When Karla Souza arrived in Hollywood, the Latino explosion in the film industry was only just gathering pace. The Mexican actress landed in Los Angeles in 2014 on the back of the popularity of Nosotros los Nobles, a comedy where a millionaire businessman simulates a crisis of the family finances to teach his spoiled children a lesson. The movie was a box-office sensation and became one of the most watched films in her country. Her fair complexion and green eyes became even more well-known to American audiences that same year with the television drama How to get away with murder. However, a few days ago, the actress sparked controversy by referring to herself as a “person of color” in the country where she works.
On the Creativo podcast, Souza recounted her first months in the mecca of the film industry. Her inexperience got her into what she now believes was a poor salary negotiation on a series starring Viola Davis that was a smash hit for ABC, which extended it for six seasons. Her experience prompted her to take the next opportunity, another series for the same broadcaster, called Home Economics. “When I started to sense that the white actors were being paid more than the two women, myself, a Mexican, and an African American woman, I kicked up a fuss”, she told host Roberto Martinez. Souza took the issue up with the production. “They should rectify it so that we women of color on the show are paid the same as white people,” she told the producers.
“I’m mindful of my skin color and the privilege that comes with it. The segregation of certain groups on the grounds of race or nationality is a social construct that differs according to the region of the world you are in,” Souza told EL PAÍS in a telephone interview. The actress believes that her words were taken out of context. “In the U.S., Latinos are considered as people of color, and this goes beyond skin color, as it includes the cultural heritage and nationality. It may sound ridiculous, but that’s how I’m regarded as here”, added the actress, who has been promoting La caída, a low-budget, more intimate film that deals with sexual abuse in sports.
The actress talks about the latest rules of an industry striving to become more diverse on a global consumer scale. However, these guidelines are not entirely clear to even the most seasoned professionals. Variety stirred up similar controversy to that involving Souza when it said that Anya Taylor-Joy was the first “person of color” to scoop the Golden Globe for a miniseries. The magazine was compelled to modify the tag it used for the unclassifiable star of Queen’s Gambit, who has British, Argentine, Spanish, Scottish and Zimbabwean heritage (although she defines herself as a ‘white Latina’). This also happened with Deadline and Vanity Fair, which used the same categorization for Antonio Banderas after his Oscar nomination for Dolor y Gloria. The publications backpedaled upon seeing the backlash.
In Poder Prieto, a movement that strives to give more visibility to racialized people, Souza’s words are viewed as “problematic”. “What is confusing in this specific case is the fact that she is Mexican and here in Mexico she, her phenotype, origin and economic and social status give her a privileged position over people who do indeed face disadvantages,” says Aleida Violeta Vázquez Cisneros, an Afro-Mexican poet and activist. “She had to experience this kind of racism in the United States for her to be able to protest. And she does so by appropriating a rhetoric from people who have been the objects of oppression,” adds the member of the collective, who makes no bones about Souza’s claim.
The pay deficit for Latinos in Hollywood is genuine. “What Karla is highlighting is that the percentage of people of color or minority groups is minimal in the industry,” says Diana Luna, president of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), an organization that puts the number of Latinos employed in the industry at around 20,000. Inequity is not exclusive to those appearing in front of the camera. “They don’t pay the same if there is a woman director of color. Certain projects have lower budgets,” she adds.
Luna terms the state of diversity in the industry as “devastating”. Her pessimism is evidenced by the most recent University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) report on the subject. The document affirms that despite Hollywood showing signs of an openness to minorities over the past two years, the pandemic has led the studios to take a cautious approach once again. “The studios opted for guaranteed hits driven by nostalgia and old intellectual property as opposed to moving forward with more inclusivity and fresh narratives”, the report says.
The report has since became a highly consulted portrayal of the state of America’s entertainment capital since the #OscarSoWhite controversy. Its authors, Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón, coordinate a team that reviews some 170 movies released on screens and thousands of TV series on a yearly basis. The conclusions debunk the myth of progress and meritocracy, with only 21% of the leading roles in films released in 2022 starring people of color (black, Latino, Asian, etc.). This occurs despite 43% of the country’s population belonging to these minority groups. Latinos are among the least represented groups on screen, though they are one of the largest consumers of audiovisual products.
The situation is not getting any better in terms of those directing either. “While the film industry has advanced in recent years, it essentially remains an exclusive club of white male directors,” the authors write. They go on to say: “Women and people of color need to be exceptional if they are to survive in the industry, while white men get considerably more opportunities to succeed.”
Karla Souza believes that the system can only be changed when there are more women and Latinos in senior leadership positions. Only 4% of Hollywood executives are of Hispanic origin, according to an official report. “It’s being challenged increasingly more. These are obstacles that I have to be pushing or fighting so that my characters are not labeled as stereotypes. So that I’m paid the same as other actors and that I’m not just considered as a quota and I’m viewed as a multidimensional individual. If I were a racialized woman I’d be facing even more segregation and discrimination,” said Souza.
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