Allow me to say mil gracias to these projects.
I’m still recovering from the emotional hangover I felt following the heart-wrenching series finale of Netflix’s On My Block. The show, which aired for four glorious seasons until 2021, was one of the very few Latinx-led projects that didn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes or whitewash roles created for BIPOC individuals. It brought depth, friendship, and Latinidad to the small screen in a pivotal way. If you, like me, are on the hunt for a Latinx show in the same vein as OMB, but have found some of the recommendations rather… lackluster, you’ve come to the right place. Thankfully, there are several notable shows and films (I’m looking at you, Gentefied and Roma) that don’t treat Latinx communities as a monolith.
According to the Pew Research Center, the Latinx population is one of the fastest growing in the U.S., and as Variety reports, it also has the highest movie-going rate of any demographic. Still, on-screen Latinx representation in film and TV can miss the mark. Hollywood often relies on pervasive stereotypes that pigeonhole Latinx characters as drug dealers (Narcos), maids (Maid in Manhattan), or gardeners (A Better Life). Even On My Block, which generally got representation right, paints two of its main characters (César and Spooky) as gang members, a stereotype of Latinx people that disproportionately shows up on screen. A 2021 report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 7% of films from 2019 featured a lead or co-lead that was Hispanic or Latinx. And that doesn’t begin to touch upon the lack of Latinx creators behind the scenes, nor representation on TV, which is equally abysmal.
As if that weren’t enough, Latinx characters are often whitewashed (no, a Spaniard is not Latinx). 2021’s In The Heights adaptation, for instance, proved the fight against colorism within Latinx communities is also far from over. By failing to cast a dark-skinned lead, the film received criticism for its limited portrayal of the Afro-Latinx population of Washington Heights, the New York City neighborhood the story is centered around. As U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, recently said, it’s not good enough to merely include a Latinx person on screen. And he’s right: Hollywood must cast them in roles that showcase the diversity of the Latinx experience, not just the pain and trauma that may come with it.
Below, I rounded up 16 movies and TV shows that highlight the rich history of the Latinx experience, and that also center joy. Thanks to these, Hollywood is a far more inclusive space.
1. ¿Qué Pasa, USA?
Starring Steven Bauer of Queen of the South fame, ¿Qué Pasa, USA? was the first bilingual sitcom on American TV. The 1970s show followed a Cuban family in Miami as they attempted to navigate their new life in America, with many episodes validating the immigrant and first-generation experience. Its head writer, Emmy winner Luis Santeiro, is credited for mapping out a blueprint for Latinx representation on TV.
2. Real Women Have Curves
It’s not often that a coming-of-age film features Latinx leads, let alone ones that put the conversation of body positivity — and unrealistic cultural expectations of womanhood regarding one’s family, career, and sexuality — front and center. Based on a play of the same name and directed by Patricia Cardoso, this 2002 film starring America Ferrera was a huge win for representation in Hollywood, particularly for young Latinas who didn’t necessarily fit the American standard of beauty at the time. It follows the life of Ana García (Ferrera), who recently graduated high school and, due to financial restraints and familial pressure, must put her dreams of college on hold indefinitely to work alongside her mother and sister in a clothing factory.
While as of October 2021 there are no Latinx shows left on network TV, streaming platforms have green-lit several Latinx-led shows in recent years. The best yet? Netflix’s Gentefied, which follows the Morales family as they attempt to save their family restaurant from gentrification in their primarily Latinx Los Angeles neighborhood. This show, created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez, doesn’t shy away from tough conversations and puts an authentic immigrant and first-gen experience on the small screen.
4. ¡Palante, Siempre Palante! The Young Lords
An award-winning documentary by Iris Morales, this PBS film highlights the legacy of The Young Lords, a radical Chicago-based activist group of Puerto Ricans in diaspora during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s. Although you probably won’t find info about this group in any U.S. history book, The Young Lords’ efforts to empower Latinx people across the U.S. ignited a passionate fight for economic and social justice.
5. A Fantastic Woman
The history-making 2017 film A Fantastic Woman is considered “a breakthrough in transgender cinema.” The first Chilean movie to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, the Sebastián Lelio movie follows a trans woman, played by Daniela Vega, as she faces discrimination in the wake of her partner’s death. It garnered worldwide praise and ignited important discussions surrounding trans issues.
Created by showrunner Tanya Saracho, the Starz drama series Vida follows two Mexican American sisters in the aftermath of their mother’s death. The critically acclaimed show, which provides some of the best queer Latina representation on TV, earned a 100% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 2019 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comedy Series.
7. Latin History for Morons
This filmed recording of John Leguizamo’s 90-minute, one-man Broadway show will teach you more about Latin American history than 12 years in the American public school system. The Tony-winning show crams 3,000 years of history into a digestible — albeit uncensored — comedy special, all while poking fun at the whitewashing of U.S. history over the years.
8. The Graduates
PBS documentary The Graduates takes a harrowing look at the struggles of Latinx students in the American public education system. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz, the film inspires and challenges the many flaws of U.S. public schools and sheds light on the issues young students of color face, such as underfunding and the dropout crisis.
9. Mala Mala
A Puerto Rican documentary film, Mala Mala follows the lives of nine trans women in San Juan, including well-known drag queen April Carrion of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame. Directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, the film was nominated for a 2016 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary thanks to its thought-provoking conversations and insightful look at the convergence of gender and cultural identity.
American civil rights activist César Chávez might be more commonly found in history books, but activist Dolores Huerta was just as monumental in creating the first farm workers’ union, the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA). In this self-titled documentary, filmmakers take an intimate look at Huerta’s life and her fight for racial and labor justice through many decades of protests and rallies. The Mexican American feminist was an integral part of the famed grape strike and boycott in 1965 and has continued her work well into her 80s.
11. One Day at a Time
Beloved for its nuanced portrayal of Latinx characters, Gloria Calderon Kellett’s series One Day at a Time was so important to fans that they managed to save the show when Netflix canceled it after two seasons. The show was resuscitated by Pop and renewed for another two seasons before ultimately getting the axe. The former Netflix original, a reimagining of the Norman Lear sitcom of the 1970s, followed three generations of a Cuban American family for an intricate look at the expectations and realities set upon each member of the household.
12. Ugly Betty
For so many young Latinx millennials, the America Ferrera-led sitcom Ugly Betty was the first time they saw themselves truly represented on TV. It helped redefine the way Latinas were portrayed on screen as Betty chased her dream of becoming a magazine journalist, a storyline that opened doors for Latinx people who were previously typecast. Prior to this show, writer Yolanda Machado argued in The Los Angeles Times that no Latinx family on TV had simply been seen living joyfully. “The Suarez family wasn’t stereotypical or caricatured; their Latino-ness wasn’t exaggerated. And Betty herself reflected what many children of immigrants could, and can, relate to: living a life between two worlds,” Machado wrote.
13. The Hand That Feeds
A 2017 Emmy nominee, The Hand That Feeds follows undocumented service workers in New York City as they stand up against abusive conditions and unfair wages. With an emphasis on pay disparity in America, the eye-opening film highlights the horrendous exploitation undocumented workers face behind the scenes in the restaurant industry.
Oscar-winning film Roma is a semi-autobiographical film based on director Alfonso Cuarón’s upbringing in the Colonia Roma area of Mexico City. The Netflix film follows an emotional year in the life of a live-in housekeeper for a middle-class family. With heavy political undertones, the film centers an indigenous woman, played by Yalitza Aparicio, as the lead — a move that put the topic of colorism in both the U.S. and Latin America at the forefront with its release.
15. In the Heights
Unlike other Latinx-focused films that center trauma, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights emphasizes the importance of family and joy, even when it seems the whole world is against you. The film has been rightfully called out for failing to adequately represent dark-skinned Latinx characters, and the Afro-Latinx population in particular. Miranda, who penned the music and lyrics behind the original musical, apologized for “falling short.” While its theatrical release amplified the disturbing prevalence of colorism, the adaptation’s almost entirely Latinx cast added much-needed nuance to the way Latinx people are portrayed on screen.
16. On My Block
The hype around Netflix’s hit TV series On My Block is all too real. The series follows the lives of four childhood friends (Monse, César, Jamal, and Ruby) in South Los Angeles as they navigate adolescence and defy the expectations placed upon them by their peers and elders. Although the show deals with gang violence in Black and Latinx communities, it doesn’t amplify the stereotypes that surround them. Instead, it challenges them by painting a fuller picture, specifically through Spooky and César’s storylines about family, love, and the struggles that arise when facing gang violence in underserved communities.