When Warner Bros. disposed “Batgirl,” starring DC Comics’ first Afro-Latina lead Leslie Grace, it was not only jarring, but seemingly indicative of a broader omen in Hollywood for Latino-led projects.
Just days before HBO Max shelved the film, Claudia Forestieri’s “Gordita Chronicles” was axed, supposedly caught in the fray of the streamer’s programming shift.
The series was well-supported with executive producers such as Eva Longoria and Zoe Saldana, beloved by its fan base and achieved “notable acclaim” in its one-season run. The same can be said of Gloria Calderon Kellett’s “One Day at a Time,” Linda Yvette Chávez’s “Gentefied,” and other Latino series that have now, unfortunately, been canceled.
It seems like Hollywood is only continuing to divest from Latino stories. The media industry already lacks parity in representation of Latino workers, from service jobs to executive roles. Although Latinos are the largest minority in the U.S. (18.7%), they represented only 3.1% of lead actors in TV shows in 2022, according to the latest Latinos in Media report. Only 1.5% of TV showrunners and 1.3% of directors were Latino.
In Hollywood, the goalpost for success is ever-shifting and access to streaming data is shrouded in mystery, several Latino showrunners told HuffPost. Many wonder whether projects led by Latino showrunners receive equal investment in the first place, from budget and proper marketing to adequate time to build audiences.
With the cancellation of these series, it begs the question: Does Hollywood actually care about bolstering Latino talent and stories?
Forestieri never thought her personal story could lend itself to a television show. That is, until Frank Ochoa, a Latino executive at Sony TV, read her script and asked Forestieri to provide him with an hour-long sample. In June, the “Gordita Chronicles” premiered on HBO Max, starring Olivia Goncalves as Cucu Castelli, a young, plus-sized girl from the Dominican Republic with a mixed Italian heritage growing up in 1980s Miami.
“We started off going to all the broadcast networks, and ABC was very interested in it. They loved the pitch, but it was very close to ‘Mixed-ish,’ which they were about to debut at the time. ‘Mixed-ish’ was also set in the ’80s, and they thought it was just too similar,” Forestieri said. “Disney+ was interested too, but HBO Max were the ones that were the most interested.”
“Gordita Chronicles” is Forestieri’s first television series, and she was unsure about whether the show would get press and what the ratings process entailed. Nielsen reported that more viewers were tuning in each week of the series. By the third week, the show had reached 783,000 viewers, Forestieri said. She also said HBO Max was “eerily silent” with regards to sharing data.
“With streaming, the ratings are always very kind of mysterious,” Forestieri said. “The streamer has to provide the numbers. I sensed something was off because no one had reached out to us from HBO Max to give us the numbers.”
Forestieri relied on anecdotal evidence, Sony TV’s data, and online buzz in hopes of her series being renewed. When it was canceled in July, it felt like a “big slap to the face,” she said.
“It was kind of painfully coincidental, because this is a show about a girl who comes to the United States and feels out of place,” Forestieri said. “From the limited data that I was able to get, we were getting a good amount of viewers, we came in on time, we came in on budget, we had media buzz, we had good media reviews. I always thought all those things equaled a Season 2, so to be told that we no longer belong….a lot of times we’re led to believe that these [cancellation] decisions are made from a very impartial, objective place just looking at numbers, but this didn’t feel like that to me.”
Although she’ll never know the exact reason for the series cancellation, Forestieri attributes the end of “Gordita Chronicles” to the expulsion of executives of color en masse from HBO Max, Latino-led shows being relegated as “too niche,” tighter budgets at the streamer, alongside the lack of transparency.
“Live-action kids and family programming will not be part of our programming focus in the immediate future, and as a result, we’ve had to make the very difficult decision to end ‘Gordita Chronicles’ at HBO Max,” an HBO Max spokesperson told Variety.
While Forestieri is grateful to HBO Max and Warner Bros. for the opportunity, the cancellation of the series still stings.
“You may have a million, billion impressions of our show on someone's page, but were you able to bypass their unconscious biases against Mexicans, against immigrants, against people of color? ... It goes beyond media and a streaming network. It’s the world, it's our country, it's the institutions that hold us back and have been holding us back for generations.”
“I feel even more connected to people like Linda Yvette Chávez, Marvin Lemus, Tanya Saracho and these other creators who have their shows cut, which were all wonderful shows,” Forestieri said. “I don’t know why we’re still seen as less than.”
Chávez, the showrunner of Netflix’s “Gentefied,” received the series’ Season 2 greenlight in June 2020, in the thick of the COVID-19 lockdown. The Netflix dramedy followed the Morales, a Mexican-American trio of cousins, as they work to preserve their family, sustain their immigrant grandfather’s taco-shop Mama Fina’s and pursue the American Dream in a rapidly changing Los Angeles. The show was released on Netflix in February 2020 and aired for the last time in November 2021.
“Metrics and algorithms will never measure the true impact of what we did here,” Chávez wrote in an Instagram letter to fans. With persistence, Chávez was able to get the metrics and data from Netflix, but none of that undermines the supportive messages from fans who were touched by “Gentefied.”
“In that statement, I knew that the show had not failed, that this show has succeeded. And I think as people of color, as marginalized communities, we’re often made to feel like what we did was somehow a failure based on metrics that a white supremacist institution has determined — and that is not how I function in community,” Chávez said. “With my community, I function from a love ethic.”
She noted that at the pandemic’s peak, when Netflix shows were getting slashed, there was a “golden child” aura surrounding “Gentefied,” after its Season 2 renewal. However, when Season 2 aired, Chávez said she received complaints from audiences months later that they had barely seen promotion for the show. At that point, it had already gotten canceled.
“I would have loved to have seen what I’ve seen for some other shows and to the same degree. I’ve seen shows where I’m bombarded by Instagram ads about them,” said Chávez. “There’s just like so many things that I’ve just seen that I never saw for us. That affects everything. I don’t have the solid numbers, but I definitely wonder about it. I definitely wonder if there could have been more.”
While Chávez said Netflix was “very gracious” in explaining to the “Gentefied” team what led to the series’ cancellation, she imparted upon executives that this is about more than numbers. Though Netflix previously declined to comment on the cancellation of the series, according to Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter, the show’s second season never appeared in the Netflix Top 10.
“When I speak about Netflix, there’s the institution, the corporation, then there’s the people on the ground. I never want the people to be misrepresented because I feel like there’s incredible people at Netflix that I adore, to this day I would love to work with again,” Chávez said.
However, she pointed to research that metrics and algorithms have been proven to be racist and xenophobic. She said that she personally feels that whether a streamer delivers a show such as “Gentefied” to someone’s homepage doesn’t account for whether the viewer has unconscious biases against the people they’re seeing on screen.
“You may have a million, billion impressions of our show on someone’s page, but were you able to bypass their unconscious biases against Mexicans, against immigrants, against people of color?” she continued. “Especially with our show, which is really touching on some pretty intense topics that some folks are scared of. It goes beyond media and a streaming network. It’s the world, it’s our country, it’s the institutions that hold us back and have been holding us back for generations.”
Chávez said that networks’ approaches to diversity and inclusion have to make adjustments to ensure stories about underrepresented groups are being valued.
When Cuban-American screenwriter Matt Lopez submitted his ABC series “Promised Land” for a routine dial test, viewers tuned out in the first two minutes of the show. Though viewers didn’t share what turned them off about the show, Lopez has an inkling: The pilot’s first five minutes were entirely in Spanish and showed people coming over a border wall.
“To the studio’s credit, ‘They were like, we’re not worried about [the people tuning out],’ which could be for two reasons. Frankly, they’re not the audience for ‘Promised Land’ anyway, and two, the people who stayed to the end of the show loved the show,” Lopez said. “This is something I learned about how the testing works: The studio said, ‘We actually instruct folks if at any point, you decide this is a show you would not watch, we asked you to turn it off.’ They prefer that as opposed to them sticking around, shitting all over the show in the test, then throwing off the score.”
Set in Sonoma Valley and led by industry veterans John Ortiz, Cecilia Suárez and Bellamy Young, “Promised Land” followed the Sandoval family, heirs to the premier Latino-owned wine label in the U.S. called “Heritage House,” vying for power as patriarch Joe Sandoval prepares to pass the company down. The series was filled with the tenets of a juicy plot — betrayal, drama and scheming – and it incorporated flashbacks to the Sandovals’ immigration journey, frequently oscillating between English and Spanish.
The show premiered in January, airing on Mondays nights, and according to Lopez, “Promised Land” routinely had 2.3 million viewers a week on ABC. However, in February, it was announced that starting March 1 — approximately halfway through the 10-episode season — episodes would be available strictly on Hulu. Lopez was admittedly disappointed.
“There was something about watching the last minute of ‘The Bachelor,’ then going into ‘Promised Land,’ it was very jarring,” Lopez said. “[The network] was legitimately looking at its performance on Hulu and looking at its performance on broadcast, and trying to meet the audience where it is and where the audience seems to want to find a show. More people did watch it on Hulu than watched it on ABC. So, in a certain sense, it did seem like our best shot at moving forward.”
“Promised Land” was ranked as “ABC’s least watched and lowest-rated scripted series” that season and “never found a wide audience” despite scoring a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with critics, according to Deadline. The series also struggled to find a linear audience, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Last month, “Promised Land” was nominated for an Imagen Award in the Best Primetime Program Drama category, for championing work led by Latino talent that changes the depiction of the community in media. While white-led television series are often given two or more seasons to find audiences, the same grace is not always extended to Latino-led series.
“I was either a kid or a young teenager when ‘Cheers’ debuted,” Lopez said. “At the end of its first season, ‘Cheers’ was the lowest rated show on television — and they stuck with it to their credit, but that’s kind of what it takes.”
“I do subscribe to Tyler Perry’s famous quote: ‘Hollywood isn’t white or Black, it’s green.’ If they think there’s $1 to be made, they’ll make it,” he continued. “There’s a perception, rightly or wrongly — and I think more people would tell you wrongly than rightly — that Latinos don’t turn out for their own content. That, I don’t know. I’ve never seen the data on that.”
A Nielsen report from September found that “Hispanic led-content attracts more than Hispanic audiences,” and 43.6% of Latinos’ total viewing in July was attributed to streaming platforms. For example, the first six episodes of Netflix’s “The Lincoln Lawyer,” starring Mexican-American actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, attracted 114,000 new viewers who did not watch any content on Netflix between March 28 and May 11.
Of course, there are many more Latino-led stories that deserve to be told, and one woman is on a mission to get Afro-Latinos on screen. For Sulma Arzu-Brown, a proud Garifuna woman hailing from Honduras, she rarely felt seen in the landscape of modern Latino television today. “That is where we see we are able to dream, we are able to say we can accomplish that,” she said.
Being an Afro-Latina raised in the South Bronx, she and her family looked to the Huxtable family from “The Cosby Show” for representation on TV. In 2020, there were approximately six million Afro-Latinos in the United States, making up 12% of Latino adults in this country. However, 1 in 7 Afro-Latino adults do not identify as Hispanic.
“I still don’t see a family like my family on TV. When we emphasize only the Latino aspect of Afro-Latino, we’re creating an imagery that is more related to European and Spanish ancestry,” Arzu-Brown said. “My dad needs to be able to see his darker tones, my abuelita has to still be able to see her darker tone. I believe that many of my indigenous, Black Latino community is still not seeing themselves.”
After working in the diversity and inclusion space for over 15 years, the 43-year-old author of “Pelo Malo No Existe” created “D’Que Latino,” an independent series seeking to be the first Afro-Latino television show in the nation.
“‘D’Que’ is a colloquial term mainly found in the Dominican community. I love the term ‘d’que’ because it means ‘supposedly,’” Arzu-Brown said. “When you’re looking at me, you don’t think I’m Latino until I tell you. I’ve heard people tell me and my family, ‘Oh, she’s d’que Latino,’ supposedly Latino. But I am because I was born in Honduras, so we wanted to play with that word.”
“D’Que Latino” is co-written by Arzu-Brown and Victor Cruz and follows the intergenerational, middle-class Amigo family raising their children in the South Bronx, “a borough where 56.4% of residents identify as Hispanic/Latinx and 43.6% report they’re Black/African American,” as reported by Parents.com. Loosely based on her own childhood in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx, Arzu-Brown’s goal is to have the series greenlit and funded to premiere by August 2023, commemorating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop in her borough.
“You get to see a man who owns his own architecture firm and his wife, who is a marketing executive about to branch out on her own. You’ll see how they deal with impostor syndrome in their corporate jobs, how they rise above that, how they are dealing with gentrification, how they’re dealing with cultural appropriation,” said Arzu-Brown. “But most importantly, I think that this family and the stories are aspirational. They’re about resilience, tenacity and love. It’s about the qualities that transcend every culture, creed, color. This is about the human experience, but coming through the lens of people that look like us.”
Arzu-Brown is doubtful about whether a white Latino star would cosign and sponsor their series and is not expecting it, considering the pervasive impacts of racism and colorism in the community. While they’re still searching for a showrunner and in communications with a few networks, they do believe proper partnership and amplification would give life to their series.
“I just want to commend all those people who have made it to the finish line, and got those stories told,” Arzu-Brown said. “Whether or not they were canceled, it was still a success that they were even on. They showed me that possibilities, you know, can become a reality.”