During last year’s Latinx Heritage Month, Nuyorican actor and filmmaker Dominique Nieves launched a mentorship initiative for up-and-coming Latinx television writers having a harder-than-normal time getting their foot in the door. Using the hashtag #ReadLatinxWriters, Nieves issued a call on Twitter for established industry professionals willing to read scripts from Latinx writers and provide feedback. Then, she deployed the hashtag to encourage aspiring writers to sign up for mentorships.
Through #ReadLatinxWriters, Nieves wound up pairing nearly 200 writers with mentors, including showrunners and executives from major studios like Walt Disney and 20th Television. The connections were so rewarding that Nieves is organizing another batch for a second cohort of mentees.
“To sit on a call with someone who says, ‘What can I do to help you?’ … from a showrunner, that’s unbelievable. That doesn’t happen,” says Janet Quiñonez, a Mexican-American writer that was paired with Jaclyn P. Moore, producer and writer for Netflix’s Dear White People and Peacock’s Queer as Folk.
For Jessica Buentello, a Chicana writer who had spent five years in the television industry as an executive assistant before she was laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, #ReadLatinxWriters was a “big break.” She secured her first manager with a script she polished with feedback from her mentor, Danny Tolli, a writer and producer on the CW’s sci-fi drama series Roswell, NM. With support from Nieves and Tolli, Buentello has since landed gigs as a script coordinator for Roswell, NM and other shows, as well as her first staff writer position on an upcoming program.
“Their input and advice was valuable at every step in getting me into the writers’ room,” says Buentello, one of several #ReadLatinxWriters mentees who are participating in the initiative again this year—this time as mentors.
#ReadLatinxWriters is a grassroots attempt at bringing Latinx presence in TV writers’ rooms in line with real-world demographics: According to a report by the Writers Guild of America West — the union that represents writers for television and film productions — Latinxs are the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S., representing more than 18% of the population; however, they account for just 8.7% of TV writers. (On the screenwriters’ side, the percentage of Latinx writers drops to just 4.8%.) As such, Latinxs are the least-represented major ethnic group in the profession.
“We are [among] the groups having the hardest time being hired,” says Los Angeles-based screenwriter and producer Jorge Rivera, who serves as Vice-Chair of WGA’S Latinx Writers Committee and is a #ReadLatinxWriters mentor.
While there is no single explanation for why Latinx writers struggle to break into television, the traditional paths toward coveted staff jobs don’t tend to serve this group. Rivera says that many writers get a foot in the door by taking low-paying writer’s assistant jobs in the hopes of getting promoted. But that involves moving to Los Angeles—a notoriously expensive city—and juggling multiple side gigs, or relying on family for financial support, which can be prohibitive for writers from lower-income backgrounds.
Writers also break in via contests or by placing into network writing fellowships, which run anywhere from several months to a year and allow participants to work in writers’ rooms, network, and learn how to pitch story ideas. These programs, however, offer few slots and don’t necessarily lead to promotions or permanent jobs. And in an industry where opportunities spread by word of mouth and through personal networks, Latinx writers lack the connections that open doors. “There’s no nepotism for us, because our parents aren’t already doing this,” Nieves says.
The gatekeeping mechanisms aren’t serving Latinx creatives, which is why initiatives like #ReadLatinxWriters are all the more crucial. Nieves wanted mentees to get feedback that they could use to polish their scripts, but it was just as important to her to help increase their visibility by putting their work in front of industry powerbrokers. “That’s another reason they don’t hire us. They don’t know we exist,” says Nieves. “And why don’t they know we exist? Because we’re not in those circles. This opened those opportunities up for people.”
For Nieves, minimizing gatekeeping also means limiting the application for #ReadLatinxWriters to a few necessary questions — rather than the lengthy personal statements that network fellowship programs often require. She also accepts writers in Latin America, who face additional hurdles when it comes to networking.
Jeremías Magnaghi Rudy, a science fiction writer from Argentina who is considering a move to Los Angeles, says #ReadLatinxWriters allowed him to connect with writers outside his country in ways that had never been available to him: “It took some of us who had something in common but didn’t know each other and made us part of a community.”
For Nieves, the goal of setting up a feeder that delivers Latinx talent to the television industry is to help develop programs that combat harmful depictions of Latinx people. “We need these stories out there,” says Nieves, who also started an independent production company, IronGlove Productions, because she was tired of being cast in stereotypical roles. “If you only ever see one side of the story, if you ever see a negative portrayal of people in the media, that’s what you're going to know.”
Plenty of people agree. Last October, the Untitled Latinx Project, an all-Latina advocacy group for TV writers founded by Tanya Saracho, creator of the Starz drama Vida, published an open letter to Hollywood that denounced Latinx exclusion in the industry. The letter’s demands included that all Latinx programming involve Latinx creators as well as promotions and growth opportunities for Latinx writers, who often get stuck at the same level. The letter was signed by 270 Latinx figures in the industry, including Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Leguizamo.
Data suggests that there is an untapped market for more diverse Latinx content. A 2020 Nielsen report found that 78% of Latinx households subscribed to at least one video streaming service, which was higher than the 74% national average. Rivera believes that networks are “leaving money on the table” because few television executives understand the nuances and complexities of the Latinx audience, resulting in a low number of Latinx shows that are greenlit each year. “We’re all fighting for crumbs off a table that we’re not really even invited to sit at,” Rivera says.
He notes that stakes are high for the few Latinx projects that do move ahead. Case in point: The highly anticipated film adaptation of In the Heights, Miranda’s Broadway musical, elicited intense disappointment for its lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx representation, a glaring omission given the racial composition of the primarily Dominican New York City neighborhood.
“We were all pinning our hopes on that,” says Rivera, noting that having just a handful of Latinx shows means that their creators face outsized pressure to represent all of the many ethnic, cultural, and religious identities that have been lumped together under the Latinx label.
While hardly a substitute for an industry that is actually inclusive to Latinx talent, an initiative like #ReadLatinxWriters can help bridge the gap. Millie Torchetti, an Argentine-born comedy writer who found an eager mentor in One Day at a Time co-showrunner Mike Royce, was reassured when she discovered that there are people in the industry who are willing to step up to help.
“The beauty of #ReadLatinxWriters is that it’s connected people who really want to make a difference with Latinx writers who they wouldn’t have known,” she says.