Latino Circuit: Latinos and Oscar – A Sob Story

Roma Yalitza

As the 2018-2019 awards season switches into high gear, we face the prospect of repeating a story that has been told ninety times over: little Latino representation at the Academy Awards, particularly in the highly-visible acting races.

A cursory review of Oscar history reveals that Hispanics/Latino actors, in particular, have done poorly with the Academy. Under some measures, the numbers are worse than the meager showings by other minority groups. Curiously, Hispanics have had some success, particularly of late, in non-acting Oscar races. What explains these phenomena? Is there really a dichotomy between the acting and non-acting categories? If so, why the dichotomy? Let’s take a look.

(Note: who to count among “Hispanic” or “Latino” is itself the subject of persistent and intractable debate. For example, do Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem count, both of Spanish descent? We tried to be broad in this column so that the point stands. The resolution of the quandary is for another day.)


Oscar has not been particularly kind to people of Hispanic or Latino descent over its nine decades. Wikipedia lists Hilary Swank as the only woman of Hispanic descent to win Best Actress. No offense to Hilary, but her Hispanic heritage was news to me. The category also featured Salma Hayek (2002’s “Frida”) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (2004’s “Maria Full of Grace”). That’s about it.

Rita Moreno West Side StoryPuerto Rican actress Rita Moreno took home a Supporting Actress Oscar back in 1961 for the Best Picture-winning “West Side Story” while Cuban-American actress Mercedes Ruehl similarly triumphed in that race in 1991 for “The Fisher King.” A handful of other women (Adriana Barraza, “Babel” and Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”) have also been nominated, but with no success.

The men have had a slightly better showing—but it has been a while. The Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer won a lead acting trophy in 1950 for “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with a previous supporting nod in 1948 for “Joan of Arc.”

Mexican-born actor Anthony Quinn himself won two supporting prizes (1952’s “Viva Zapata!” and 1956’s “Lust for Life”) to go along two lead acting nods (1957’s “Wild is the Wind” and 1964’s “Zorba the Greek”). These were all within the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s before Benicio del Toro won Supporting Actor for “Traffic” in 2000. If you add Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem’s supporting trophies in the last fifteen for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “No Country for Old Men,” that is the entire picture.


DenzelWashington TrainingDayLooking at the pretty pitiful history of awards recognition of other minorities, a similar story continues to be told. Looking only at African Americans, we know that only one woman (Halle Berry for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball”) has taken the lead actress Oscar. On the other hand, a few more men, including Sidney Poitier (1963’s “Lilies of the Field”), Denzel Washington (2001’s “Training Day”), Jamie Foxx (2004’s “Ray”), and Forest Whitaker (2006’s “The Last King of Scotland”) have triumphed as Lead Actors. Similarly, the supporting categories “boast” at least over a dozen African American winners. Regrettable numbers, but still, ever so slightly higher than for Hispanic actors.

Turning to another group, Haing S. Ngor (1984’s “The Killing Fields”) is the only Asian man I can identify to win an acting trophy (supporting), to go along with Miyoshi Umeki’s supporting Oscar in 1957 for “Sayonara,” and a scattering of nominations since then. Ben Kingsley also won a lead acting Oscar, for 1982’s “Gandhi.” And, unless you’re counting Sacheen Littlefeather’s acceptance of Marlon Brando’s Oscar in 1973, you’ll be hard-pressed to identify Native American winners.


Now, take a look at non-acting crafts, and the image appears inverted. While no African American person has won Best Director, in the last five years three Mexican “amigos” have netted four trophies: Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”), Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman” and “The Revenant”), and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”).

emmanuel lubezki the revenant cinematography photo credit kimberley frenchJohn A. Alonzo was the first American of Hispanic descent to be nominated in the cinematography category before Mexican-American cinematographer William Fraker received five nods during the 1970s and 80s. Since then, several Hispanics have won that trophy in this century, including Guillermo Navarro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”), and Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “Birdman,” and “The Revenant,” three years in a row).

There have also been limited successes through other branches like Score (Gustavo Santaolalla won back-to-back Oscars for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel”), Song (Carly Simon, Robert Lopez to name a few).

To date, there haven’t been any Hispanics that have won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, though Iñárritu won Original Screenplay for “Birdman,” along with Argentine-born co-writers Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bó.

So what explains the relative lack of Latino representation at the biggest awards show in Hollywood? Theories that the Academy is racist or acts out of nefarious motivations seem reductive. This is, of course, debatable as their track record strains that argument. And one can hardly resist the notion that they have tunnel vision and narrow, jingoistic taste. To be sure, some individual Academy members may have more hateful outlooks. Indeed, the Academy as a whole probably was much more full of hate decades ago. But the chasm between all that and some concerted effort to keep out minorities in the last twenty or so years is far and wide.

Look simply at this past film year with the impending nominations looming. Some of the films in serious contention demonstrate an Academy that is much more attuned to a variety of stories. “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman,” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” all would represent a stunning and welcome departure from traditional Oscar stories. “Crazy Rich Asians” has a greater than zero shot of making history in its own superb ways.

Roma CuaronRoma” star Yalitza Aparicio could plausibly join the list of select few Hispanic women nominated for Best Actress.  “Roma” being nominated itself breaks several barriers just by its inclusion and possibly winning Best Picture: it would be the first movie, fully in Spanish, to receive a nomination, and if it won, would be the first foreign film ever to win the Academy’s coveted honor.  AwardsCircuit Editor Clayton Davis pointed out that the film’s producer Gabriela Rodriguez would be the first Latina woman to be nominated for Best Picture as well.  A monumental feat.

The perverse motivations of Hollywood in the 1930s or 1970s are beyond the scope of this article. Today, “if you build it, they will come” seems a more appropriate moniker to describe their approach. When prominent movies with Hispanic-centric stories are made—“Frida,” “Babel,” “Biutiful,” “A Better Life”—the Oscars seem to have no trouble at all recognizing them. It also seems incongruent to throw out the “racist” label when they have clearly had no qualms about rewarding talent across the non-acting board.


The question then becomes: why have we not “built” more movies that would permit the Academy to reward that talent? This quandary, unfortunately, accepts no easy panacea. The answer is, most likely, a combination of some of the same factors that have kept other groups (including racial minorities as well as LGBTQ characters) mostly at bay. Audiences are not interested in those stories (a theory that recent history disproves). Producers are not interested (a more plausible explanation until the industry diversifies). Critics are not interested (ditto).

beniciodeltoro sicario

But there is, at least, one other theory that may apply in this context and could throw a wrench into all others: accents.

Anthony Quinn, if you have seen his movies, did not have one, nor did Mercedes Ruehl. This leaves only four acting winners—Rita Moreno, Benicio del Toro, Penelope Cruz, and Javier Bardem. For all four, you can hear their Latino/Hispanic origin when they speak in their movies. These winners, moreover, all played roles that were either mostly silent (Bardem), or that required accents (meaning: the audience expects them to speak English as a second language).

By contrast, however behind the camera folk talk is of no moment. Their work is silently portrayed on film. But actors have to look and sound like something the audience/producer/critic/award voter identifies with. Was that not the entire theory of why the main character in “The Artist” had floundered upon the switch to talkies?

Anecdotally, one hears of Latino actors that struggle to get work on Hollywood because of accents. And it makes sense that audiences want the familiarity of sound as much as they want it off sight. One may debate whether the way a person sounds is as important to the role as to how they look. Movies today do in fact retrofit characters to permit more racial diversity. Can the same be done for accents? Few examples come to mind (“Vanilla Sky?”) but perhaps therein lies the answer. We will not come up with the answer to this age-old, infinitely complex puzzle today. The point is merely to move the conversation by proposing ways out of the morass, you know what I mean “mijo”?

What say you? Is there a problem for Latinx actors at the Oscars? If so, why, and how to fix it? Andale in the comments!


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Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.


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