I had the utmost pleasure of being able to attend and cover the virtual “Amazon Studios Presents Voces/Voices: An Entertainment Celebration for Hispanic Heritage Month” event which took place last Thursday on September 30, 2021. This event was the perfect blend of comedy, familiarity, history, and push for change for the future of creative projects in the mainstream media. With names like John Leguizamo, Gloria Calderón, Gina Brillon, and Laz Alonso mentioned for being in attendance, it was even more enticing to me to be a part of this.
Now, before I begin to recap the “Voces/Voices” event let me just briefly tell you what this means, specifically, for me. Growing up I lived a typically middle-class American lifestyle with the added flavor of some Hispanic life experiences. I’m a non-Spanish speaker, with a decent understanding of Spanish (strange to some, I know). When this opportunity arose to cover the event, I thought, “Ya know, I consume so much media, and yet when it comes to my Hispanic culture, I can barely name any artists, writers, or actors.”
I genuinely felt a sense of guilt, and so for me, “Voces/Voices” was the perfect opportunity to connect with that part of myself and see what my fellow Hispanic brothers and sisters are doing in the world of creative media so that I can better learn, and signal boost. Ultimately I got more than what I expected out of what the Latinx or Latinè experience means for us as a whole.
The event was hosted by Puerto Rican-American comedian Gina Brillon, who you may know from her stand-up special The Floor is Lava or most notably as a finalist on America’s Got Talent. She set the tone for the event, mentioning the importance of inclusively, with a cultural powerhouse of some 20 countries strong.
Lightning talk: Who We Are… Hispanic, Latino, Latiné, Latinx, Afro-Latino, Indigenous, Understanding the breadth and depth of the community
First up was John Leguizamo (creator, actor, writer, and producer). His ethnicity is a mixed bag of Italian and Puerto Rican descent as well as describing himself as being of mestizo heritage. This man’s career has spanned decades with him being in everything in all kinds of genres, it’s a little overwhelming. He went on to give his admiration for this event, for the future of representation, and some history.
“America was discovered by the Spanish. Latinx we’re indigenous. We use Latinx as a means of inclusiveness for women and non-binary persons.” He went on to explain that every culture under the Latinx umbrella brings its own flavor to language, and began to demonstrate the differing slang in Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians, etc. He went into the origins of dances like Bachata and Cha Cha, Merengue, Salsa, Mambo to name a few.
Transitioning over to food he went into explaining corn, and its importance to the world, chocolate coming from the Mayans, and such. In sports basketball, in medicine, Malaria pills, and anesthesia, you could see the influences everywhere. Around 97% of indigenous Americans were killed off by Conquistadors who in turn enslaved them to mine their own resources for colonizers. Leguizamo was relentless in sharing the representation issue in Hollywood and how severe it is. With all that John Leguizamo passed the mic back to Gina Brillon who then introduced the next panel.
Industry Conversation: Content Across Borders
This panel was used as a platform for the discussion of the originals resonating for audiences in the U.S. and across borders. The panel consisted of Malu Miranda, producer and head of Originals Brazil at Amazon Studios; Javiera Balmaceda, Head of Local Originals Spanish Speaking Latin America at Amazon Studios; and Lorenza Muñoz Sr., Global Awards Executive at Amazon Studios (who also served as moderator).
The first question asked by Lorenza Muñoz Sr. was, “What unites us?” Both Malu Miranda and Javiera Balmaceda shared their feelings of being lost in the U.S. and forgetting to look through the “Latino lens”. Not only that, but they shared their experiences of “being home for dinner”, and the importance of Familia. Something as universal and simple as that is how they’ve connected with each other. Their experiences also impact what they bring into their professional lives.
The second question asked was, “How do you see representation? How has it evolved?”
Immediately Balmaceda explained, that she’s an immigrant, speaks Spanish, but is also white. She consciously raises her children in a more relaxed manner as she put it, not in the restricted way that her parents raised her, and that also comes from being assimilated so long into American culture. Both women expressed their desire to tell authentic stories from South Americans but on the flip side, they don’t want to rehash the same “immigrant” stories or even stories on the struggle of cultural identity. They want to simply tell a “human story”, in that anyone can relate to but just from the “Latino lens” as they mentioned earlier. The representation in media for so long has been stereotypical stories of the help or the drug dealer that don’t serve to bring authentic light to the Latinx community. All three women believed there is so much work that is still needed to see a brighter truer future.
As a response to the question, “Tell us what you discovered in the partnership between Javiera and Malu?” The two women discussed that along with the commonality of Family it was also, Fútbol, not football, but soccer. They mentioned the FIFA gate story, a massive soccer scandal, and how, with that, they decided to breathe life into the Amazon show El Presidente. It was a scandal that was all over the news. The women mentioned the importance of neutral Spanish that makes it accessible to all the different forms of Spanish across different countries. “It’s a little robotic”, but it’s another thing that unites them and so it helped them to bounce their ideas off of each other for El Presidente.
DOM was also mentioned, another Amazon Prime Videos series, about Victor, a father and a cop dedicating his life to fighting rampant cocaine trafficking all the while his son, a drug addict, has become one of the most wanted burglars in Rio de Janeiro.
The three women discussed the Oscars and the International Filmmakers nominees, citing Parasite specifically, and how audiences are slowly opening up to shows and films that aren’t in English. A show that comes to mind is Netflix’s current smash hit Squid Game, which has an incredible dubbed voice acting cast. Speaking of dubs, Malu Miranda directly spoke about the need for improvement on localization and dubs to help break through to more American audiences.
In regards to more shows to consume, mark your calendar for October 29, 2021, for the release of Amazon Prime’s Maradona: Blessed Dream series which will consist of 10 episodes. It will be available in more than 240 countries with filming taking place across Mexico, Spain, and Argentina. It follows the life of the legendary Argentine footballer, Diego Armando Maradona, including the controversy surrounding him.
If sports aren’t quite what you’re into, maybe some LGBTQ+ representation is more your style in September Mornings. The preview reads, “The Life of a trans woman who has just gained her independence takes an unexpected turn when an unknown son she had with a woman ten years ago shows up out of the blue.” The trailer looks so raw, heart-wrenching and full of life. Miranda and Balmaceda describe it best themselves, “She’s a trans Afro Latina, a singer, just trying to get by and dealing with a living breathing human being, her son, which makes things complicated for her. The story is universal.. one of acceptance, warmth, and music.”
September Mornings is definitely one that’s going on my watch list.
Miranda and Balmaceda went into detail on their mentoring programs. It’s a crash course in filmmaking, journalism, wardrobe, makeup, producing, writing, directing, you name it. Anything you’d want to get your feet firmly planted in the industry as well as giving life and soul into fostering representation and have it be meaningful. These ladies are truly paving the way for up-and-coming talented creators. Rest assured we’ve got good content in the works and on the way! The only way to go is up.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Remarks with Rep. Joaquin Castro, CHC
After that panel wrapped Gina Brillon introduced the next guest, none other than Congressman Joaquin Castro and he laid the facts down. Just to name a few, 79% of the 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., & Puerto Rico have a higher percentage of Hispanic/Latinos than Hollywood films. The overall percentage of Hispanic/Latino characters is 5%. Films with Leads/Co-Leads? A dismal 3.5%. The overall percentage of Hispanic/Latino directors across 1,300 films is 4.2%. What about the ratio of white male to Latinx directors? 50 to 1. More information can be grabbed from this report. These numbers are insulting. I’ve always known it’s been a problem in media, but to THIS degree? I never imagined.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom with Joaquin, though. He left with a message to anyone and everyone to make a conscious effort to demand more representation, to share on social media, to have discussions with friends and family on the importance of seeing ourselves in these characters, and not just as the perpetually used stereotypes but well-written human representation, full of culture, humor, and struggle with perseverance. It was inspiring to say the least.
Panel Discussion: Conversation: The Evolution of Latiné Representation on Screen
Gina Brillon introduced the final panel, which had to be my absolute favorite segment of all. The appointed moderator was half-Puerto Rican, half-Black Clayton Davis. He’s Variety’s Film Awards Editor and the president of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, among many many other ventures. The hefty panel also consisted of actor Laz Alonso, who you may have seen in a little-known show, The Boys. Yolanda Guillen, Sr. Executive of Casting at Amazon Studios. And last but definitely not least, Gloria Calderón Kellett (Producer and Writer; notable works being With Love and One Day At A Time).
This panel hit the ground running. Laz Alonso talked about his audition experiences in which he remarked that he gets selected for predominately “black roles” based on his appearance. You can imagine that when he went for a Spanish-speaking role, the casting agents were completely blown away over how he could speak fluent Spanish. “Yes, Black Cubans Exist!” He roared while laughing, “Give me those Cuban roles, those Puerto Rican roles, those Dominican roles!”
Clayton asked if Alonso faced a lot of backlash as far as the auditioning process was concerned. He replied he’s had very little pushback for roles in the U.S. However, he did go on to say, “Growth needs to happen in Latin America. It’s a much bigger problem that really needs to change.” He referred to the specific “look” that’s cast for roles in Latin America – predominately white actors.
Alonso went on to say, “There is a civil war happening within our community right now. Can we please talk about the rampant colorism problem going on amongst our people?”
The cast spent time reflecting on such a major issue. The need to tell real stories and not just checking a box to fill a specific quota of color rang true with the panel.
Gloria Calderón Kellett shared, “We have to give room for Latinos to tell our OWN stories, and not have them being written by a far removed white cis male. Look, I’m a white Cuban. I walk the world as a fair-skinned white Cuban. I’m in constant collaboration with writers and producers who have their own experiences because theirs are different from my own and we have to come together to tell our stories, no matter how different. We had a giant show poster with White Latinos, Black Latinos, and all different shades doing our best to combat that specific color problem. But, you know, Latinos have to have their 23 and Me‘s.”
Which in reality is true. Many times our worth in our identity is placed on where we come from among the Latinx community. Gloria added, “That’s why we need to allow Latinx actors to play BEYOND where their grandfather came from. We need to have conversations within our community about this. It’s a mental adjustment.”
Many times there is this ‘higher than thou’ demeanor based on the place at which your blood originates from, the “luck” of the lightness in your skin. It’s a massive glaring issue. It was so refreshing to hear Kellett speak out and bring this to light. “Are you really going to allow yourself to be proud that your heritage comes from colonizers?” Meaning many Hispanics/Latinx, especially in the older generations, cling to the idea that if they have just a shred of European heritage, they will cling to it due to a sense of superiority. Kellett was so raw and so articulate on the subject I couldn’t help but immediately become a number one fan.
Alonso followed Kellett’s remarks by stating, “It’s more than color. It’s culture. Sometimes you’re put into a position where you have to prove how Latino you are.”
Kellett added, “I’ve had the privilege of education, not everyone has that. That should be accessible to everyone. We need to reach out to those who don’t have access to this. We need to tell stories about generations. Shift culture, shift narrative so that we are present at the table. If you’re committed to diversity then you need to be out there looking.”
When Kellett’s hiring, she makes sure that when a person signs to be onboard that she teaches them to be a Showrunner and to help them find their voice. She isn’t even all that concerned with the flaws in a script so long as the writer has a moving and genuinely profound message to share with the world. She values that over anything else.
Yolanda Guillen encouraged all actors and directors. Guillen said that we need Latinos in every position. They should be present from development and onward but also not shoot things solely aimed at themselves. It’s not necessary for Latinos to only tell Latino stories.
With time running out, things started getting even more interesting. Clayton Davis brought to the forefront his opinions about how social media and society as a whole was rapidly accelerating our own awareness and growth sometimes almost too fast. The discussion was aimed at the arguments over what we even call ourselves? Latinx? Latiné?
Kellett explained, “The thread that brings us together is colonization. Skin color, size of lips, hair texture, it’s all judgment from the older generation and many of us have grown up being taught to just accept judgment and persecution.”
Alonso shared, “Young people are not sugar coating anything. They are holding their parents and grandparents accountable for all the outdated and wrong things they’ve taught to their kids.”
He went on to talk about the murder of George Floyd and what it meant to him. “People of all races are getting together. My first time seeing Black Lives Matter, that includes Afro Latinos! Brown Lives Matter! The word ‘black’ doesn’t exclude ‘brown’. I feel like change is on the horizon, but we have to continue to press and hold people accountable.”
Davis’ closing question was, “Would it do us good to learn about our brothers and sisters?”
Kellett experienced this first hand with the colonization of Spanish being her first language. “I think there is a reason to argue on what to call us. ‘Latino’ was invented by white people to clump us all in a box, and that’s not what we’re meant to be. Our Language is fluid. Conversations over ‘Latinx’ make people feel more included. We have to help each other feel visible. We’re all part of this shared trauma. Learning about one another’s culture and giving others the mic to speak.”
And with Clayton Davis closed out the panel.
Everyone was so well-spoken, passionate, and insightful. It truly made me so proud of my heritage, and of what the future has in store for representation for all that the Latinx community encompasses. It’s going to be a renaissance and I can’t wait to see the upcoming works of so many talented creators.
Gina Brillon finished out the event with a small comedy segment. She was so charming and lovable. The “Voces/Voices” event from Amazon Studios brought the fire that I had not expected. It dealt with hard hitting and raw issues that brought so much to light. I’m eternally grateful to have been a spectator.
If you’re looking to experience new stories or get more in touch with your Latinx heritage and their stories, please don’t hesitate to give a watch to these aforementioned shows and films.
Representation is coming my friends!
Author: Micah Carrillo
Micah is studying English and Digital Design. His love of geek culture spans across diverse mediums and genres. Comics, anime, films, you name it! He enjoys video games on the Nintendo Switch and Xbox.
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