Latinos On Top (Billing)By: Yehudit Mam
Am I dreaming? Or did I just identify several Latino protagonists currently starring in mainstream movies and TV shows? Did I just wake up in a post-racial world?
In A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor’s critically acclaimed movie, the main character is a guy named Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, an actual Latino actor (not, say, Al Pacino playing a Cuban in Scarface).
Abel is an ambitious entrepreneur who sells heating gas in New York in the 1980s. He is married to a Brooklyn moll (Jessica Chastain), and he is trying to expand his business while fighting unscrupulous competition. He may be Latino, yet never in the course of the movie do we see Abel’s extended family, mariachis, piñatas or any of the telltale signs that usually identify Latinos in American pop culture.
For that, you can tune in to Jane the Virgin on network TV. This comedy series, adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela, also has a Latina protagonist (Gina Rodriguez) and pokes fun at our most baroque stereotypes while using them liberally. The main character is a young Latina waitress/writer and the show even includes a Latina lesbian doctor. It’s a nice try, but the show still takes place in a circumscribed, stereotypical Latino world that seems tangential to the rest of society. (It even boasts an abuela.)
In contrast, A Most Violent Year, granted, a small independent film, is brazen enough to have a Latino protagonist who is not the sidekick, the gardener, the drug dealer, the token judge or part of the scenery for multiculti mollification. He is an American man who happens to be Latino, and his conflict has nothing to do with his ethnicity: he could be Chinese, African-American, Lebanese or even a full-fledged gringo. This movie is proof that not every starring role needs to go to the likes of Bradley Cooper; that hopefully mainstream culture is finally ready to look beyond race or nationality in its heroes.
The ever-charming Gael García Bernal is the star of Amazon’s fantastic series Mozart in the Jungle. He plays Rodrigo De Souza, a Mexican—don’t faint, ladies—classical orchestra conductor, clearly based on Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel. In this case, the fact that Rodrigo is Latino is a big deal. He is an exotic, passionate genius who talks about playing music “with blood.” He is a transplant, has an accent, drinks yerba mate and dances a mean salsa. When he needs to, he works the Latin stuff to his advantage. But he is also an extremely talented and innovative conductor at the head of a fictional symphony orchestra in New York. If he is a fish out of water it is not because he is Latino, but because he is eccentric. This series is certainly an outlier in terms of subject matter. Who knew that classical music “behind the scenes” could be so much fun? This is one of the wonderful corollaries of streaming media: its shows can take more casting and storyline risks, making it easier for others to follow suit.
It is very refreshing to watch stories about fully dimensional Latino protagonists who excel in unconventional but credible occupations, and who are not relegated to their own little ethnic world. Big plus: they are portrayed by actual Latinos for extra authenticity. Don’t wake me up when it’s over.