I Was The Voice Of A Popular Cartoon Character. This Is The Most Important Thing I Learned.

Photo: Courtesy of Nickelodeon.
When I was 11 years old, I begged my parents to let me audition for the Nickelodeon animated television show Go, Diego, Go!, a spin-off of the bilingual series Dora The Explorer. Although they were vehemently against me becoming a child star, they figured a voiceover role wasn’t too big of a risk. After three auditions, I landed the part of Diego’s sister, Alicia. Looking back now, this experience was so formative in understanding my identity as a Latina woman. Everyone in the room was of Latinx descent — the producers, the script supervisor, the audio mixer-— even my babysitter who would supervise the voiceover sessions because I was a minor. As an only child of divorced parents with my entire extended family living in Argentina, this was the first time I truly felt like I belonged to a community — a vibrant and talented one at that. It was also the first time I recognized the unique gift of being bilingual as I recited the lines from the script.
Part of the job also included work for third party companies that did merchandising for toys and games based on the series. Unlike the series production team, the toy executives were not of Latinx descent. I vividly remember stepping into the studio one day to read my first line, which started with “Diego!” I paused and asked the producer if I should say Diego in English or Spanish. This 40something man stared at me, an 11-year-old, with a blank face, clearly unaware there are two ways to pronounce the name “Diego.” I recorded it both ways, so they could decide later. This experience showed me the importance of being the only Latinx person in the room. I circumvented a small, but important mistake that we see constantly in the media.

I knew I had to be part of the solution. The importance of Latinx representation in media has always been at the forefront of my upbringing.

Premiering in 2000, Dora the Explorer was the first Nickelodeon show to feature a Latinx character as a protagonist, and helped inspire the rise of multicultural children's programming in the United States. Nickelodeon was a network that broke ground on Latinx representation in children’s television over two decades ago, while the networks my parents watched as kids are to this day still catching up. According to an interview with NPR, originally, the creators of Dora imagined that the young girl would be white. But months into developing the show, the creative head at Nickelodeon, Brown Johnson, went to a conference where she learned that of the 80 primetime youth characters under the age of 18, not a single one was Latinx. She then made the revolutionary decision that the show they were working on would now feature a Latina.
It didn’t stop there. The same year as Dora’s debut, Nickelodeon created The Brothers Garcia, which made made TV history as “the first English-language sitcom to feature an all-Latinx cast and creative staff” according to Variety. Later, the network introduced viewers to Tania, the first Latina female-led sitcom about a multi-generational Puerto Rican household. These two shows made me so proud to speak Spanish, and introduced my non-Latinx friends to my culture. There is something so uncanny and special seeing your culture reflected in mainstream media. It’s a similar feeling you get from reading memes about Latina moms and feeling like you are not alone. Later, shows like Ugly Betty, Jane The Virgin, and Modern Family had the same impact. I can’t count how many times I would enthusiastically scream at my television, “Mami hablas igual a Gloria y yo soy igual a Manny sipping cafecitos!” as a little kid.
Why does representation of Latinx people in media matter? According to a new report from Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) and Wise Entertainment tracking the erasure of Latinx people in film, on and off-screen, of the 1,200 top-grossing films of 2017-2018, only 4.5 % of speaking characters were Latinx — yet, according to the Census Bureau, Hispanic people comprise 18% of the total U.S. population. Adding to this cognitive dissonance: 60% of top-billed Latinx characters in films are depicted without any cultural artifacts, symbols, or references to the characters’ ethnic group. These characters are not shown as part of a majority Hispanic community, with other family members, and were absent from any context cues (e.g., flags, cuisine, clothing, etc.) related to their background. There’s nothing abstract about these omissions, either. A 2007 study demonstrated that for Latino teen viewers, greater exposure to films was negatively associated with self-esteem in areas related to school performance and social abilities. An additional negative association was also found between movie viewing and self-esteem regarding appearance for participants whose ethnic identity was highly salient. Thus, there must be personal consequences for Latino individuals who see their culture erased or minimized in film and television.

While the debate over Latinx representation in Hollywood continues, perhaps television and streaming are our golden ticket to seeing our culture and language on screen.

On the bright side, in the past decade, many prominent Latinx artists, from Eva Longoria and America Ferrara, to Jennifer Lopez and Lin Manuel Miranda, have gained enough clout to build their own production companies and hand pick stories about Latinx people that make us more visible and fight stereotypes. Similarly, many first-generation Latinx writers and reporters are getting the stories of our communities published in mainstream media outlets and distributed widely (not just in Spanish newspapers for Spanish-speaking people).
As for me, I knew I had to be part of the solution. The importance of Latinx representation in media has always been at the forefront of my upbringing. My mother, Lily Neumeyer, was an integral player in the creation of MTV Tr3s in 2006, a replacement for the all-Spanish language “MTV en Español.” MTV Tr3s was a bilingual channel that captured and shared the cultural duality, traditions, and tastes of young Latinx in the United States. Once I graduated from college, I got my dream job producing content behind and in front of the camera for Refinery29’s video team. I immediately noticed the lack of Latinx voices in our video content. With the encouragement and support of the senior leadership team, I launched Celebrando with Serena, the first bilingual series for the site, which set out to empower young Hispanic voices. Through Celebrando, I shared the stories of Latinas like Lorella Praeli, the director of Latino outreach for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, who came to the U.S. from Peru at the age of 2; and Angelica Moreno, a makeup artist who celebrates her Mexican culture by painting intricate skeletons for Dia De Los Muertos.
While the debate over Latinx representation in Hollywood continues, perhaps television and streaming are our golden ticket to seeing our culture and language on screen. Other networks are slowly starting to follow Viacom’s footsteps, investing in more diverse stories for their audiences, who might not have access to Latinx people in their everyday life. Shows like Jane The Virgin on The CW, Vida on Starz, and Los Espookys on HBO are bilingual and bicultural. They are proof that weaving in specific Latinx cultural references and characters can be enjoyed by a universal audience. So what's your excuse, Hollywood?

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