• Paula J Leon

Dear Entertainment Industry, You’re simply not doing enough.

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

When I entered the field of entertainment it was because it was the only place I could breathe. I did theatre outside of school, which I feel was better in the end because I was around people who needed and wanted to do it beyond just a class in their school. It was in a completely different environment where it just mattered if you put in the work and were good. Theatre was there for me at a point in my life where the school I was in was threatening my well-being, it was there for me as I transferred to a different school because I couldn’t stand that toxic place anymore.

Switching schools in February isn't really a great time, it's a super awkward time of the year. I started the new school the week of Valentine’s Day and my new school had a tradition of rose deliveries. Seeing people give their friends roses and express that emotional intimacy was sweet. I didn't feel left out. I was aware my situation wasn't normal, I was aware I wasn't going to have a normal semester because I had just ran from an emotional hellscape. This new school had a drama department, and I didn't do any shows there because all the British kids were cast but it was the easiest way for me to connect to people. They were definitely my first friends because we were a small class and you got to choose which art class you take, so most of us wanted to be there. Emphasis on the “most.”

Fast forward to getting into a better school than most of my condescending classmates who wanted to be CEOs. Fall 2017, New York, New York. I had never been in America for longer than five days and here I was in Washington Square Park starting a new life. The life I wanted for myself. That's important to say because no one pushed me to be here. In fact, my college counselor stopped reworking my NYU application essay because I probably wasn't going to get in anyway. A kid that ended up getting rejected from NYU told me that was his safe school while I was applying for ED. My parents were naturally reluctant about me pursuing acting because they were worried I wouldn't be able to achieve a life like the one they gave me. The reality is that no matter what I was going to study, I was never going to remake that, and I didn’t want to. No malice intended, my parents gave me a great upbringing filled with culture and experience, of course moving around a lot makes me super social but also made me trust no one. That's a separate issue.

I came to New York City to study acting in one of the most prestigious schools known around the world. I came here defying all odds: no monologue coaches and no acting camp experience but I was still here alongside classmates that were provided those resources. I didn't notice it at first, but I slowly realised how much easier my white counterparts had it. It became most evident my sophomore year when my Chekhov teacher did not allow me to go to the bathroom during class and when she yelled at me in front of everyone for talking in the fifteen minute rule ( a rule where we are supposed to focus on preparation before the class). Everyone else had been talking… It was clear she didn't like me for some reason but she never got on my actual acting because I had put in the work and everyone knew that. What blew my mind was that a white girl in my class missed the day she was supposed to perform her scene without telling her partner because she was hungover, and the professor didn't berate her. She instead got upset at the people who were supposed to go a week later for not being prepared to go early, and the rest of the semester she praised and loved the white girl that skipped because of partying the night before. So it became clear to me that this teacher had some weird personal vendetta against me, then I found out in another class she verbally attacked the only other not-mixed Latina in my year.

I’m not gonna say it, I’ll let you piece it together but I’ll add one last thing.

The Atlantic Students of Colour had a meeting with that professor about a project we were doing the following semester for which we had to choose a play to perform. There was a play I held dearly to my heart since 11th grade called “Death and The Maiden,” written by a Chilean playwright about Chileans after the dictatorship. I told the professor that I knew the play had been done in the past by white students with no connection to Latinidad and urged her to not let this happen again. She acted like she understood and explained how many a white girls have gone to her about another Latinx play called “Marisol” and how she’s told them they can't do it. Of course I learned a few weeks later that that was total bull sh%t, because it was one of her recommended plays to the most nordic looking white girls. I don't appreciate being lied to. I would have rather had her disagree with me so I could educate her on her own internal white supremacy. But the point is, how can an entire institution support this behaviour? This silencing? I went on to show everyone how this play was for Latinx, using text from the original copy which is in Spanish, making my performance a truthful rendition of Spanglish. I did this not only for myself, but for every little Latina that was going to come in after me, so she doesn't have to have this fight.

I wish I could say that I was successful but you never know with people like her.

I’ve noticed in expressing this to older Latina women who aren't in America that they don't understand why I fight or get hurt. And I know because of conversations I’ve had with them on beauty and such that even them are internally brainwashed to admire the proximity to whiteness. What they don't understand is when you’re in the entertainment industry how you look and speak means a lot to the people casting you.

I’ve walked into rooms where I make no effort to address my Latinidad and people are confused about what I am. The term “racially ambiguous” is dumb and just means you don’t know what people around the world really look who aren’t white. Probably because it's unfamiliar to you, which speaks volumes. Don't get me wrong, it's fine to not know what or how people look from other places because you haven't been exposed but please, avoid telling people that they don’t look like the stereotypical version of their race. Because not only are you wrong, you’re assuming you know what people from that marginalised group should look like. And the people that make these claims usually have never left the U.S.

My personal experiences represent only a small part of the broader problems in the American entertainment industry that constantly neglects BIPOC. The Oscars created a diversity quota basically in their new guidelines for best picture. This is concerning in the sense that white producers will now feel obliged to hire a person of color to meet a guideline rather than actually wanting to collaborate with them. SNL’s second host this season was Bill Burr and I could honestly name so many other better options right now. Why give him of all people the position of host? SNL’s cast is still predominantly white, it took them 41 years to higher a Latina and she’s still white. It’s sad to me how so many people were boosting Melissa Villaseñor like SNL’s Latinx representation but people who look like her aren't lacking representation. When we say Latinx’s are lacking representation we mean Mestizos, Indigenous Latinx’s, Afro-Latinx’s, Asian-Latinx. We don't mean Cameron Diaz, Christina Aguilera or Melissa Villaseñor-type of people.

For the rest of the industry, I urge you to include writers with the background of the stories you're telling, directors of color, cinematographers of color, animators of color, casting directors of color. We need more people of color in the room that represent the story that’s being told not just on screen but off as well. Hire people of color for every project. You need different voices in the room because your material has become bland as hell. The default should not be white, that's the biggest thing the industry needs to learn. People of color aren't a genre, they bring value to every project you just need to give them a chance.

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