Latin America is a diverse region with many cultural differences and similarities. The majority of Latin Americans identify as multiracial; however, the concept of media representation and its reflection on society is somewhat new. TV shows and movies, both local and international, still portray Latin America through a Eurocentric lens, with white characters that are distant from the local reality. Young people are more concerned about diversity and representation than their older counterparts, a sentiment they are likely to express on social media. Regional differences play a big part, with those in Colombia and Brazil pushing for Black representation, while Mexicans question Indigenous descendants’ invisibility. Brazil usually deviates the most from other countries, as it does not share the same historical and cultural background. Unfortunately, there is a lack of quantitative data regarding how Latin American audiences feel about ethnic representation, which could be associated with the region’s tendency to deny racism and discrimination as real problems, particularly older generations. We were able to locate qualitative insights that show how ethnicity, racial relationships, representation, and regional differences contribute to the media landscape, in the form of academic papers, interviews, news reports, and group studies. We also included insights about ethnicity and diversity as a whole to illustrate how they perceive it and the value attributed to it. Furthermore, we were forced to rely on local references (written in Spanish and Portuguese), as sources published in English usually only cover the Latinx population that lives in the United States or Europe.
Race and Ethnicity
- It is imperative to acknowledge how race and ethnicity are perceived in the region to understand how each population sees media representation. There are significant differences, as some countries have a much more flexible definition of racial/ethnic identity.
- At the beginning of the 20th century, Latin American governments started to promote measures to “whiten” the population and create national unity. How each government managed this process still reflects on how race and ethnicity are perceived as “the legacies of colonization and slavery, as well as the effects of ideologies of mestizaje, whitening, and multiculturalism, on ethno-racial identification differ by country. As a result, the degree to which race is flexible and unsettled diverges extensively across the region.”
- Like Brazil, some countries promoted European immigration and intermarriage to whiten the population and create national unity. The mixed-race population was embraced in countries with a large proportion of Blacks, but less accepted in predominantly white countries, such as Argentina and Uruguay.
- In Colombia, Black people were excluded. The national identity was promoted around the mixture of Europeans and Indigenous; meanwhile, skin color is weakly associated with identification in the Dominican Republic, unlike Peru and Panama.
- On the other hand, in Mexico, racial distinctions are mostly based on cultural and linguistic variations instead of skin color. Nevertheless, the country has substantial social stratification by color, even if it is not the main identity component.
- Studies demonstrate that people who identify as white in Latin American countries would identify as non-white elsewhere. Furthermore, researchers found that “who is considered white in Latin America depends not only on skin color but also on national context and cultural dynamics.”
- For example, studies have shown that among people with the same light brown skin color rating, “nearly 70% of Argentines and Uruguayans identify as white, while less than 10% of Peruvians, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, and Bolivians do so.”
- For example, Antonio Banderas is often cast as a Latino man in American productions, even though he is a Spanish white man, according to the actor and Latinos. Therefore, some Latin Americans are not always happy to see a European man as a Latin American character.
- When he received an Oscar nomination in 2019, American outlets said he was one of the few “people of color” to be recognized, which created controversy among Spanish people and Latin Americans, who joked on Twitter that he was a “person of color — the color white.”
- Spain was the colonizer of most Latin countries, with a long history of abuse and exploitation, which led some people to question if Hollywood is trying to rewrite and banalize history or simply cast European actors as a less ethnic version of a Latin Americans.
How Different Groups Perceive Diversity
- Overall, Latin countries tend to favor more gender equality over increased diversity.
- They are less likely to say that their countries are more ethnic, religious, and racially diverse now than two decades ago compared to the other 27 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center. As for how they feel about diversity, there are some minor regional differences. Excluding those who said there has been no change, 51% of Brazilians said increased diversity is positive versus 13% who said it is negative. People in Argentina (41% and 17%, respectively) and Mexico (45% and 12% respectively) had similar responses.
- Age and education greatly influence this perception. In Brazil, 66% of those between 18-29 said that diversity is positive for the country versus 41% of those over 50. Fifty-eight percent of Mexicans in the 18-29 age bracket said the same versus 33% of those over 50. A similar proportion is found in Argentina (51% versus 33%). Although other countries also show a difference between generations, Brazil and Mexico are among the countries with the most significant “youngest-oldest gaps.”
- Education is by far the most critical determinant of how people see diversity in Latin America. Brazil shows the biggest difference among all 27 countries, with 67% of those with more education in favor of increasing diversity in the country, versus 38% of those with less education. Argentina (62% versus 38%) and Mexico (59% versus 36%) closely follow, ranking third and fourth.
- Despite these initial findings, more specific research, also conducted by the Pew Research Center around the same time, shows different results for Mexico and Colombia (Brazil and Argentina were not included). This time, researchers asked if increasing the number of races, ethnic groups, and nationalities would make the country a better or worse place to live. Twenty-two percent of Mexicans said it would be worse, 20% said it would be better, and 55% said it would make no difference. Meanwhile, 66% of Colombians said it would be better, 25% said worse, and only 6% said it would make no difference.
- It is interesting to note how Mexico is the most indifferent country among all countries in both surveys. It is probably connected to the fact that 69% of Mexicans said they never or rarely interact with people of a different race or ethnicity. Additionally, 54% said they rarely or never interact with people who have different religious views, versus 38% of Colombians who said the same.
- Migrants and refugees are controversial in both countries. Fifty-four percent of Colombians said they see migrants living in their countries unfavorable. Forty-eight percent of Mexicans said they see Central Americans in Mexico unfavorable. Younger people tend to have more favorable views in both countries.
The Latino Identity — Regional Differences
- Being Latin American is considered a form of identity, more than nationalities or geographic location. As such, many Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans and Colombians, are often disappointed in how international media portrays them and the Latino identity. “Greasy bandidos, fat mamacitas, romantic Latin lovers, lazy peons sleeping under sombreros, short-tempered Mexican spitfires, violent revolutionaries, faithful servants, gang members, and sexy señoritas with low-cut blouses and loose morals have long been staples of Latin images in fiction, films, and television.”
- Brazil is the exception to the rule, as the population refutes the Latino identity. When asked if they defined themselves as Latin Americans, only 4% of Brazilians agreed versus 47% (average) of the population in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru.
- Most Brazilians identify simply as Brazilian (79%), followed by a citizen of the world (13%), Latin-American (4%), and South American (1%). It was the only country in which the nationality ranked among the top three positions. Argentines and Colombians ranked Latin-American, South American, and Citizen-of-the-World first, and Mexicans said Latin-American, Citizen of the World, and North American.
- For that reason, the representation of Latin Americans and Latino identity are not that relevant for Brazilians, unless it is specifically about Brazil or Brazilians. Some state that they only discovered they were Latinx when they moved to another country.
- Overall, it is curious that Latin Americans want to be noticed and well-liked by foreigners despite not liking how international media depict them. They enjoy when foreigners recognize their countries and cultures. Videos of YouTubers who either visited or live in the countries tend to attract views and positive engagement.
- These videos also provide some insights into the inferiority complex that permeates the culture. Regardless of the country, whenever a YouTuber describes choosing to live in Latin America instead of Europe or the United States, the comment section is filled with locals saying bad things about their own countries, usually stating they do not understand why someone would choose to live there.
Priorities and the Importance of Representation
- Underrepresented groups vary according to the region. For instance, in Mexico, it is mostly dark-skinned people with Indigenous features. Brazilians tend to feel that Blacks and Asians are poorly portrayed, while Peruvians note Andeans’ misrepresentation or invisibility.
- Latin America has many regional differences that make it complex to draw a general picture. However, analysis of the perception and sentiment of ethnic groups in multiple countries regarding their representation or invisibility show one common priority and desire: dignity.
- Ethnic groups in Latin America want to be portrayed positively, without being ridiculed or reduced to stereotypes, as being used as comic relief without any further character development is quite common.
- The portrayal of ethnic groups in Latin America is surrounded by three main concepts: “they are different, they are dirty, they are a threat.” It is not uncommon for ethnic minorities to be portrayed this way by media. However, in Latin America’s case, these are not minorities (in numbers). Yet, they are still portrayed as exotic and different, associated with negative stereotypes.
- Ethnic groups as a threat is part of the culture and perpetuates inequality and prejudice. For example, police brutality against these groups is a significant issue in the region. In Brazil, 75% of the people killed by the police are Black or brown. Meanwhile, in Mexico and Central America, victims of police brutality are usually those of Indigenous ancestry.
- The image media shows of the groups and are, therefore, ingrained in the collective, is connected to socioeconomic status. For example, people in Brazil and Argentina are more likely to classify multiracial characters (and real people) as white if they have a better socioeconomic position. The same multiracial actor that would be seen as Black or Brown playing a mechanic could be seen as white if playing a doctor. Racial categorization in these countries is also often connected to contextual factors, primarily social class.
- Discussions surrounding the importance of representation are increasing, influenced by the current global political climate. Debates are emerging surrounding how much of their identity and self-steam were forged by this distorted image of ethnicity, as well as hostility towards other ethnic groups. How much this will influence their decision to buy a product or consume a particular content is often unclear. Research shows that they are more likely to support a brand if ads depict ethnic diversity.
- A recent development that could indicate the importance of representation, particularly among younger generations, is an increase in the number of people that identify as Black, multiracial, or Indigenous. There is also a movement to stop considering conversations surrounding race and ethnicity as taboo.
- A study analyzed how ethnic groups in Latin America are mechanically portrayed in a negative light. It analyzed 146 sentences directed towards ethnic characters that were considered harmful and reported that 32.9% of the discrimination happens through stereotypes, 27.4% via diminutives, 17.8% are direct offenses, and 17.8% are double meaning jokes, and 3.4% are connected to the characters’ last name.
- As for the intention, 44.5% are meant to offend the character, 36.3% to describe, 10.3% are meant as jokes, 4.8% as information, and 4.4% are intended as compliments.
- The reason why these characters are being offended is much more diverse. The characters’ values and culture are the most common reason as to why they are offended or stereotyped (19%), followed by the place of origin (14%), sexuality (14%), gender (14%), ethnic characteristics (9%), physical appearance (8%), age (5%), and others (17%).
- The ethnic groups most commonly underrepresented, particularly as a proportion of the population versus media representation, are multiracial locals, Blacks, Asians in Brazil, and the Indigenous populations and descendants. Some regional differences were noted; however, the final result and sentiment caused are usually the same. Insights about who seems to care the most about these issues and how they communicate their concerns were included at the end of each underrepresented group’s section, as available.
The Average Multiracial Local
- Latin America has little to no resemblance to Europe; however, the regional media tends to create a Eurocentric vision of their society. Regardless of the country, the general rule is that all ethnic groups are underrepresented apart from white individuals with European features.
- There seems to be a consensus among different ethnic groups that the media does not portray the average Latin-American. Productions in multiple countries are often accused of “whitewashing” ethnic characters or distorting the local reality. It is one of the most common issues surrounding representativity, affecting marginalized groups and minorities.
- “Whitewashing” is a common problem in Colombia. For example, a recent post asking for models to be a part of a Coca Cola ad raised concerns. Out of the 12 roles, eight were reserved for white people. After the controversy, the casting agent changed the post to exclude mentions of race or ethnicity.
- One journalist explains the country’s situation, saying, “Many may feel that larger racial issues, that of displacement or violence perpetrated against Afro-Colombians or the indigenous merits a larger share of the dialogue. On the other hand, it can also be argued that the whitewashing of Colombian media is emblematic of a wider neglect or dismissiveness of darker-skinned people from the public limelight.”
- In Latin countries, the representation problem is aggravated by the fact that the demographic profile most prevalent in TV shows and movies does not relate to the majority of the population. For example, only 7% of Brazilian women said they feel represented by the TV ads. As a result of the stereotypes, distorted images or plain invisibility, young people do not see models to emulate, and adults feel marginalized.
- The program “Made in Mexico” was publicly criticized for depicting Mexicans as mostly white, a distant reality for locals. Examination of Mexican magazines shown that only 20% of the images have someone with a darker skin tone and local features, and it is often accompanying stories about events, such as philanthropy or travel. Moreover, black and brown people featured on Mexican media tend to be foreigners.
- Beauty standards in Latin American are typically connected to lighter skin tones, fine and delicate features, and straight hair; characteristics associated with white Europeans, and distant from the racial reality of the region. The main difference from the European beauty standard is a preference towards female bodies with more curves or more “voluptuous,” which is also an inclination connected to them being exoticized and hypersexualized, in local and international media.
- Women are most likely to express resentment and frustration with the lack of representation of local beauty and culture, especially young generations. Locals from multiple countries talked about these impressions, showing that the problem is prevalent across the entire region. Research suggests that most initiatives to tackle the problem come from activists, non-profit organizations, and outlets devoted to younger audiences, such as BuzzFeed.
- After the death of George Floyd and racist comments targeting Yalitza Aparicio, many people in Mexico started to question what racism is and how it affects the perception of local beauty and culture. Under the hashtag #mexicoracista, young women reported being bullied for their “Mexican” appearance. They also asked for more media diversity, especially in streaming services, which are regarded as more inclusive than TV channels.
Black People in Brazil, Colombia and Argentina
- A study interviewed Black people from multiple Latin American countries to discover how they feel about race and representation. It also examined how the media portrays the group. Seventy percent of the participants said they experienced racism, and 95% said they witnessed racism. When asked where they saw such acts, the media was the second most commonly mentioned, surpassing schools, workplaces, public spaces, or family events.
- According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the media in Latin America contributes to the reproduction and perpetuation of stereotypes with pejorative qualifiers or “folklorization” and “exoticization” of Black people and their communities. Their portrayal is rarely positive or empowering.
- When researchers asked Black Latin Americans if they felt represented by the image portrayed by the media, they said they feel invisible, underrepresented or expressed discontent with their depiction. For example, Brazilian telenovelas are known for casting Black actors as secondary characters, typically as criminals, poor, or “the help.”
- One young Black Colombian stated that, according to the media, Black people do not exist, particularly Black women. When they show Black individuals, characters are reduced to cultural clichés and whitewashed images.
- They feel that their image is distorted, filled with stereotypes and anachronisms, ultimately showing a marginalized, criminalized, and ridiculed individual. One young woman in Argentina exemplifies the situation, saying that Black people are not shown as serious or responsible.
- Respondents expressed frustration with the media constantly showing them as thieves, brutes, and murders. The image of Black people is often banalized, associated with violence or hypersexualized. Overall, some complaints are mentioned continuously by respondents from multiple countries:
- Black women are often shown as prostitutes or vulgar. For example, a Colombian man stated, “You never see a black actor as an executive of a large company. A Black man is a driver, watchman, thief, salesman. The role of women even worse: Prostitute, housewife, maid…”
- Black men are shown as criminals, drunkards, or lacking basic culture and education. “It is an impoverished, banal, ‘folklorized’ and stereotyped image; when it is not associated with violence or hyper erotic.” (Uruguayan man, 42).
- Black women are rarely independent or professionals. They are usually shown in roles associated with servitude. Another Colombian participant explains: “I do not recall ever seeing an Afro-descendant woman on television who looks like me, neither physically, nor intellectually, nor socially. I never saw a woman an Afro-descendant giving a lecture. I also did not see an Afro-descendant female veterinary doctor as my cousin, or an Afro-descendant female graphic designer, so she definitely doesn’t represent me, she doesn’t represent us. The media convey the idea that the entire country is white, with few blacks doing housework, stealing, prostituting themselves or acting as clowns.”
- Black people are portrayed as dirty, mediocre, and disorganized. “According to the media, we are uneducated, untidy, and ordinary beings” (Colombian man, 33). They are often described as cheaters, lazy, and crude.
- Black people on TV and movies are rarely a reflection of the local Black community when it comes to appearance, particularly women. They usually have thin noses, straight hair, and small and delicate features. Several Black women said that they do not feel represented and believe that there is no space for local Black beauty. One young Black woman said, “There are no real Black women because as the saying goes, black is not pretty, black does not sell. And that does a lot of harm because I confess I’ve never felt pretty.”
- In 2014, the Brazilian show “Sexo e as Negas” (roughly translates to “Sex and the Black women”) attracted controversies. First, the name was questioned, as the word “nega” is a “colloquial term for black women in Brazilian Portuguese, but can also be used derogatorily.” The second controversy was surrounding the fact that Black people were once again portrayed as poor and living in favelas. Additionally, some argued that given the lack of representativity of Black people on Brazilian TV, a show focused on sex would only further the stigma and over-sexualization of Black women. Nonetheless, the network (Globo) still aired the show, but it was not renewed for a second season.
- Another peculiar aspect of the country relates to religion and the perception of African culture. In the past, African religions were shown as evil by the Brazilian media. Now they are mostly invisible. Since it only affects a small percentage of the population, associated with widespread Christianity, Brazilians tend not to care or support the group’s marginalization. It is an example of the “folklorization” of the other, creating a collective idea that African religions are inherently “evil,” especially because religious leaders openly attack them, further marginalizing Black culture.
- The Black community in Argentina is more modest, accounting for around 150,000 people. They also feel like they are invisible, explains Miriam Gomes, president of the Dock Sud Mutual Association, “The members of black communities feel the denial and invisibility of our presence in the country.”
- She further adds, “This is our reality and it is always covered up and denied. It is not possible to speak on the existence of racism in Argentina because people get offended. They believe that racism only happens in America or Apartheid South Africa.” Traditionally, racism denial is a common practice in Latin America. Brazil has a similar situation, except that those that raise the topic of racism are often described as “playing the victim role.”
- Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, named Sergio Camargo, a black journalist, as the head of the Palmares Cultural Foundation, which was not well-received by a large majority of Black people since he describes himself as a “black right-winger, an anti-victim mentality,” and denies that racism exists in the country. In a recent controversy, he called the Black Movement “scum” and stated that real racism only existed in the United States.
- Since the country is extremely polarized right now, many people echo his beliefs, and attempts to discuss and denounce racism and inequality are viewed as “victimization.” For example, 2020 study conducted in Brazil showed that 53% of consumers would not buy from a brand that showcased discriminatory behavior or prejudice, which is not a significant majority. Moreover, Black Brazilians are less likely to say they relate to portrayals than LGBT+ and women.
- Young people are the leading advocates for change, with many local celebrities showcasing support. Colombians and Brazilians are the nationalities more invested in the representation of Black Latinos. Women are significantly more likely to admit racism is a problem than men (67% versus 54%), while young generations (younger than 35) not only are more likely to support diversity but also to identify racism.
- They are vocal on social media platforms. Some countries have affirmative action and awareness campaigns, such as Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia. Racism and hate speech are crimes in Brazil, and members of social movements regularly verify and denounce racist depictions and push for more legislation and social policies.
Indigenous Population and Descendants
- The desire to see more Indigenous representativity is mostly connected to the ethnic composition of the region. Countries with a larger proportion of Indigenous descendants tend to have stronger movements around the right of self-representation and self-determination. However, what is often found are movies and documentaries focused on differences and history. Mainstream characters, who are portrayed in everyday urban situations, where their ethnicity is not the only focus of the production, are rare or stereotyped.
- Like other Latin countries, Mexico also denies racism and a lack of representation of ethnic groups. “Using the word ‘racism’ in this country still creates resistance in public debate,” stated Fabiola Fernández Guerra Carrillo of the Collective to Eliminate Racism in Mexico. “You can imagine what it was like 10 years ago.”
- Mexican media usually shows light-skinned actors as the main characters, while those with Indigenous features are typically depicted as low-income and uneducated secondary characters. As Black people in Brazil, these characters are usually low-income, working in positions such as maids and drivers, employed by white people.
- Evidence from Peru also shows that people with Indigenous features are either invisible or portrayed detrimentally, even though people with Andean features are a majority in many regions of the country and live modern and urban lives. When a character is explicitly Andean, he is likely to be played by a white or brown actor.
- Indigenous women in Mexican productions are also typically vulgar, violent, ignorant, dirty, or perpetual victims, with no real character development. Prostitution is a common theme. Considering that many Latin American women are forced into inhumane situations and abused, it is particularly problematic that these stereotypes are banalizing the situation, sometimes using it as comic relief.
- One study conducted an in-depth analysis of the Mexican media, including TV shows, news, telenovelas, and advertising. Indigenous characters accounted for only 7.3%, or 64 out of 874 characters. Only five TV programs had indigenous representation.
- These characters are usually “empty of dignity,” with a folkloric appearance. They are highly stereotyped and typically transform from innocent to ignorant. The few representations of this ethnic group are characterized by “inferiorization” and discrimination, which promotes rejection and isolation.
- When Yalitza Aparicio was cast and nominated for a Best Actress award for her role in “Roma,” some critics believed that her character had no voice. Others claimed that it is simply a depiction of the reality of Indigenous women in Mexican society. Because media rarely shows a “detailed look at domestic workers in Latin America, that context has to be sought out by viewers after the movie.”
- Despite how her character was perceived, having a visibly ethnic actress receiving so much attention was a remarkable event for Mexicans, and “Roma” has been praised for showing a more realistic depiction of Mexico. Casting Yalitza Aparicio was considered a positive step towards diversity and representation, as she “stands in stark contrast to the pale women and men with European features who dominate Mexican television and film, though they represent only a sliver of the country’s overwhelmingly mestizo and indigenous population.”
- Social media is the main stage for inclusion debates. In Mexico, the debate has “centered on discrimination against indigenous groups, who have long suffered from poverty, isolation and a lack of representation in politics and popular culture.”
Asians in Brazil
- The Asian community in Latin America is rather small overall. Overall, Asian characters are portrayed as foreigners, and even that is a rare occurrence.
- However, some countries have a more significant presence, particularly Brazil. Around 1% of the population identify as Asian. Although it may seem like a small percentage, it represents around 2 million people, almost twice the proportion that identify as indigenous. The country is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, with 1.5 million Japanese-descendants living in the country, mostly in Sao Paulo. Meanwhile, Brazilians represent the largest non-Asian group living in Japan.
- They are not satisfied with how the media portrays them. The stereotypes that surround Asians are quite different from other ethnic groups. First, they always have above-average intelligence, which may seem like a positive thing; the problem is that it perpetuates the idea of a “model minority,” a stereotype that they feel pressured to live up to and that kills their sense of individuality.
- They are also portrayed as timid, with weak voices, incapable of standing up for themselves. They are constantly mocked, from their appearance to how they talk. Moreover, discrimination against this ethnic group is often not taken seriously, treated as a joke. For example, When a K-Pop group appeared on a TV show in 2017, the daytime host asked if they were all brothers since they all look alike, and told them to “open their eyes.” There were no consequences and minimal repercussion.
- Furthermore, one study concluded that Japanese descendants feel like foreigners in Brazil, and when they go to Japan, they are called “gaijin” (foreigners) as well, which leads to the question “Where do I belong?”
- When the most important TV network in the country, Globo, produced the telenovela “Sol Nascente” (Rising Sun), a story based on Japanese descendants, it cast two white actors to play the leads. The male lead, Kazuo Tanaka, was played by Luis Melo, and his daughter, Alice Tanaka by Giovana Antonelli.
- At the time (2017), the author, Walter Negrão, stated that he could not find Asian actors that were good enough or experienced enough to play the parts, and the network stated that the show was not about Japan. The Japanese community was not satisfied, and 200 Asian-Brazilian artists signed a manifest questioning the decision, asking for an end of ethnic discrimination, and raised their concerns about a lack of representation on social media.
- Much like “Sexo e as Negas,” the public initially rejected the telenovela, and ratings during the first month of its exhibition (telenovelas usually last three months) were lower than average for the time slot. It only picked up on the ratings after Negrão left production but is unclear if the low ratings are connected to the casting; however, Globo had to justify the casting in 2016, 2018, and 2020, as the topic keeps coming back. It also became a reference of “yellow face” in the country.