Power is like progress. We know it when we see it and most of the time it is created by processes that go unnoticed and are hard to document. I’ve long argued that power gets created by numerous processes, some are obvious like voting. Others are far less obvious like getting public recognition. Latino scholars and performers have long criticized the dearth of Latino actors in movies, television, and theater. Though Latinos are now the largest minority group in the U.S., this scarcity of Latino actors has not improved. One recent and unusual complaint on this issue came from playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. He complained about the casting of his play, “The ______ With the Hat.”
Guirgis, who is American Irish and Egyptian, criticized the casting director for not choosing Puerto Ricans to play the lead actors as he had written into the play. Guirgis saw no excuse for this omission. He argued, “But this play was cast in New York City and in Hartford, and you can’t tell me that there weren’t qualified Latino actors to play characters who are Puerto Rican.” The problem is not just that Latinos don’t get these prized acting jobs or that viewers don’t get to view a more “diverse” cast. The absence of Latinos on U. S. small and large screens as well as on stages ultimately has an impact on the political, cultural, and economic power of the Latino community.
Power is the capacity to influence the way other people think, feel, and act. We gain that capacity when others believe that we have something of value that they want, need, or desire. Our bosses can get us to come to work though we prefer to sit in the park because they can deny us the money and job that we need to maintain our lifestyle and lives. President Obama is the president. But, for a variety of reasons, the enormous, formal powers of the position does not permit him to move a Republican controlled House to enact his policies. A major reason is that Republicans don’t think he has anything of value that he can offer them or take from them. Unlike so many Republicans of the past, this new Republican cadre see nothing good coming out of government spending or programs. Obama, thus lacks, both a carrot and a stick to move the GOP off of their recalcitrant back sides.
What does this have to do with acting? A great deal of why people value some things and not others really has to do with perception and that perception is shaped by both rational and irrational forces. Are Republicans correct about government inefficiency and worthlessness? Perhaps. Some government programs and policies are probably inefficient and harmful to the economy. Some are not. But it does not matter. For a variety of political, economic, religious, and cultural (Tea Party) reasons the GOP has come to devalue all government in general. Moving them off that right side fixation would require changing their perception that “government is the problem.” That perception began with President Reagan as a campaign slogan and has simply become sunk deeper and become entrenched in the conservative subconscious since the 1980s. Changing that perception is not easy. It will require shifts in the kind of subconscious fears, hopes, images that frame how we all register and process the political world. This is right brain stuff rather than left brain analytic reasoning.
Latinos are the largest racial/ethnic group in America, but they still fly under the radar for so many others in this country. Latinos are ignored, forgotten, marginalized, and discounted in life and in death. Part of this has to do with the diversity of Latinos. We come in many different colors and national flavors. Part of this has to do with a lack of attention or appreciation for the kind of cultural style and contribution that Latinos have and can make to American life. African-Americans have a cultural role in this country that Latinos lack. African-Americans are often seen as villains, primitives, raw, lazy, and dumb. But they are also seen often as strong, musical, athletic, creative, stylish, and funny. In short, African Americans may often be vilified but they are also often imitated by white Americans. The extreme versions of that imitation even has a name – Wiggers! Latinos mostly face neither of these extremes. They are mostly ignored.
Actors help to change what Daniel Kahneman has called the intuitive, automatic, and largely subconscious part of people’s brains. Actors access that subconscious by offering associations and metaphors that can indirectly confirm or reject existing prejudices. A Latino performer can inform a viewer that Latinos can have talent, be entertaining, offer happiness, engage in intelligent conversation, have distinctive styles, have profound insights, and be human. All of these provide the material for the quick intuitive and non-rational reactions that originate in the right brain and that calls the shots in so much of our actions.
Ironically, if Latinos are going to gain the social power that our numbers would suggest, we need to have more Latinos performing in front of the entire spectrum of audiences in this country. We need Latinos actors playing numerous kinds of roles while still reminding audiences that they are Latinos playing those roles. Latino actors have to express the full range of Latino experiences with all of its complexity, glories, and problems. Anything less will simply perpetuate political and economic disappointment and frustration for Latinos.