Latinos like John Leguizamo Demand More Representation via SXSW Panels

Tom Llamas, Carolina Saavedra, John Leguizamo, and Ben DeJesus at their SXSW panel. Image by Sarah M. Vasquez

At South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, Latino creatives from John Leguizamo to Julio Torres to Cheech Marin sounded off on the importance of our community creating our own stuff – we can’t wait for the powers that be to invite us in.

“We want diversity, but what are they greenlighting?” asked John Leguizamo during a SXSW panel. The annual festival hosted a week of conversations, film screenings, and music performances in Austin, Texas. On the surface, it seems that Latinos are getting more representation and appreciation in Hollywood. Eva Longoria’s directorial debut, Flamin’ Hot about the former Frito Lay janitor’s creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, won an Audience Award at the film festival, along with The Long Game, about a group of Mexican-American students who compete in high school golf. However, the conversations surrounding the topic of diversity at SXSW revealed that there’s still more work to be done.

Moderated by NBC News Anchor and Senior National Correspondent Tom Llamas, Leguizamo, Director Ben DeJesus, and Showrunner Carolina Saavedra previewed their upcoming show, Leguizamo Does America, which premieres on April 16 on MSNBC. The six-part series follows the actor as he travels across the country to celebrate Latino history, culture, and communities. He said that this English language show is the first of its kind: “This show is about Latin exceptionalism, and what we’ve survived in this country,” said Leguizamo. “It proves that being Latin is a superpower.”

A star in his own right, Leguizamo worried that Hollywood wasn’t for him as he watched his NYU classmates go on five auditions a day, while he went on an audition every five months. The parts he’d auditioned for were usually to play a drug dealer and other stereotypes.

“I was an idealistic young man,” said Leguizamo. “I thought meritocracy was a real thing. I thought talent would rise to the top, and thank God, I finally learned that it’s not true.”

Carolina Saavedra, John Leguizamo, and Ben DeJesus at their SXSW panel. Image by Sarah M. Vasquez
Carolina Saavedra, John Leguizamo, and Ben DeJesus at their SXSW panel. Image by Sarah M. Vasquez

So he started writing his own material. He performed in art spaces where he eventually found his audience, and then brought his work to theater, winning a special Tony Award in 2018 for bringing diverse stories to the stage. 

This need to work outside the Hollywood system is something he bonded with film director Robert Rodriguez on Leguizamo Does America. In a clip, Rodriguez shares that he started producing his own films and opened Troublemaker Studios in Austin, because he felt Latinos stories weren’t being told. He produced his first film, El Mariachi, with a $7,000 budget, which eventually led him to make Desperado with Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek. And the rest is history. Rodriguez said in the clip that you can change your life in two weeks, but it’s how you view your lack of situation that will make the difference.

“You don’t see it that way. You look at it the other way. Like, I’m gonna go make this. Maybe I can sell it and double my money. Maybe if I can’t, at least I know I tried,” said Rodriguez.

DeJesus had that same spirit with his own directing work. He started filming a documentary without any studio support.

“The solution is within us, I think,” said DeJesus. “I think we have more power than we give ourselves credit for, and so a lot of what we’re doing now is just give ourselves the green light.”

Sam Sanders and Julio Torres at their SXSW event. Image by Sarah M. Vasquez

“I think really exciting work comes when studios are very trusting of the artist and are very trusting in their vision and the story they want to tell,” Julio Torres told Sam Sanders, host of Vulture’s Into It podcast, during a conversation at SXSW.

In his film, Problemista, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, Torres plays a toy designer from El Salvador who navigates the immigration system, told through his style of whimsical storytelling.

Sanders told Torres that Latino shows – such as Gordita Chronicles, Gentefied, and Torres’ own Los Espookys seem to get canceled more than white shows and Torres agreed some things in the industry that are very discouraging. “The really, really unfortunate thing about show business is that it’s a business,” said Torres. “That’s the worst part of it. I like to think of myself as an artist, but it’s money.” He learned from that experience though and feels that people got to see something they hadn’t seen before.

John Leguizamo said that digital resources, such as iPhones and YouTube, have democratized the ability to produce your own content and that’s where he’s seeing Latinos having success.

“Their content is being found by the audience that wants it,” said Leguizamo. “The problem that’s happening is that the studios, no matter how many millions of hits these companies and these young artists on digital platforms are getting, are not going to them and green lighting their projects or bringing them in.”

And it’s not just Hollywood. Cheech Marin used his fame from being one-half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong to shine a spotlight on Chicano art. Married to an artist at the time, Marin discovered Chicano painters from galleries in Los Angeles and started collecting pieces for his personal collection. 

He asked himself why this art wasn’t in more museums, so he began hosting traveling exhibitions and was eventually offered a space that became the national Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of Riverside Art Museum (The Cheech), the first Chicano museum that opened last year.

“It was meant to happen whether it was meant to happen with me,” said Marin. “It could happen a lot faster, and we could get in a lot bigger museums, and we could attract corporate sponsorship, because of that confluence of celebrity and knowledge and putting together this whole thing. You learn in your life as you go on how to recognize the opportunity when it presents itself to you, and you hone your instinct to recognize that.”

As these conversations acknowledge that Latinos are seeking more representation in the entertainment industry, the question is now what can be done to get the gatekeepers and studios to greenlight these projects? Latinos accounted for 29% of movie tickets in 2020, and yet 5.4% of Latinos had lead roles in movies, according to Axios. To Leguizamo, this representation is not acceptable.

“We Latin people have to start getting a little more active,” said John Leguizamo. “We have to start boycotting, protesting, picketing. Things have to change now.”

He also added that Latinos should make their own content and release it regardless. DeJesus’ approach echoed that sentiment: just go for it.

“Anything that makes you different is an edge, not a hindrance,” said DeJesus. “So I think, own that difference as opposed to being afraid or trying to assimilate. Keep your richness and your uniqueness for sure, but don’t give up.”

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