The long-running hit NBC show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is set in New York City, within the very real world of the New York Police Department. While the Dick Wolf drama is far from a documentary, you expect certain aspects of it to be true to life. One area it appears to be failing is in the depiction of Latinos—and, alas, it’s hardly the only show on television to have that problem. The long-running program is merely indicative of the underrepresentation of this group in the industry.
Consider: The real NYPD force is about 30% U.S. Latinos. Yet SVU has just one Latino co-lead on the show. Meanwhile, many Latino characters on the program have been criminals or victims of violent crimes. Backstories rely on stereotypes, such as the one Latino detective growing up as a gang member.
That is all according to a report released today by the Latino Donor Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on reshaping views of Latinos in America “to drive their proportionate representation at all levels.”
The report notes, “The misrepresentation of U.S. Latinos in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit starts in the writing room. There are zero U.S. Latino writers contributing to the story writing process of the show. Having Latino writers, or even better, having a Latino showrunner would introduce story ideas that portray the diversity and richness of the U.S. Latino population and challenge any emergence of negative stereotyping during the show’s writing and creative process.” (NBC had not responded to a request for comment at press time.)
SVU isn’t alone in its lack of on- and off-camera representation; it’s just one example. The report looks at U.S. Latinos in shows across all platforms, including broadcast, basic and premium cable, and streaming, and found that Latino actors represent just 3.1% of all leads (27 of 883 shows examined)—striking when you consider that they make up 19% of the total U.S. population (and a full quarter of Gen Z members). Moreover, 1.3 percent of all Latino leads are portrayed in a negative light (think the drug cartels on Netflix’s
The underrepresentation is even worse off-screen. Latino directors led only 1.3% of the nearly 8,830 shows measured during the study.
Representation is especially lacking on premium cable, which had zero Latino leads and just one episode directed by a U.S. Latino. Basic cable wasn’t much better—1.5% U.S. Latino leads and 0.5% directors.
“Latinos are the only cohort that hasn’t benefited from all this incredible movement of diversity in media. And we’re extremely excited about other groups that have benefited tremendously. Unfortunately, Latinos haven’t moved,” notes Ana Valdez, president and CEO of the Latino Donor Collaborative. “You’re talking about an industry where we are completely invisible. And that really doesn’t make sense because we are a tremendous power economically.”
Indeed, as anyone who has looked at economic and demographic data in the past two decades knows. The total economic output of the U.S. Latino population is $2.8 trillion, notes the report, and their purchasing power from 2010-2019 soared by 69%, compared to a 41% rise for non-Latinos. The disregard for the demo makes no economic sense.
“It’s really unexplainable how decision-makers in Hollywood have ignored this community,” Valdez says. “It’s a real miss on the part of decision-makers.”
She dismisses some of the excuses often cited in Hollywood for the lack of Latino-driven media, such as a language barrier. She notes that 81% of Latinos in the U.S. are proficient or fluent in English. Plus, Latinos account for approximately 19% of all streaming service providers, so they’re clearly invested in new forms of entertainment (though these forms are not invested in them—just 4.1% of streamed shows have U.S. Latino actors in leads).
Valdez hopes that seeing some of these stark statistics will serve as a wakeup call to the industry—or, she warns, it could begin to lose Latino support. In fact, that’s already happening.
“Latinos are moving to platforms like TikTok, YouTube, where they actually see themselves, where they see people that look like them, where they’re included, where their stories are being told,” she says.