Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Progress report: Steven Canals, Julissa Calderon, Eddie Gonzalez, and Santa Sierra talk inclusivity on TV

It’s Latinx Heritage Month, a time for Latinx people in the U.S. to celebrate the many cultures (and nationalities) that make up the fairly nebulous notion of Latinidad. Just as importantly, it’s an opportunity to reflect on our progress and setbacks, whether it’s having multiple Latinx-led series across networks (cable and broadcast) and streaming platforms, or seeing Latinx performers shut out of this year’s Emmy acting categories. We must also, when assessing any gain and loss, take into account how often queer Latinx and AfroLatinx people are often excluded from consideration in both.

That conversation is long overdue, and merits at least a day’s worth of panels with people across the diaspora. But for this Latinx Heritage Month, A.V. Club TV editor Danette Chavez wanted to at least get the ball rolling and bring together Latinx creatives for a frank and vibrant discussion on their experiences in Hollywood, the steps being taken toward greater inclusivity across the industry, and why humanization is still such an important part of their storytelling. She was joined in September for a video call by Steven Canals, co-creator, writer, director, and executive producer for Pose; Julissa Calderon, star of Gentefied and the upcoming Bridges; Eddie Gonzalez, co-creator and writer for On My Block; and Santa Sierra, a writer and co-executive producer on the upcoming spin-off Power Book III: Raising Kanan. You can watch the complete roundtable discussion above, and read some excerpted insights below.

The A.V. Club: The Los Angeles Times recently reported on a survey that found that immigration-centered stories on TV inspired greater empathy for immigrants among viewers. Do you see this as a step forward? And why is humanization still so necessary in Latinx stories?

Santa Sierra: Right now, we are living in probably the most unsympathetic society. We are led by someone who is incredibly selfish and seems to not care about other human beings, doesn’t seem to have empathy. So I’m not surprised that Americans need to be pushed a little bit to see other people that do not look like them as humans. I feel like we need to keep doing it. We need to keep forcing them to see us as humans. It really sucks that we have to do it. I wish that people would just wake up and automatically be like, “Black people matter. Latinos matter. Women matter.” But that’s not going to happen. I keep feeling like we do need to force it down people’s throats.

We haven’t seen the whole story. We’ve only seen one. I always use this example: If we see any kid, it doesn’t matter the color, walking into a liquor store and he’s robbing the liquor store and that’s all we see, that’s all we’re going to see. But if we go behind the scenes, and we see the kid, we see the kid’s family, we see how that kid got there, and it’s gonna make a difference of how we see them. It doesn’t matter the race; we have seen the whole story, the whole history of white people our entire lives. Of course, there’s gonna be more empathy because we have seen it all. We haven’t seen the whole story of people of color. And I think thankfully now, some creators are being brave enough to be like, “All right, let’s show everybody everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly.” And that is what I feel makes people empathetic towards other people.

Julissa Calderon: Entertainment and media has so much to do with how people see other people. And what we’ve been portrayed as—Black and brown people—for years in media has been not what we want. And because of that, I think we are doing the work now to unravel, or to ravel what they unraveled, right? To show them who we are. So I think, yeah, we do have to show them. It is 2020, but because of the years of them showing one thing, now we have to show them we are full-dimensional. We are all these people. We are just like you, but better. [Laughs.] Because what they’ve been seeing is what they’ve been wanting to show. So yeah, we’ve gotta tell our stories now. And we have to show them who we are.

Eddie Gonzalez: I think it speaks to the power of TV. I know that’s a cliché, but it does. It also speaks to the lack of information that people are seeking out there. You shouldn’t just rely on a show that Steven [Canals] creates, that [Santa] writes, that I write—go do your homework. Read and watch the news. You see what’s happening out there. That should create empathy for people of color, not a show that has a storyline. I’m sitting here listening to people doing that, and I’m like, “Are you kidding me? It took our show for you to feel that way? You should be embarrassed.” It’s a frustrating thing.

Steven Canals: Hopefully, all of the narratives and all of the stories that we’re all part of creating and telling will impact audiences enough to go outside of just watching that one show or that sole episode to say, “I want to know more about X,” however they’re identifying X. I think specifically with this study, I’m torn on it because I do feel, to Eddie’s point, we know that there are a lot of folks out there who really are probably only getting information from one place, right? Especially in this current political climate. We talk about that a lot—we talk about conservatives typically going to Fox News to get their information versus liberal people tending to go to a place like a CNN or The New York Times. I’m not a fan of you just having a one-stop shop when it comes to news.

I think, specifically, when it comes to the content that we’re creating, I’m fine if we’re telling the same stories again if two things are happening: One, if the person who’s telling that story actually comes from that community. And then the other piece being that they’re making really subversive choices in telling that story. This was something that we battled with quite a bit when we were working on the first season of Pose because one of our characters, Angel, played by Indya Moore, was going to be a sex worker. And we were hyper-aware anytime we’ve seen trans women on screen, especially Black and brown trans women, they’re typically survival sex workers. And so for us, it was like, “Do we really want to contribute to that stereotype that’s already out there?” And obviously, for us as storytellers, it was, “How are we subversive in telling that story? What can we do that’s different? How can we pivot this narrative away?” And having trans people in our writers room aided in our telling a credible story.