“In the Heights” marks a long-awaited moment for Latinos in the movies

Excitement for “In the Heights” has generated great anticipation for U.S. Hispanics, a historically underrepresented and largely pigeonholed group on screen.

And with upcoming titles like “Cinderella” starring Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” starring Mexican star Salma Hayek and Steven Spielberg’s new “West Side Story,” it’s just the beginning of a string of productions that put Latinos at the forefront.

“In the Heights,” opening Friday, is an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Tony Award-winning musical about the struggles and hopes of a community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Many hope the film, directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), marks a new beginning in Hollywood for the nation’s largest minority – a beginning that mirrors the changes that have already occurred for black and Asian-American actors and creators.

“You know, every decade there’s a, ‘Will this movie break through? Or will this particular style of music break through? Or this particular artist or singer? Will they open the doors to some kind of explosion?” says Jimmy Smits, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “I think the dynamic right now in terms of where we are culturally, in terms of our population and the potential buying power that we have, … the universe aligned in a nice way.”

“You have this beautiful collage of people in the community,” adds the veteran star of “NYPD Blue” and “The West Wing” about “In the Heights,” in which he plays Kevin Rosario, a single father who owns a cab line. “It’s the experience of immigrants who have been part of the fabric of this country from the beginning. And it’s positive. So I think we need that right now after the pandemic.”

John Leguizamo concurs.

“I think ‘In the Heights’ is going to be THE project that finally changes all this,” says the Colombian-American actor and playwright, who began his career in film and TV but, like Miranda, found a place to tell his stories – and validation for his work – on Broadway and off-Broadway.

Leguizamo, who in 2018 received a special Tony Award for his work and commitment to bringing diverse stories and audiences to Broadway through one-man plays such as “Freak,” “Ghetto Klown” and “Latin History for Morons,” says that for more than 30 years he was pitching stories in Hollywood.

“I started to believe that maybe I didn’t know how to write, maybe I just don’t know how to pitch my ideas, because all my stories were rejected,” he says. “And then I started to realize, ‘Oh my God, it’s because it was Latino content!’ They didn’t know what to do with it.”

“They weren’t rejecting my ability, they were rejecting my culture.”

He achieved success on the boards “because there are no gatekeepers in the theater,” he says. “I just needed to write something great, get someone to produce it and the audience was so hungry – they were dying to see themselves!”

Some 60.6 million Hispanics live in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. And many are devoted moviegoers: Latinos lead the box office with 29% of tickets sold, according to the most recent Motion Picture Association report.

Yet they account for only 4.5% of all characters with dialogue or named characters and just 3% of lead or co-starring actors, according to a 2019 study of 1,200 popular films released between 2007 and 2018 by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Recognition from the Academy has been similarly elusive. This year’s Oscars featured a diverse list of nominees, but did not include Latino actors.

“I think our absence at the Oscars was appalling,” says Leguizamo. But “the Oscars are the symptom; the disease is Hollywood. We need more Latino executives making decisions.”

In 1951, Puerto Rican José Ferrer became the first Latino actor to receive an Academy Award for his starring role in “Cyrano de Bergerac”. In the same decade, Mexican-born Anthony Quinn won two as supporting actor, for 1952’s “Viva Zapata!” and 1956’s “Lust for Life”. Puerto Rican Rita Moreno was the first Latina to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1962 for her portrayal of Anita in “West Side Story”.

Since then, only one other Latino has been recognized in the supporting actor category: Puerto Rico’s Benicio del Toro for 2000’s “Traffic”. Spaniards Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz received supporting actor honors in 2008 and 2009 for “No Country for Old Men” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” respectively. Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico, won the same award in 2014 for “12 Years a Slave”.

No Latina has won the Oscar for Best Actress and few have been considered. Hayek was nominated in 2003 for “Frida,” an English-language film, but other contenders competed for their work in other languages: Fernanda Montenegro for Brazil’s “Central do Brasil” (“Central Station”), Catalina Sandino Moreno for Colombia’s “Maria, Full of Grace” and Yalitza Aparicio for Mexico’s “Roma.”

Rita Moreno, an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award-winning actress with a career spanning more than seven decades, says she has seen great strides for women and other minorities in Hollywood.

“What still concerns me deeply is that Hispanics have not made a foothold in our profession,” the actress told the AP in an interview ahead of the premiere of the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” “I don’t know what the hell is wrong. I don’t know what’s wrong. The black community has done incredibly well and I have nothing but deep admiration for the black professional community. They’ve done it and I think we can learn some lessons from them. But where is our ‘Moonlight’ – why aren’t we moving forward?”

Moreno noted that Latino identity often has roots in specific countries.

“It’s very complicated. People forget that we’re not just Hispanic,” he says. “Maybe the answer, or the beginning of the answer, lies in some kind of summit.”

At 89, and despite all the titles that are about to be released, he doesn’t expect that to happen in his lifetime: “My age forbids it. But of course I expect something to happen. I can’t believe we’re still struggling like this.”

Behind the scenes, many Latin American artists have been recognized at the Oscars in different areas, most recently and pre-eminently the Mexican “Three Amigos”: Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, all Academy Award-winning directors.

Leguizamo, who has been vocal about the lack of representation in Hollywood, includes them in the list of accomplishments: “They’re from our culture and they’re just like us. I just wish it were easier to make it in the U.S. as a Latino artist.”

However, he says he has seen a major shift during the COVID-19 pandemic and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The studios woke up,” says Leguizamo, who is now in talks to direct some projects, including one written by him. “I think everyone is moving to become inclusive. I see it from small producers, from directors in their offices, in their casting calls. I see it at Viacom. I see it at Univision. I see it on Netflix-I see it everywhere!”

Audiences will also see it starting this boreal summer with releases such as Everardo Gout’s “The Forever Purge” (“La purga por siempre”) with Ana de la Reguera, both Mexican; M. Night Shyamalan’s “OLD” (“Viejos”), with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, and Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” (“No Sudden Move”), with Benicio del Toro.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” scheduled for release on December 10, includes a Latino cast this time around. Many “Puerto Ricans” in the original were white actors made up as brunettes. And while the 1961 musical film was widely successful, it was also criticized for portraying Latinos in a stereotypical way.

Beyond that, studios are working on a remake of “The Father of the Bride” with Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia, both Cuban-Americans. And “Encanto,” the first Walt Disney Animation Studios film co-directed by a Latina woman – Charise Castro Smith – about a Colombian girl frustrated at being the only member of her family without magical powers, will also be released this year.

“It’s scary at times,” says Castro Smith, who is of Cuban descent, “but it’s also one of the reasons I decided to do this, because it means so much to me that kids all over the world can see themselves represented in a positive way and feel seen.”

Anthony Ramos, who leads the cast of “In the Heights” as Usnavi, the character originally played by Miranda in the theater, says this “is a beautiful and incredible moment where we can take advantage of Hollywood being receptive to what’s happening naturally on the streets.”

He praised filmmakers like Spike Lee and tapes like “Black Panther” for helping pave the way, and Miranda for “writing himself into the story:” “No one was going to write this role for him.”

As for Miranda, who became a superstar with the Broadway hit “Hamilton” and has since also worked in film and television, “In the Heights” anticipated the times we live in and is now confident that audiences of color will support the film.

“We’re part of a larger series of voices,” Miranda told the AP. “I remember how important it was for me to support the opening weekend of ‘Black Panther,’ to support the opening weekend of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ to vote with my wallet, to support the opening weekend of ‘Minari.’ If you want to see new and richer stories than you’ve heard, vote for them with your wallet.”

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