Mary Beltrán

Latino TV: A History

New York University Press, 2022

264 pages


Reviewed by Morgan Prince

In Latino TV: A History, Beltrán attempts to rectify a wrong within television academia, as prior to this publication there had not been a comprehensive study of Latino representation in US television. As Beltrán points out throughout Latino TV, case studies have been completed (by herself and other scholars) on specific Latino shows in the US; however, no one has traced the evolution of Latino representation on television before this point. What Beltrán demonstrates in the book is troubling for a society that, until very recently, attempted to portray itself as post-racial. While the lack of African American representation on television began to be rectified in the 1970s, when there was a burst of shows that focused on African American family life that not only aired but flourished, Latino representation on US television has only recently begun to shift. While there were bursts of Latino representation on television from the 1950s on, there has only been a concentrated number of shows that put Latino characters at the forefront within the last two and a half decades.

Beltrán traces the history of Latino representation on US television from the 1950s, the decade when television ownership exploded across the US and people became more likely to recognize a television star’s name than a movie star’s. During this period, she notes, Desi Arnez was one Latino actor who everyone knew, as he was in the most watched show on television, I Love Lucy. Yet he was an anomaly because of his light skin tone and Cuban background, which was seen as more adjacent to White than other Latin American countries. Other than Arnez, the Latino representation on US television in its first proper decade was in Western shows where the Latino character was almost always played by a white person. Sometimes the less serious, comic-relief supporting characters were played by Latinos, but they were always played with an exaggerated accent and with stereotypes that still negatively impact Latinos to this day.

In contrast to the faulty but existent Latino television representation of the 1950s, the 1960s saw nearly no Latino representation on US television. While Latinos began to break into public, informational television at the end of the decade, with much of their efforts being shown in the 1970s, there was a major lack of Latino representation on commercial television at this point. The public television access allowed Latinos to disseminate informational content, in both English and Spanish, to the Latino population of major US cities. They also allowed many Latino people to enter the various creative guilds in which membership is necessary if one wants to work in Hollywood. Sometimes the public television shows would include television plays and small fictional spaces but often they were places for information to be shared rather than spaces where creative works were flourishing.

Latino advocates in the 1970s attempted to use some of the same tactics that they used to get Latino-focused programming on public television, such as license renewal boycotts, to open commercial television to Latino voices but were largely unsuccessful. While the networks would tell the advocates that they were going to greenlight pilots for Latino-focused series, there was nothing that the advocates could do to push them to have the shows air on television. Since the networks were largely using non-Latino talent behind the scenes for the development of these shows, even when they went to air, they often did not last long and came off as inauthentic since they did not show what it was truly like to be a Latino in the US. This trend continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when there continued to be some Latino representation as leads on US television, but each series was primarily run by white people and none of them lasted very long. The only major difference between the shows with Latino representation in the 1970s and those of the 1980s and 1990s was that the shows of the 1980s and 1990s had at least one Latino writer on the staff, minor progress from the decades before when the shows were entirely staffed behind the scenes by non-Latinos.

The 2000s represented a major jump in Latino representation on television. Finally, Latinos gained representation in front of and behind the camera. Shows in this period were now being run by Latinos. While focus had pulled to trying to capture a universal audience, the stories of the shows of this period were more implicitly Latino than in any show that had aired in the previous century. Even though most of the shows of this era did not make the main point of their Latino characters be that they were Latino, there were storylines and elements of each show that made them unabashedly Latino. These shows were aided in their survival by the commitment of well-known movie stars, whose support was necessary for the networks to trust the Latino showrunners. The Latino showrunners were still being negatively affected by the lack of Latinos in leadership roles, where they could move shows directly to a pilot and push it forward even if the enthusiasm was not as strong as the network wanted it to be. That is the major difference between Latino representation in shows of the 2000s and shows of the 2010s and today. While there are still not many Latinos in high-level executive roles, the fracturing of the television model, with the addition of streaming and more cable networks, has allowed for shows that target only a small group of television viewers which allows for more diversity in what is being made. The 2010s and the beginning of the 2020s have shown that Latino presence in US television is only growing and will likely continue to do so as the Latino population of the US grows.

Beltrán traces a history that to this point had not yet been traced in academic literature. In doing so she traces a lineage that is not as full as one may expect it to be. Despite that, Beltrán discusses many shows in the 264 pages of Latino TV: A History, something that weighs the overall narrative down. The book would be much clearer in its message if Beltrán chose fewer series to focus on in her case studies and perhaps discussed the ones she did focus on more extensively. While the reader was given an idea of what each decade has brought forward for Latino representation on US television, and that the road to greater representation has not been straightforward, sometimes this message was muddled by the wide berth of shows that were discussed. Since Beltrán brought up most shows that have prominent Latino representation, it is clear to the reader that such representation has been severely lacking in the history of television in the US. However, even with a smaller number of shows focused on, this narrative would have come through and been stronger because the fewer case studies could have more strongly explicated the other narratives in the book.