This time last week, The Root’s Felice Léon was issuing a pointed reminder to the cast and crew of In the Heights that darker-skinned Latinx people not only exist, but should be more than background players. It’s a conversation that has spurred both heated debate and some thoughtful reflection in the days since, including more recent comments from veteran entertainer Rita Moreno that were perhaps not as thoughtful as they could’ve been.
So, it’s perhaps a fitting cap to this tumultuous week of dialogue that another highly respected actress is centering Afro-Latinx identity on her own terms. In a Q&A with CNN published Wednesday, 9-1-1: Lone Star lead actress Gina Torres spoke about how she’s leveraging her now three-decade-plus career to change the narrative for others in Hollywood—and in the process, helping to explain exactly why this type of representation is too often overlooked and very necessary.
The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Torres said there was a time when she had to audition for a role multiple times early in her career because she didn’t fit producers’ ideas of American beauty.
“You’re too exotic and they didn’t want to confuse the audience,” Torres recalled being told.
Afro-Latino performers like Torres have been “hiding in plain sight,” she said, as Hollywood tends to cast them for Black roles because they “don’t look Latino.”
After success in countless series including Suits, 24 and Westworld, as well as The Matrix franchise, Torres felt she was within her rights to flex her full identity when she created, produced and starred in the Suits spinoff Pearson, infusing her already beloved character Jessica Pearson with an Afro-Latinx heritage much like her own first-generation upbringing.
“When I was casting for Pearson, there was an actress who came in from Miami and one of the producers said, ‘The way I pictured this character, you know, she was born here, she’s been here, she’s not an immigrant,’” Torres recalls. “The producer said she had an accent. Having an accent doesn’t mean that you weren’t born here. For me it was a plus, it was something wonderful to kind of explore and have on screen, but it threw him off. It’s little things like that.”
Accordingly, when she was approached to star in Fox’s 9-1-1 spinoff, 9-1-1: Lone Star, she asked showrunner Tim Minear if that character could also be Afro-Latina, explaining exactly what that should look like.
“I need to speak my language (Spanish) whenever possible. I need to let the audience know that this is also a face of Latinidad,” Torres recounted to CNN.
The result was Tommy Vega, a character she calls “beautifully crafted” and a “fully realized human being”—and no doubt representative of many in the Lone Star State of Texas, where the series, now renewed for a third season, is set.
“That was incredibly important for me because so often marginalized people aren’t really depicted as being fully human,” Torres explained. “They’re not given the same attention, they’re not given the same time, they’re not given families.”
“It’s just part of who they are and it informs how they see the world in certain ways,” Torres added. “At the end of the day, we’re all human.”
Instead, Latinx characters—and Latinas, in particular, are often branded as “spicy” (in much the same way Black female characters are expected to be sassy). It’s a trope Torres tells CNN she’d like to banish. “I don’t even have to explain it,” she says
Likewise, Torres doesn’t think anyone should have to explain why a greater spectrum of Latinidad is necessary, both on screen and behind the scenes.
“Hire us. It’s not that hard. We need to be in front of the camera, behind the camera, we need to be writing the words, we need to be directing these stories. There’s so much room in the industry,” she says, adding: “bring people under the umbrella and bring them into the fold. Then the pool widens so that you have more to choose from and more to pick from.”