Waiting on My Starlet

If any Hollywood actress could play me in a movie, who would it be? The answer eludes me.

A few weeks ago, I was presented with what seemed like just another innocuous icebreaker: if any actress could portray you in a movie, who would it be?

My mind ran through a list of favorite Hollywood actresses. Which of them looks like me? I thought. How many of them are Hispanic? Or speak Spanish?

I struggled to think of an answer. Only seven Hispanic starlets came to mind: Penelope Cruz, Eva Longoria, Eva Mendes, America Ferrera, Salma Hayek, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba – none of whom I feel resemble me in the slightest, even for this particular flight of fancy.

As I floundered to choose, I glanced around the room at the other women mulling their options. One by one, when called upon, they stated their preferences: Janeane Garofalo, Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Tina Fey and so on. When my turn arrived, I stammered.

“Um, I guess I’ll go with Tatiana Maslany,” I said. “Has anybody ever seen the TV show “Orphan Black“? She plays like seven different characters and each one of them is amazing. I couldn’t think of anyone for myself and I figured she’s such a talented actress, she could pull it off.”

“But she doesn’t look anything like me…” I trailed off quietly.

And therein lies the disappointment and humiliation: of the hundreds of admirable Hollywood actresses I could name in ten minutes – I watch a lot of movies – only a handful or two obvious choices begin to approach my ethnicity.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed. A recent study by the University of Southern California found that although Hispanics make up 16 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanic actors played just 5 percent of the speaking roles in 2013’s highest-grossing movies. In comparison, African Americans, who make up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, played 14.1 percent of last year’s parts; on the other hand, Asian American Pacific Islanders actors barely even appear in the spectrum. Nearly three-quarters of roles go to White actors.

This is despite the fact that Hispanics “bought a quarter of all movie tickets in the US, and command about $1 trillion in spending power.” Despite the fact that, as a survey commissioned by The Wrap shows, the most frequent moviegoers are Hispanic females over 25 years old.

So why is it so difficult for our community to receive proper representation in Hollywood films?

I recognize that ethnicity is merely one metric by which to judge a character. After all, I grew up idolizing predominantly Caucasian heroines: Buffy Summers, of vampire slaying fame; Hermione Granger, brain and heart of Hogwarts; Holly Golightly, class and trouble personified. I also grew up largely shunning or ignoring my ethnic identity, afraid that seeming too Hispanic would somehow diminish my American-ness.

Which is why, now presented with this conundrum, I think of my Little Sister Pilar. At nine years old, she’s starting to watch the films and TV shows which will form her opinion of the world and of her future. If she sees few actresses who look like her on the big screen, what will she conclude of her Mexican-American heritage? That it’s unwelcome or insignificant? Or, more laughably, that it’s rare?

I’m not asking to be able to name a famous Chilean-born actress at the drop of a hat. But it would feel less demeaning if Hollywood truly represented the diverse facets and faces of humanity it claims to depict. Until it does, I’ll have to continue picking Tatiana Maslany as my alter ego – if her clones embody our biological future, then I’ll pretend at least one of them is Hispanic.